Janet Tsai

Janet Y. Tsai

Instructor and Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, CO, United States
Janet Tsai
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Janet Y. Tsai is a Colorado native who is happy to be back in her home state, pursuing her doctorate in beautiful Boulder, CO after living in Boston, MA and Hong Kong, China. A yoga teacher and student, Janet also loves to hike in the mountains and ride her bike around town. Janet enjoys all kinds of Asian foods and is still working on perfecting her various fried noodle recipes. An avid reader and devourer of fashion and feminist news, blogs, and gossip, Janet looks forward to winter because it brings NBA basketball season (as well as snow!). Janet's research currently focuses on sophomore-level engineering students and how they construct status hierarchies among themselves, looking to understand the eventual and systemic impacts on student persistence in engineering. The goal of increasing women's representation in engineering is of critical importance and interest to Janet, she thinks it's the hardest and most complicated problem she has ever investigated and tried to do anything about. Currently, Janet is an instructor and postdoctoral research associate in the Engineering Plus program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Answers by Dr. Janet Y. Tsai

Hello Anne! These are great questions - the trick is that Mechanical Engineering is one of the broadest engineering fields, so it's tough to answer what a mechanical engineer "actually does." One way to think about it is that mechanical engineers work on every physical scale - from designing nano- and micron-sized devices all the way up to analyzing the movements of huge fluid bodies like the air in our atmosphere - and everything in between. 

So some mechanical engineers work with calculus every day, but many mechanical engineers may not use calculus at all. Another way to think about it is that mechanical engineers are always solving problems, using modern tools and computing power to help them as needed. With sophisticated CAD programs and simulation software some mechanical engineers may never use calculus directly, but are informed by it in setting up a computational fluid dynamics scenario or finite-element analysis, for instance. 

Similarly some mechanical engineers may do a great deal of design work, while others instead validate and test new designs. Literally inventing something new is less common than you might think in engineering overall - a lot of mechanical engineering and engineering in general is the process of refining and improving an existing product to be less expensive or more reliable. Mechanical engineers may invent new materials or maybe they demonstrate how an existing material can be used in a new way! There's endless ways to be an engineer aside from making new things, so I encourage you to take a broad definition of "inventing" and "engineering" alike. 

Most engineers in industry work on teams, as it is rare these days for anything to be created in isolation. Mechanical engineers often interface with electrical engineers, software engineers, quality engineers, manufacturing engineers, machinists, technicians, marketing, customer service, and much more. They can be a part of most any kind of team - engineering and beyond. 

Finally, keep in mind that your experience as an engineering student may be very different than your experience as an engineer. Depending on your specific institution and program, you may have a lot of math and science fundamentals with a few engineering projects and hands-on experiences. These are meant to help prepare you for work in industry, but by no means can they teach you everything you'll need to learn once you go to work. Ideally (to me), engineering school helps you learn how to learn and how to analyze and approach problems. These skills are helpful for any future career path you choose! I also encourage you to do an internship while you are in school, either during the summer or balanced with your coursework. An internship will give you invaluable experience and show you first-hand what an engineering corporation is like, and getting to know working engineers will also help you know what to expect as an engineer compared to an engineering student. 

Hi Megan, 

These are great questions and serious issues that you raise - even asking and bringing these things up indicate a high level of social awareness and team dynamics, valuable skills for any project team! 

First - it is hard to join any team or organization, in any context, as "the new one." For Solar Car teams or any university teams there is constant turnover and growth, which afford a few different points of entry. I recommend two specific approaches: (1) Are there any other rising sophomores who have just joined the team, or any new members you feel you can work with? It is easier to have a buddy or pal who is also a novice to talk things over with when the more experienced team members are tough to approach. (2) Identify a specific subsystem or aspect of the Solar Car that you are MOST interested in to start with - you can choose based on the people involved with that subsystem as well, if any of the group seems more open than others to new members. Look for a team that appears to work productively, with a leader that you can approach with your interest. Ask to 'shadow' a group member for a work session, or see if there are any team members amenable to being mentors and showing you the ropes. Ask a more experienced member how they got started with the team, what their first task was, which group or subsystem they started with. You may need to get (even further) out of your comfort zone to get into the core of the project team, note how the other teammates interact with one another and consider adopting any of their strategies yourself. 

Second - You are smart too! Don't sell yourself short! "Guys" have a tendency to overstate their knowledge and qualifications, where women tend to be modest and underestimate their skills and experience. Knowing you love cars, keep following your passion. The car community online is still very masculine but has a lot of information, tutorials, videos, forums - all good ways to learn!! Another tip - familiarize yourself with the working environment and tools available to the team. Find out what kind of equipment or material is in the workspace and where everything goes at the end of the day, and you will quickly become indispensable. Ask questions and gather information - you will provide an undoubtedly valuable perspective to your team.

Finally, as for entering the automotive industry, joining the Solar Car team is a great step in that direction. Stay alert for internship opportunities while you are in college - ask your advisor or career services office if Stanford has any connections to specific automotive companies, and work those connections to get a foot in the door. Look for meet-up groups in your area! And keep in mind the "automotive industry" is very broad, with many supporting and related industries you may also be interested in. If you are ever located near an automotive giant's headquarters (Honda in Columbus, Ohio or any in Detroit) - contact them in advance and see if you can get a tour! Just some ideas. 

Overall - good luck to you and I believe strongly in your capacity to be an awesome contributing member to your Solar Car team. They're lucky to have you and they should recognize that soon!

Dear Nisha, 

One of the advantages of Mechanical Engineering is that the field is very broad, so the tasks you could be asked to complete are as diverse as you can imagine. The two things you mention - manufacturing a car or designing engines - are done in teams of people, working together. Teams function better when they are made up of both men and women, when a variety of perspectives and experiences are present. Baja 2

Yet, as you mentioned, sometimes a stereotype persists saying that girls don't manufacture cars or design engines. That stereotype is is not true - it's just an old way of thinking, and part of a outdated legacy from our history, society, and culture. Today, to manufacture a car is a multi-step process: For example, women can design the parts or assemblies which go into a vehicle, like the steering column, drivetrain, or the entire thing. Women can operate or control the robotic welder which welds the car's chassis together, or maybe she builds or programs the robot which forms the car's body. Women can oversee the car's crash testing operations, UL and other certifications, or negotiate with vendors for critical parts. There is a vast network of manufacturing which leads to a car - and women can be involved in every step.

As for designing engines - I can point to women who are faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate Mechanical Engineers who are all doing research on engines and combustion processes. Though these may not have been girls' jobs in the past, now they are more open to women and we need women in these areas to make new discoveries and better products.

You may also be interested in the Society of Automotive Engineers' Collegiate competitions, including MiniBaja and Formula SAE (see http://students.sae.org/cds/ ). At these events, teams of undergraduate engineering students from all over the world test their car design on a challenging track. Both men and women work together on these teams!

Overall, companies ask women engineers to do a huge variety of things - and women engineers choose themselves to start their own companies, create new technologies, and invent!


Hi Ignacia! 

The feeling of struggling with classes is familiar to most engineering students - you are not alone! Engineering courses are hard and they require a lot of time and other resources which are not the easiest to come by. I encourage you to stick with what you love because at the end of the day that's what will make/keep you happy. 

As you continue in your school career - consider asking yourself what you can do differently to ease your struggles with the material and the coursework. Maybe it's getting a tutor, or finding study buddies to do homework / prepare for exams with. Think about using alternate resources like YouTube tutorials or Chegg.com study manuals -- many students I know use these online resources and find them more accessible than in-person resources like office hours or TAs. That said - think about taking advantage of your course instructors and approaching them with questions when you need help. I am sure that many people at your institution want you to succeed and will help you along the way, but it may take some poking around to find them! 

An academic counselor may be able to help you with course selections as you navigate the undergraduate curriculum - another resource that can you can utilize to your advantage! Also, older students (upperclassmen) who have gone through the courses you are struggling with may also be able to tell you their perspectives, experiences, and how they survived. Talking with them and hearing their tips may make your experience smoother! 

The other thing that may help you feel more confident about your choice is an internship or some way of experiencing what mechanical engineers "actually" do. A shadowing day or tour of a local engineering company may help as well - any exposure you can find will make you more informed. Finally, some self-reflection at the end of the day is a powerful tool for seeing how you really feel. If it's just the grades standing in your way but you are interested in the material and the discipline, that seems to me that you made the "right decision" but need to adjust your approach to school somehow to make your path easier. You can do it! The passion and love you talk about in your question is what you need to survive - so hold on to it!

It depends on the industry in which you are applying and the country! 

In the USA - most engineering companies recognize the FE (fundamentals of engineering) as well as PE (professional engineering) certifications. More details on those exams/certificates are available here: http://ncees.org/ . 

Also note - many USA companies do not require the FE or PE for hire. While certifications look good on a resume, many mechanical engineers do get jobs and have jobs despite never taking the FE or PE exams. 

If you are curious about specific companies' practices, I would suggest looking at their LinkedIn information or at a website like www.glassdoor.com which can give more of "insider" opinions on how a specific company works. Hope that helps and best of luck to you!

Hi Katie!

It's great you are studying to be an engineer in Ireland. Your question is complicated, and know first of all that this is a big research area that many people have been studying since the 1970's! Luckily though, there are many resources where we can learn more about this complicated issue. 

Dr. Virginia Valian published a book in 1998 titled, "Why so slow: The Advancement of Women" specifically about why the advancement of women in the sciences and engineering has been slow. Her ideas are still incredibly valid today in 2013, and she has given extensive talks explaining the ideas of her book. MIT Press has a video here: 
http://video.mit.edu/watch/why-so-slow-the-advancement- of-women-virginia-valian-6901/ and an interview with her in the NY Times is here: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/25/science/conversation- with-virginia-valian-exploring-gender-gap-absence-equality. html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

In fact, the NY Times loves writing about the lack of women in science/engineering - in October 2013 they published this article discussing some of the reasons there are not many women in these fields: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there- still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0

On a more academic note, the Association of American University Women (AAUW) published a report in Feb 2013 with a similar title, "Why so few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics". This report, and their website in general, are great resources for learning more about women in STEM fields. See: http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/Why-So-Few-Women-in- Science-Technology-Engineering-and-Mathematics-executive- summary.pdf

And in general - there are many different studies and ideas out there in general looking at various reasons why there aren't more women in engineering, or why women leave engineering or don't consider it an option. You can read pretty endlessly about what other people think on this issue - but at the end of the day, what do YOU think? Your personal experiences and your local context may be significant variables that you can bring to explaining why you think there aren't more women in engineering where you are. Great question, and good luck in Ireland :)