December 4, 2005Her job: Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering , Cornell University
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
My job as a professor consists of a variety of different activities that relate to research, teaching and service. My research focuses on the biomechanics and mechanobiology of bone, the material that makes up your skeleton. Much of the day-to-day research is performed by students who work with me. I have taught both required mechanical engineering classes and biomechanics electives. My service activities include participating in committees at Cornell and in my professional community.
Why did you choose engineering?
My dad really steered me towards engineering as a career, but I was more interested in biology initially. Then I discovered the two fields could be combined during high school when I saw a 60 Minutes segment on helping paraplegics regain walking skills. So, I started as a mechanical engineer interested in biological problems and never looked back.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
My SB (Science Bachelor) is from MIT and then I moved to the West coast and received my MS and PhD from Stanford, all in mechanical engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My work involves both experimental and analytical work. Many of our experiments involve breaking bones to understand how strong they are and what factors contribute to bone strength. This type of work is very similar to testing of conventional materials. We don't have nondestructive ways to measure bone strength, so bones are tested directly in the lab. The analyses usually involve models that allow us to vary characteristics that can't easily be examined in the lab. The model predictions feed into our experiments, and then the data we measure contributes back to model development and validation.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
Lots of things! Solving problems, doing hands-on work, making things, especially when I’ve designed them myself and they work as planned.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My family has very much influenced my choices and continues to do so. We have a strong nuclear family because my parents left the Netherlands to the US and didnnâ€t return. Most holidays were just the four of us. In addition to my immediate family, my grandfather was a supportive influence. He was the director of the Dutch National Weather Service (KNMI) and had a physics background. He always encouraged me, even reading my journal papers and discussing what I was working on whenever I came to visit him in the Netherlands.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Engineering is a great career, particularly in this technology-based day and age. When I look at the choices that our graduating mechanical engineering undergrads have, the opportunities are amazing, they follow nearly any path including many other than engineering.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I've always had a lot of hobbies. These days I have less time for some of the creative hobbies, although I have started to get into photography as part of my love of travel. Travel is a big part of my personal and professional life. I also enjoy outdoor activities, for which Ithaca is a great setting. And, I love art, especially Matisse and Calder. Calder was trained as a mechanical engineer.