August 8, 2007Her job: Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I am a professor. I teach classes, teach students how to do research and then publish the research in journal papers. I spend time thinking up new questions and then answering those questions. I typically teach classes in mechanical properties of materials to undergraduate students. Examples of mechanical properties are strength, stiffness, and ductility (clay is ductile, a coffee mug is not). My research is about understanding how to control the properties of polymer nanocomposites. Polymer nanocomposites are a mixture of two materials (for example, polyethylene, which is what milk jugs are made of and silicon oxide particles). The particles are less than 100nm (1 nm is a billionth of a meter) in diameter. By combining a nanoparticle and a polymer, we can make new materials with unique combinations of properties (for example transparent, conducting, scratch resistant coatings or super strong and super tough plastics that change color with humidity).
Why did you choose engineering?
Because I like to solve problems that haven't been solved.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to Cornell University and got a bachelors degree in Materials Science and Engineering and then to the University of Pennsylvania to a get a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
In addition to the teaching and research that I mentioned earlier, I spend time on the Molecularium. The Molecularium is like a planetarium. It is a dome theater. Instead of taking people on a ride into space, Molecularium shows take them on a magical, musical adventure down into the world of atoms and molecules. We have found that we can teach 3-99 year olds that everything is made of atoms and molecules, and about the 3 states of matter (solids slow, liquids flow, gas is fast). This project is a lot of fun. We are currently working on an IMAX version of the show and hope that we can revolutionize the way dome theaters and IMAX theaters are used to teach science.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
The best part of being an engineer is solving problems, discovering new materials, understanding the way things work. The second best part is that some of the solutions engineers find truly improve the lives of people around the world.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I am proud of the students I have mentored. I am also proud of the collaborative research environment we have created at Rensselaer in nanotechnology.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
The hardest part for me has been learning patience: patience with myself because it sometimes takes me awhile to learn things, patience with the speed of research and patience with the students whose goal is to get an education and not necessarily to produce ideal research results.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have two children, a boy born in 1996 and a girl born in 1998. I have a husband who works at General Electric. We live in the suburbs, but love to spend time in the mountains.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My short term goal right now is to raise the funding for a new research center at Rensselaer. My long term goal is to maintain a balance of work and family and to have lots of fun along the way.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My parents had a large influence on my exposure to science and engineering. My mother is a Biologist and my father is a Materials Engineer. We went to museums, studied nature, and built a house. They used every opportunity to teach me about science and engineering. As a child, I remember knocking my knuckles on various things and asking – what is this made of? My father let me use our wood shop at an early age and I started to build things. I was one of the first girls to take metal shop in my school. I just had an inclination for engineering that was encouraged.
I have also had several wonderful mentors who have given me advice along the way and helped me out tremendously. I think in the end, however, that I have followed my passions and found a career that fits my personality.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
My advice to young women would be the same as to anyone. Find what interests you and pursue it. Don't let small road blocks stop you from achieving your goals and seek out mentors (ask lots of questions) to help you make the right decisions.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I love the outdoors. I particularly like to hike and kayak. I have a group of women that I run with 3 times a week and that is part of how I keep balance in my life. I love to read. I have been reading Harry Potter to keep up with my kids, but my favorite books are mysteries.