Why Engineering? We Asked Five Women

As more women enter the School of Engineering—their numbers equaling those of men in the new undergraduate class—it’s clear that challenging opportunities with far-reaching impact are a big draw
Chanel Richardson at the Tufts School of Engineering. Women now equal men in the Tufts School of Engineering undergraduate class.
“I think that’s why I’m excited about being an engineer: it has so many different possibilities,” said Chanel Richardson. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 12, 2020

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With the arrival of the Class of 2023 this August, the School of Engineering reached a celebratory milestone. Women, for the first time in the school’s 130-year history, account for 50 percent of the freshman class.

Progress toward that historic moment of gender parity has been steadily growing over decades, but recent years have seen a decided uptick in women’s enrollment. In 2011, women made up 29 percent of the freshman class in engineering; by 2017 they represented 43.8 percent. Last year the numbers were just shy of gender parity, at 49 percent.

Certainly societal trends are encouraging women to consider engineering, but Tufts is also stepping up its own efforts. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions, which partners with the School of Engineering to achieve its enrollment goals, reports that those efforts include a fall open house called Women in Engineering, where prospective applicants can experience the school for a day.

A campus culture that supports strong networking also plays a role. The Tufts Gordon Institute, for example, this past fall collaborated with the Museum of Science to host the panel discussion Women in STEM: How to Build & Leverage Mentoring Relationships, and the student-organized club Tufts Women in Computer Science held its third annual Women in Tech (WiT) conference in September (28 percent of computer science majors at Tufts are women, well above the national average of 18 percent). 

At the same time, student-run Tufts chapters of the National Society of Women Engineers (SWE) are building a cohesive community; both undergraduate and graduate groups have been recognized for exemplary programming. And this fall, support from the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Electrical and Computer Science sent students to both the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, and WE19, the world’s largest conference for women engineers.

For School of Engineering Dean Jianmin Qu, the gender balance that distinguishes the Class of 2023, which consists of 274 men and women, is part of a larger strategic goal.

“Our top priority at the school is to promote diversity and inclusion, across the board, among all our students,” said Qu. “Multiple perspectives and talents have always been critical to innovation, but now more than ever we are working hard to make sure the message comes through loud and clear: engineering is open to everyone with a passion for problem-solving.”

It’s a message that Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education and editor-in-chief of IEEE Women in Engineering magazine, has been championing as well. She set about bringing more women into the field in 2002 when she founded the Nerd Girls program. Now Nerd Girls has expanded its mission online—and nationally—as Nerd Girl Nation, and its vision is broader.

“Back twenty years ago, Nerd Girls was about empowering women to go into the STEM fields and showing role models,” Panetta said. “Today, it’s grown beyond that. We are not just showing young women that they can change the world, but also showing everyone the value that diversity and inclusion bring to solving problems facing humanity.”

But what’s the perspective of Tufts’ up-and-coming women engineers themselves? Why did they choose such a career in the first place? And how have their professional goals developed over time? We asked some of them to share their personal stories.

Libby Albanese, E21

“The more women we can introduce into the robotics space, the more welcoming it will be,” said Libby Albanese. Photo: Alonso NicholsLibby Albanese, a double major in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering with a minor in engineering education, has brought her love of engineering and teaching to a range of activities outside the classroom. She is promoting robotics at Tufts as president of the Tufts Robotics Club; working the help desk at the Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation and Testing (FAST) Facility, a popular maker space; and teaching STEM curricula in Boston public schools through the Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP), which was created by the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO)

My high school introduced one engineering course when I was there, but I didn’t know about it; it wasn’t a course the guidance counselor was proposing to the girls. Then a friend told me about what they were doing in a robotics club and it sounded cool. That’s where I found out I loved robotics; it was through the club that I stumbled into engineering. Now that I’m here, it’s where I want to stay.

“I love working with my hands. That’s what engineering comes down to me for me; it’s solving problems in a hands-on way,” said Libby Albanese.  Photo: Alonso NicholsFreshman year at Tufts I joined the robotics club here and at the time it was just me and a bunch of guys. I started pushing for more inclusivity and reached out to places where more women engineers were likely to be, and so we’ve been slowly expanding. Our e-board is now about fifty-fifty men and women. The more women we can introduce into the robotics space, the more welcoming it will be.   

I love working with my hands. That’s what engineering comes down to me for me; it’s solving problems in a hands-on way. We’re trying to focus more on the creative application of ideas now in the robotics club, so we’re finishing up this semester with our first BattleBot competition. It’s a lot of fun, and it has the added benefit of challenging us to build projects where we work together; successful engineering is all about teamwork. 

I’ve been working with STOMP since I was a freshman and now I am also a teaching assistant. For me, who fell into engineering by accident, it’s especially important for young girls to see strong women in the field. I once had a parent reach out to me and she asked me to mentor her ten-year-old daughter; she thought I’d be a good role model. It was great to work with the girl and foster her interest in building, but our visits were mostly about boosting her confidence in herself as a builder. With self-confidence, you can build just about anything, and even if it fails, and it probably will at first, you just keep trying.

Jean Phuong Pham, EG21

“To young women considering engineering, I would say this—engineering is really about following your curiosity,” said Jean Phuong Pham. Photo: Alonso NicholsJean Phuong Pham, a 2017 College of Wooster graduate, is pursuing a dual master’s degree in human factors engineering and, through the Gordon Institute, innovation management. Both channel her passion for social impact, as does VietChallenge, the nonprofit accelerator she co-led with Mai Phan Zymaris, F11, to fund Vietnamese-founded startups that aim to better society and the planet. “Entrepreneurship to me is not only about starting a business that creates jobs for people,” said Pham, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, “but also about giving people the tools and skills they need to rise out of poverty.” Pham and her team Cellens won first place in the Montle Prize Competition for Entrepreneurial Achievement held November 15 at Tufts. Her team received $7,500 from the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center to help kick-start their research and business development of a noninvasive cancer detection test. She is participating in the Tufts 100K New Ventures Competition where teams compete for prizes and in-kind services totaling more than $100,000.

Engineering to me means problem-solving. Engineers see a problem and then build something that could solve that problem, through a new product or by inventing a whole new way of doing things. I may come from a liberal arts background, but I tend to think like an engineer when I want to analyze a problem. I am very data driven—I always want to know: Can I quantify my impact? That is how I will define success.

“I am very data driven—I always want to know: Can I quantify my impact? That is how I will define success,” said Jean Phuong Pham. Photo: Alonso NicholsI also want to help people have the opportunity for an education, either through programs that help them out of poverty, or by investing in new technologies and businesses that have the potential to create social impact.

I came to Tufts because I wanted to build a meaningful business with people who share my values, and because I wanted to leverage the really great resources found at a research university that brings engineers and liberal arts students together. It creates such a playing field for entrepreneurs and for engineers who want to take their product into the market. It empowers us to take a very interdisciplinary approach. It’s like a powerful tool kit that will help me assemble new solutions.

To young women considering engineering, I would say this: Engineering is really about following your curiosity. It’s a path that will help you answer the questions that you’ve been wanting to answer for so long. If that is the path you want, then go for it.

Chanel Richardson, E20

“One thing about Tufts that appealed to me was that I could take engineering classes and still hang out with people who aren’t engineers,” said Chanel Richardson. Photo: Alonso NicholsChanel Richardson combines her major in computer engineering with extracurriculars that take her into local classrooms as well as the upper atmosphere. She is a STEM Ambassador, chosen for a program run by the Center for STEM Diversity that brings engineering into local high schools, and she’s president of the Tufts chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), where she’s enjoyed building prototypes of weather balloons. A member of the National Society of Black Engineers, she credits a computer science class at her high school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with kindling a fascination for a profession where she could someday build, design, and control technologies with real-world impact.

Over time my interests in engineering have continually evolved. At first I was focused on 3D printing; I thought that I wanted to make 3D printers for the rest of my life, and I made my dad buy me a ton of books on it. By the time I entered college I thought I’d make video game consoles, but then I discovered there’s a lot I can do with engineering; that made me want to explore. I realized I didn’t have to limit myself to one thing. The one thing that’s constant is that every time my interest changes, it just falls into the world of engineering. I think that’s why I’m excited about being an engineer: it has so many different possibilities. Even if I change my mind, I’ll still be able to do something really cool.

Chanel Richardson credits a computer science class at her high school with kindling a fascination for a profession where she could someday build, design, and control technologies with real-world impact. Photo: Alonso NicholsMy advice to younger students thinking about engineering is that you might have to be annoying about it! When I was in high school, my parents didn’t know anything about engineering and I just told them over and over again: this is what I want to do. One of the biggest things I did for myself was to look up an engineering professor at Wake Forest University, which is about five blocks from my house. I wrote asking if I could come talk with him. He said yes—and he also introduced me to his students. That experience really opened my eyes; I didn’t even know about computer engineering before I met him.

One thing about Tufts that appealed to me was that I could take engineering classes and still hang out with people who aren’t engineers. I could never imagine going to a school where the only people I talk to are engineers. If my non-engineer friends are intrigued about what I’m doing, that forces me to think about what I’m doing and explain it so they understand. And it’s great to hear their different perspectives as well. Those conversations have really shaped who I am, and I think they will make me a better engineer, whatever I decide to do.

Foram Sanghavi, EG22

“Engineering inspires me because it has become a field that uses technology in innovative ways to directly or even indirectly benefit humans,” said Foram Sanghavi. Photo: Alonso NicholsWhen Foram Sanghavi came to Tufts in 2017 as a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, it marked a major milestone in a career that began in India, where she earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, and continued at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she earned a master’s. At Tufts she focuses on biomedical image processing, looking specifically at ways to make procedures for diagnosing prostate cancer more efficient. Her love of teaching also guides her aspirations: her “ultimate aim” is to become a professor.

Engineering has evolved so much that different branches of engineering naturally overlap. Biomedical engineering, for example, encompasses biomechanics, so mechanical engineering students study the same things that a biomedical student is learning. There are unlimited interdisciplinary opportunities. I would also say that engineering inspires me because it has become a field that uses technology in innovative ways to directly or even indirectly benefit humans. It is no longer just about manufacturing a product. It has become integrated into our lives. 

“I don’t know why people have this idea that engineering is difficult; it’s challenging—but that’s what is exciting,” said Foram Sanghavi. Photo: Alonso NicholsI remember the first time I saw an MRI machine. I wondered, How does this machine work? It was huge. I was fascinated; it really grasped my attention. In that moment I knew, yes, this is the field for me. While pursuing my bachelor’s and master’s, I got exposed to the field of biomedical image processing.

Later, when I was looking for jobs, I realized I was really most passionate about the gray area where electrical engineering and computer science overlap. Since I was most interested in research, I came to Tufts to earn my PhD in electrical engineering.

I don’t know why people have this idea that engineering is difficult; it’s challenging—but that’s what is exciting. And I have had encouragement all along the way. My parents, who are both doctors, also were there for me. My father said, “Don’t worry about the job. Go get the knowledge you want.”

Here at Tufts, Karen [Panetta] is a very strong advocate for women in engineering. Looking at her achievements, I think if I’m able to achieve half of what she’s done, I’m going to be successful. So my advice to women students considering engineering is: If you feel you want to do something, no matter what, just do it. Don’t stop. That’s what I did. Your path gets paved automatically.

Sara Willner-Giwerc, E18

“I think of engineering as a mindset; it’s a mentality that you can solve a problem, and it allows teachers to tap into different thought processes and to reach different populations,” said Sara Willner-Giwerc. Photo: Alonso NicholsSara Willner-Giwerc studied mechanical engineering with a double minor in engineering management and engineering education and served as a Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP) Fellow with the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO). For her, Tufts was a “family school”—both her grandmother and mother are Jumbos—but it was also a college synonymous with softball. An outstanding athlete at her high school in Saratoga Springs, New York, Willner-Giwerc was part of the Jumbo softball team when it won its third national championship. Today she is pursuing a PhD that expands CEEO’s leadership in helping teachers incorporate engineering into school curricula both locally and around the world.

Engineering entered the picture in middle school where we had Project Lead the Way (PLTW) and that got me excited to go to school for a reason other than just sports. I had access to things like a laser cutter, and for me, who was always a tangible, visual learner, that was exciting. But the tool only goes so far; it’s the teacher who really matters. I was lucky to have teachers who said, You should do this.

“Watching a kid get excited about a robot is always cool,” said Sara Willner-Giwerc. “I am just happy to enable that experience in more classrooms for more students.” Photo: Alonso NicholsOne of the big reasons I came to Tufts was to work with CEEO. I didn’t know engineering was something I could do until I started high school, so my junior year I started running programs for younger students to see if I could close that gap for them. All the research I was reading came from CEEO and was written by Chris Rogers.

I reached out to him in 2013 and he sent me Lego sets and robotics kits so I could get going. Then when I came to Tufts on my recruiting trip, I actually met him. I had so much riding on getting accepted here. I wanted to play softball and I wanted to work at the center equally as bad; Tufts was like the land of everything. It was pretty sweet when I got in. That was a good day. 

I have always thought of students first as people, and while I think women role models are awesome, I’ve had male role models that have been important, too.  One of my pet peeves is when people see something and say, It’s so awesome that you’re doing that because you’re a girl. Would it be any less awesome if I wasn’t? My goal is that we make it possible for everybody to bring their awesome to engineering. 

I think of engineering as a mindset; it’s a mentality that you can solve a problem, and it allows teachers to tap into different thought processes and to reach different populations. Often kids who are not successful in developing traditional academic skills like reading and test-taking are tremendously successful when introduced to engineering.

As part of my research with CEEO, I’ve traveled all over the world working with schools from Denmark to Rwanda, and I’ve seen students learn in all kinds of ways. But watching a kid get excited about a robot is always cool. I am just happy to enable that experience in more classrooms for more students.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.