August 19, 2007Her job: Professor and Director School of Chemical and Biom, Cornell University
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I am the head of the department of Chemical and Biolmolecular Engineering. This means that I teach courses (e.g., in thermodynamics) and I have a large research group who are trying to predict the structure and properties of new materials. I also have responsibilities as the head of the department to inspire students to excel at engineering. There are lots of women in Chemical Engineering (over 50% at Cornell!) and that is a source of pleasure for me. So many wonderfully talented young women to advise.
Why did you choose engineering?
I love the problem solving aspects of engineering. I completed my BS degree in Chemistry but I learned that I prefer to solve real problems and that drew me to engineering. When someone explains a problem that is unsolved or a roadblock to making progress, I can't help but feel excited about trying to help.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to London University for my first degree in Chemistry and then to Oxford University for my PhD (it's actually called a "D. Phil." at Oxford). Then I came to the US to study at Cornell and I fell in love with the university and with Ithaca. I have been at Cornell for the past 20 years and have no desire to go elsewhere. Cornell has wonderful facilities and experts in every field.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My research team and I work on computational approaches to finding new materials with better properties than anything we have right now. This could mean more efficient solar cells, or laptop screens that are the thickness of a sheet of paper that you can roll up and stuff in your backpack, or ways to look at the role of calcium in your body to sense pain or synchronize biological clocks. I also teach students different engineering subjects. I even run a class to bring in outside speakers to talk about their careers so that our students understand what a rich and diverse life they can have after graduation.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
I still get a great kick out of finding out information that no-one has ever seen before, so I love being involved in research. There is always the chance that you will find out something that helps other people in the world and that's a big motivation for me. Teaching is also a source of pleasure. When you help a student to understand something that puzzles them it's a great feeling.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
In terms of my career, I'm proudest of being the Director of the whole Chemical Engineering department. It's fun to lead a group of talented faculty to undertake some of the greatest challenges of the century, like producing energy cheaply and efficiently so that everyone on the planet has access to these resources without compromising on the delicate environment of the small earth that we all inhabit.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
It was a challenge to be the first woman faculty member in the department, to have a demanding career, and to raise two daughters. I also took in a third teenage girl to live with us for some time so my life was very full. But I think I conquered these challenges in such a way that I was able to spend time with my husband and children and still advance my career.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have three "daughters" (two my own and one I collected along the way), a husband, two ex-SPCA cats and one gorgeous Quarter Horse. My daughters are pretty grown up now. One has graduated and is working in Washingotn DC and taking classes to try to get a PhD in Economics. One is in her last semester as a biology major. She hopes to go to graduate school to study microbiology and develop human therapeutic drugs. My other "daughter" is in the Marines.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
I will remain as Director of the School for the next three years and my goals are to make this department the best it can be as teachers and researchers and contributors to society. My long-term personal goal is to become a member of the National Academy :) . I also would love to see my daughters stay in the sciences and make a diference in other people's lives. I would also to master the dressage movement, the half pass and tempi changes (which makes horses look like they are skipping).
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My parents were a wonderful influence. My father told me that our family motto was "Educate, that you may be free". It made me link education and freedom and forged the most influential aspect of my own philosophy. I think that many of the world's woes would be solved if more people, especially young girls, had the chance to be educated and to take control of their own lives.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Make sure that you work hard at your math. That's the key to unlock the first door. Love what you do and you won't mind the work. You need to find out who you are, what you like, what makes you want to set to work (once you've had breakfast of course), and then you'll be a success. Find good mentors in your life. Be enthusiastic and full of passion and questions. These are the hallmarks of an engineer or scientist.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
My favorite book is "Love in a Cold Climate" by Nancy Mitford. It's full of historical details about the time of the World Wars which I like. I love to ride my horse; it's my favorite hobby. When I'm riding, I can't think of anything else except trying to be a good "dance partner" to my red gelding. I also love to shop, especially for shoes.