Fact: Women comprise the majority of college students, but they are far less likely than their male peers to major in a STEM field. The gender disparity is even greater when the biological sciences are excluded: more than 20 percent of male freshmen plan to major in engineering, computer science or the physical sciences–compared to about five percent of female freshmen.
Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, a 2010 AAUW report, funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
Fact: Women’s participation in engineering remains below 30 percent. In the 20 years since 1991, the proportion of women in engineering has increased, mostly at the master’s and doctoral levels. Women’s participation in computer sciences has increased considerably at the doctoral level, although the numbers remain small.
Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2013 NSF National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, February 2013
These respected current studies include many unsettling measurements about the presence of women in engineering and science. Despite major efforts over the past two decades to attract more women to science and engineering, there’s still a long way to go. The AAUW (formerly American Association of University Women) report points out that while women have made impressive gains in historically male-dominated fields such as business, law and medicine, far fewer are becoming engineers and scientists.
These statistics are why the achievements of two young female IEEE members–each of them barely into her 30s, but already a strong role model for future generations–are especially notable. Maria Vlachopoulou (pronounced “vlach-uh-POO-loo”) and Jacquelyn Nagel disprove worn-out misconceptions and biases. Both are working not only in pioneering technologies, but in their short careers are also creating innovative new approaches to help solve some of society’s greatest challenges.
To recognize their accomplishments, Vlachopoulou and Nagel were selected, respectively, as the 2013 and 2012 IEEE/IEEE-USA New Face of Engineering-Professional Edition. Along with counterparts from a dozen other engineering societies, they were singled out for special honors during the annual National Engineers Week celebrations in February. Each society selects a member under 30 who is working on projects that significantly enhance the public good, or further professional development and growth. Every February, a full-page ad in USA Today features each of the young engineers being honored.
Vlachopoulou, an engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., was recognized for her breakthrough work in computer algorithms and mathematical methods. They are helping to move the United States power grid toward a more efficient and vigorous system.
“We do a lot of power consumption forecasting in my field,” she explains, “and applying a mathematical model to determine the peak times of day for HVAC power usage, or developing programs that control home appliances in a more optimal manner can make a huge difference in conserving energy.”
Jacquelyn Nagel, the 2012 IEEE/IEEE-USA New Face of Engineering, is an assistant professor of engineering at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va. She is conducting pioneering research in the use of biological systems as models for sensors, processes and instrumentation. By simulating the functions of plant guard cells, which control gas transfer, and the proteins troponin and tropomyosin, which regulate animal muscle contraction, she has created the basic design for a device that would use various chemical sensors to pick up indicators of illnesses ranging from colds to diabetes, liver disease and cancer.
This August, she will present a paper on her research at the 2013 IEEE/ASME International Conference on Megatronic and Embedded Systems and Applications (MESA13) in Portland, Ore.
How did each of these talented professionals become interested in her eventual calling? Like many engineers, both had a childhood fascination with puzzles, brainteasers, and just fiddling around to see how things worked. But as youngsters growing up in Greece (Vlachopoulou) and Kansas City, Kan. (Nagel), they attended schools without strong math and science programs–or even computers or science labs in which to tinker.
For Vlachopoulou, her high-school class trip to see the CERN supercollider in Geneva, Switzerland, was her “Aha!” moment, cementing her sights on a technical career. “My chemistry teacher was very helpful to me, although it took my parents time to become supportive,” she states. “They got behind me when they saw how well I was doing, although they still don’t understand what I do!”
Nagel, on the other hand, says, “My parents always cheered me on. There was none of that “Oh, do you think girls should be doing that?'” She developed an interest in engineering after her high-school drafting teacher told her that an engineer’s job is to solve problems. “When I realized I could have a career dedicated to solving problems, I was hooked,” she says.
Each of these accomplished young engineers took a different route toward her education.
Vlachapoulou followed a fairly linear path; she enrolled at the University of Sheffield, Sheffield, U.K., one of that nation’s most respected research universities. She also spent a year as an exchange scholar at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Upon receiving her EE in 2006, she left almost immediately to pursue graduate studies at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. In August 2010, she received master’s degrees in both electrical and computer engineering and in operations research, an industrial engineering discipline that applies advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions. Right after graduation, Vlachopoulou joined Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
She became intrigued with power and energy during her last year as an undergraduate. Since then, she has focused her research on power systems, statistical and mathematical modeling and system optimization. She also is developing new tools to more effectively incorporate renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, into the nation’s power grid.
On the other hand, when Jacquelyn Nagel enrolled as a freshman at the University of Missouri-Rolla, now Missouri University of Science and Technology, she probably had no idea where her self-admitted “natural curiosities” would take her. While working on her 2005 bachelor’s degree in EE, she spent three co-op terms with Kimberly-Clark Corporation, where she was introduced to industrial robotics. Next, as she pursued her 2007 master’s degree in manufacturing engineering, also at the university, her work in a laser-aided manufacturing processes lab and summer internships at both Motoman and Intel aroused yet another interest: sensor design.
While pursuing her Ph.D. in EE, one of Nagel’s research advisors said he had funding only for biomimicry projects”another new area that intrigued her. She spent her first year learning the design of biological sensors in plants, animals and single-cell organisms, and incorporating that knowledge into the design of electro-optical sensors. She followed her advisor to Oregon State University in Corvallis, switching to mechanical engineering and focusing on chemical sensors. After graduation in 2010, she spent a year telecommuting from her home in Virginia to Mission Critical Technologies in El Segundo, Calif., working on DARPA’s Meta II program to reduce design and verification times of new research. In 2011, she joined the JMU faculty and resumed her sensor research.
Both Maria Vlachopoulou and Jacquelyn Nagel are passionate about supporting their professional peers, and persuading more girls to consider engineering and scientific careers.
When Vlachopoulou arrived at PNNL–a national laboratory with more than 4,000 professional staff–and saw there was no IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) affinity group, she got busy. She is now the founding chair of the Richland Section WIE, vice chair of the section’s Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) affinity group, and a member of the IEEE Power & Energy Society and IEEE Signal Processing Society. She is also assistant coordinator of the FIRST LEGO League annual tournament in the Tri-Cities, Wash., area. FIRST LEGO League, a global competition for elementary and middle-school students, includes designing and programming LEGO robots to solve real-world scientific problems.
At JMU, Nagel is a workshop leader for Expanding Your Horizons, a national organization that encourages pre-college girls to pursue engineering and science careers. “In the classroom,” she observes, “girls hold themselves back in STEM topics, because they’re less confident in their abilities. They listen to their male peers, who tell them they’re not as good.” This lack of confidence, she says, is a big part of the challenge in drawing girls to STEM careers, and pre-college programs are helping girls feel more comfortable about studying engineering and science.
“With more women faculty, girls also are now seeing greater numbers of acceptable role models,” adds the youthful JMU assistant professor.
Nagel belongs to IEEE GOLD, the IEEE Instrumentation Society, and the Society for Women Engineers.
What advice would they give to girls considering an engineering career?
“Go for it!” exclaims Jacquelyn Nagel. “Don’t let the gender numbers scare you away! Engineering is an amazing, rewarding field, and it needs greater diversity of thought, vision and background.”
Vlachopoulou advises, “Always do what you really want to, independent of nature.” She adds, “I tell everyone that they’ll fail many times before they succeed. Engineering involves failing many times, but failures are feedback, not discouragement!”
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991-2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.