August 23, 2007Her job: Hans Thurnaeur Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I am currently working as both a professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department and as the Director of the Materials Research Laboratory. As a faculty member, my primary responsibility involves leading my research group, which consists of several PhD students and postdocs. In my administrative role, my primary responsibility involves directing a large, interdisciplinary laboratory that focuses on advanced materials fabrication, characterization, and theory/modelling.
Why did you choose engineering?
I chose to become a materials engineer, because without materials there is no engineering. To me, this field offered the perfect combination of basic science (such as physics and chemistry), math, and engineering problem solving.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I did my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I earned a B.S. with High Honors in Ceramic Engineering, and my graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, where I earned my Sc.D. in Ceramic Science.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
My work involves teaching materials engineering as well as carrying out original experimental work in the area of directed materials assembly.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
I love the little (and sometimes big) discoveries, the connections that are made when I see a new experimental result or data for the first time. I love the fact that I get to keep learning every single day. I love the challenge of tackling hard problems, and the rush that comes when one succeeds.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I am most proud of helping my students achieve their goals. The best day of the year for me is graduation day. I savor the moment of hooding each one of my PhD students, and knowing that I have had a positive impact on their professional development. It is also extremely gratifying to watch them continue to accomplish great things after they leave my group. I have had students go onto academic positions, major companies, start-ups, national laboratories, and, even, full-time motherhood. Whatever path they take, I simply feel honored to have been a part of it.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I think the main challenge has been getting tenure at a highly ranked university. This is such a stressful process, and it really takes tremendous focus and a willingness to push past one's inner doubts to succeed.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I was raised by two wonderful parents, one of whom is an engineer. I am also very fortunate to have a sister, who is nine years younger than me, who is a chemical engineer. Despite our age gap, we are really close to one another. Finally, I am currently in a long-term relationship. My partner, who has a PhD in physical chemistry, and I have been together nearly nine years.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My short- and long-term goals are to carry out scientific research of the highest impact, while helping to educate the next generation of materials scientists and engineers. Moreover, I would like to transition some of our research themes into the commercial sector.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
My parents instilled in me the value of hard work and education -- so they deserve significant credit for my trajectory. I have also benefited greatly from having many wonderful mentors, including my PhD advisor and many colleagues. Even today, I continue to be influenced by some exceptional colleagues both at Illinois and throughout the country.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I love sports -- mainly team sports such as basketball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, etc. I have always played sports as both a stress reliever and as a fun activity. The teamwork and leadership skills one derives from being a part of team has also been a great benefit to me professionally.