Melinda Piket-May

Melinda Piket-May

Professor of Electrical Engineering
University of Colorado at Boulder
Melinda Piket-May
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I have always enjoyed learning new things and especially enjoyed the technical challenges math and science offered in high school. Because of my love of math and science, for my undergraduate work, I went to the University of Illinois at Champaign to study Electrical Engineering (EE). But, I had no idea what EE - or engineering - was about! I was very bored my first year and did not feel I was doing very well in the program (math, chemistry, and physics). At the end of my first year I was told I could not double major in EE and social work, so I decided I would drop out of engineering. However, during the summer I was hired as a co-op to work at Fermi National Accelerator Lab in the Particle Instrumentation Group for the fall semester. I discovered I loved engineering thanks to Charlie Nelson, Lou DalMonte, and Greg Deuerling! They introduced me to real engineering and showed me that it was challenging and fun. I spent five semesters as a co-op student during my (five-year) career at Illinois. I also studied at the University of Lancaster, England, for a semester and then traveled through Europe for a couple of months. During my last year at University of Illinois, Professor Magin ask me to help redo and teach the biomedical instrumentation lab. I loved the experience and decided to apply to graduate school, although the thought of taking more classes and tests was not too exciting. I had a number of great offers to work in industry, but Allen Taflove, an excellent advisor and engineer at Northwestern University, offered me a fellowship. I got involved in computational electromagnetics but initially worked on hyperthermia cancer treatment research. I later had the opportunity to intern at Cray Research doing research in the area of supercomputing. Evans Harrigan opened doors for me at Cray and Roger Gravrok and many others made the work exciting and rewarding. I finished my Ph.D., something I had never really imagined I could do, in August 1993. I then joined the faculty of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Colorado in Boulder as an assistant professor. I will be considered for tenure and promotion to associate professor in Fall 1999! My long-term goals are to increase the number of students enrolling in engineering nation wide by reforming engineering education by encouraging undergraduate research opportunities and active collaborative learning opportunities. All of this work includes involving industry in the educational process. My research goals include making academic studies and research more accessible and usable by industry, especially in my area of research (high speed computing and packaging). My extracurricular passion is K-12 outreach. I will continue developing programs to bring technology and engineering into K-12 curriculum for all children. At the University of Colorado, Susan Avery has been a great research mentor, introducing me to writing proposals to fund my research and educational programs, introducing me to people at places like the National Science Foundation, and showing me how the system works. Jackie Sullivan, Larry Carlson, and especially Jim Avery have been wonderful education mentors. They have encouraged me to follow my passion for education and have offered me many opportunities to develop programs and take risks in a safe environment. I am sure you have noticed I have mentioned a lot of names. I could have included many more! Engineering is a team discipline and I needed support and advice from many people. The best piece of advice I have for young women contemplating an engineering career is to listen to the people around you and respect their ideas. Find a couple of good mentors and/or role models, it really helps! My other piece of advice is to take control of your environment and believe in yourself. Don't use other people as an excuse for failure; find a way to succeed. Decide what you want to do and make it happen. Keep talking to people until you find a mentor who understands what you are after and can help guide you through the process. I really see this as a key to success! I very much encourage all young women to consider studying engineering because it opens so many doors. As an EE, I tell my students that they can go do anything with a EE degree. I challenge them to find an area of interest I can't link to EE. As an engineer on an anthropology dig, involved in a sporting event, or working with doctors, you get to be involved in the whole project because you have to understand it all to make effective use of technology. You are a very important member of the team. Society is very dependent on technology, and knowledge of technology gives you more control of your environment. I hope we see more leaders, including politicians, with engineering background! I am very proud of being a mom. Kaitlin, born on 7-4-95, has attended many meetings and taught many classes with me. I think that by involving her in the university culture she (and I) have been a good role models for other faculty and students. My mother, LouAnn (a teacher and psychologist) and father, Phil (a historian and sociologist) have helped me form a very social view of engineering. I am sure they never imagined that two of their children would end up as engineers! Generally, I talk to my family a lot about engineering and engineering education and find they bring fresh insight into what I am involved in. I am also very proud of the first year engineering design course I have helped develop. We first started designing, building and packaging projects for people in the community with assistive technology needs. We have since expanded the outreach to include museums, zoo's, and schools. The program was highlighted on NBC national news. First year students at CU really get a hands-on introduction to engineering! This program was developed from my unique experiences and background. The biggest challenge I have had to overcome is accepting that my approach to engineering is valid. I am not a typical electrical engineer and even I did not see the value in my way of doing things... I always thought I was doing things wrong. But now I recognize I do things differently and often bring unique value to projects. One of my mentors once told me I was a change agent, and people don't always recognize the value of change agents. That is OK with me as long as I know I am making a difference. I challenge people to think in unusual ways and consider alternatives to the traditional solutions. Value your unique experiences. A book I highly recommend is "Things That Make us Smart" defending human attributes in the age of the machine, by Donald Norman. Please email me if you have any questions about becoming an engineer.

BSEE : University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana Study Abroad : University of Lancaster, Lancaster, England MSEE and PhD : Northwestern, Evanston, Illinois
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
  • I am willing to be interviewed by interested students via email.
Answers by Melinda Piket-May

Hi Tanima, 

Electrical engineering is so much more than power plants!  You can study almost anything with an engineering degree and I highly recommend you explore it.  It can vary depending on what school you choose to attend, but to be relevant in today’s economy an engineering degree is very valuable.  I study electromagnetics with computers.  You have probably studied them a bit in physics but I solve the equations computationally and show beautiful visualizations of the electric and magnetic fields that help people understand the design projects they are doing.  We model everything from an integrated chip package to a fighter jet…. there is so much to learn.    In my department alone there are people studying all sorts of things.  One person uses signal processing to restore old paintings, some work in optics (a very exciting field with lots of applications), we study wind turbines and solar power cells to make them more efficient.  My freshman study Arduino microcontrollers to design products for people in the community with special needs.   You can really make a difference in our world with engineering.  It took me a while to figure that out as you can tell from my story.  

It is not only power plants!  There is tons of innovation in all the above topics.  Working on phones/computers/circuits can also be very exciting and innovative.  Especially the field of programming cell phones! It is hard for me to imagine something I cannot relate to electrical engineering, that is why I think it is such an exciting field.  You can work with material scientists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and all other fields of engineering just to name a few options.   My daughter is even combining environmental engineering and anthropology!

I really hope you continue to explore electrical engineering as an option.  You have the right idea and the right attitude.  Your uncle is correct that it is male dominated field – however what a good reason to be a women studying it, we need to change the world :)!   Look at electrical engineering programs at colleges you are looking at, and look at the professors research areas.  I am sure you will find something that makes you feel like you are a good fit in electrical engineering (maybe even research that a female professor is doing).  There are 5 female professors in my department.   We have support for women engineering, there is the Society of Women Engineers and the Women in Engineering program. 

I also want to mention that if you don’t get directly into an engineering school  don’t let that stop you.  You can go to a good community college for your first two years of college and then transfer in (making sure the community college has ties to engineering schools). 

I wish you the best in your coming adventures and hope someday I hear about this amazing electrical engineering student – you!

Please feel free to ask me any additional questions.

What an exciting thing to want to get involved in. It sounds like mechanical engineering is what you might want to go into or, depending on the school, possibly electrical engineering. You should investigate the schools you are interested in and see what types of courses they have. If you are more interested in the control of things through programming you might consider electrical and computer engineering. This would help you understand the capabilities and limitations of microprocessors and the robots they might control. Many electrical engineering build robots for design projects, but mechanical classes do too. The mechanical engineering focuses more on what you call building things by hand and modeling real objects. Both have a strong level of math and signal processing necessary. I suspect if you start looking at schools and seeing what they have to offer (don’t for get to ask about after school clubs) you will make the right decision for yourself. However it is not written in stone that you must stay in the same course all four years. Plus you could possibly do an EE degree for a B.S.E.E. and a Mechanical Engineering for a Masters or PhD. Please feel free to write again.


HI It is a big decision whether to go on the graduate school or go to work. I would encourage you greatly to stay in school and at least get a masters degree if possible. It will open many more doors for you than a bachelor of science. You sound as thought you could do a Masters in EE or ME both very respectable fields. On the other hand many times students go to work for a few years and then try getting their masters in night school or even full time, but this is a much harder path to follow. My school has a technical communications graduate program, as do other schools, if you are interested in the management of communications. Your courses would lead me to suggest graduate school in ECE, it will give you more of a chance to figure out what your passion really is. I would suggest you interview schools to see if they can offer you any TA ships or Research appointments, in addition I would be interviewing at companies you are interested in. The interviewing process will help you decide if you are ready to work, or if you would prefer more schooling. Sometimes companies pay for your advanced degree so if money is an issue you might find out, while interviewing, what the company benefits are in regards to this. Remember your first job does not have to be forever, unless you want it to be. It will give you experience and you can see what people around you are doing and find out what sort backgrounds they have. It will also build your resume. Best of luck to you, IId be happy to answer any follow up questions you have. Melinda