November 6, 2016Her job: Bodman Chair of Engineering, Cornell University
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I am a professor of chemical engineering at Cornell University. This means that I teach undergraduate and graduate students about science and engineering. I also have an active research program, involving undergraduate and graduate students. My area of research is computational materials science. I am a specialist in semiconductors, like the ones that power and create displays in cell phones, computers and solar cells. I am also engaged in a significant amount of work that involves the community, from our local Sciencenter museum to working with K-12 teachers and others in the community at large.
Why did you choose engineering?
Actually, I didn't initially choose engineering! I didn't know if I wanted to major in chemistry or biochemistry. Neither of my parens had a degree and they would not have thought to mention engineering as a possibility. I got my undergraduate degree in chemistry (see details below) and eventually, by a circuitous route ended up doing research in an engineering department. It was there that I found I had a passion for solving scientific problems. And that is what engineering is all about, solving real-world problems. I wanted to do something important in the world and engineering does that for me.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to the University of London in England for my first (B.Sc.) degree. I studied at Queen Elizabeth College which was exclusively a science college. It was also in the most fashionable district in London, Kensington. I liked that aspect too. I got involved in undergraduate research and my advisor suggested that I apply to Oxford University in England for a D.Phil. (a PhD program) in physical chemistry. I was accepted and I spent three fun years completing my D.Phil. degree. Oxford is called the "city of dreaming spires" and it was there that I really did start to dream of a future in scientific research. But I wanted to travel and that's why I chose to go to the U.S. for my post-doctoral research.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My work involves computational studies and so I spend a lot of time trying to model real system as a mathematical model whose properties I can then simulate. These simulations allow me to predict how those materials will behave in situations that have not, or cannot, be explored by experiments. My work is at the molecular level so I can watch how every single atom in a material is moving and changing its structure. My work is applicable to the design of new materials for better solar cells, or to explain how snowflakes are formed, or to understand how life began on other planets, or to explain how anti-clotting drugs work to help ameliorate the effects of strokes.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
The best thing is being able to understand more about the natural world that we live in and try to make it better.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I think I am most proud of the opportunities I have had to mentor other students, especially young women to help them get into science and engineering careers.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I have been in the minority my whole life. As an undergraduate in chemistry, there were only 20% women in my cohort, although there are 50% women in the population. As a graduate student in physical chemistry, there were very few women. And there were even fewer women who worked on computational projects (sadly, this is still true, nearly 40 years later). As a young faculty member, I was the only woman in my department for 25 years (now there are three of us). In engineering, women are less visible than in chemistry. But I rose through the ranks and became the first woman director of any department in Engineering at Cornell. I am very proud of that.
Please tell us a little about your family.
Neither of my parents went to college. But both of them were passionate about their three girls going to college, which we did. I grew knowing that education was the most important thing I could do to help my family. My father used to say to me as a child that our family motto was "Educate that you may be free." I felt so proud that we had a family motto; I thought that was only for rich folks. They supported me so strongly throughout my K-12 experiences and into college. But they also let me be myself; they never tried to tell me what degree or what program would be best for me. When I look back now, all three of their children have gone into educational/training careers. So the family motto was upheld! My father was Irish and he faced a lot of prejudice in his life. Signs were posted in England that said "Irish need not apply." Irish people were thought to be less intelligent, more lazy, and had social traits that led them to alcoholism and fighting. Those foolish ideas inspired me to prove them wrong.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My long-term professional goal is to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering. It's the highest honor that an engineer can receive. I also want to live closer to my daughters as they begin their own journey to have their own family.
My short-term goal is to win a prize for my research. I am proud of what my research can accomplish and -more than anything- proud of the students whose hard work produced that research.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My parents were my early mentors. They helped with (but did not do) my homework for me and they told me to work hard. My Irish grandmother, a widow who raised four boys single-handedly, said that her grave stone should read "Twill be ease for my feet". I like the humor in those words, but also the commitment to working hard.
At college, my undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Maurice Rigby, was a great mentor. He showed me how original research is conducted. My graduate thesis advisor showed me how to be independent. And my first work mentors, Profs. Muckstadt and George, showed me how to be a leader.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Everyone needs mentors in their life at every stage. Sometimes they find you and sometimes you have to find them. Look out for them.
Work hard at math and (as a high schooler) learn calculus. It is the "ticket" to a career in engineering.
Don't let others opinions or negative comments deter you. Keep your eye on the prize.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I have a horse and love to ride. And I learned as an adult, so it's never too late to pick up a new hobby.
I love to garden, even in the relatively horse upstate New York climate.
I particularly like roses, they remind me of home.
My favorite book is a classic: "Love in a Cold Climate" by Nancy Mitford (written in 1949). I also love "The lion, the witch and the wardrobe" written by an Oxford mathematician- I'm still looking for that wardrobe!
My favorite films are "Men in Black," "Miss Congeniality," "Seabiscuit," "Secretariat," and "National Velvet" (well, I am a horse lover).