September 9, 2007Her job: Professor, Case Western Reserve University
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I lead a research group that works as a team to solve the mysteries of how our bones and skeleton work. Sometimes, we not only discover how nature makes materials but also apply our knowledge to invent new materials and technologies. I also teach college students about engineering and how to use engineering to improve the quality of life on Earth as well as during space exploration.
Why did you choose engineering?
Engineering teaches us how to solve difficult problems and helps us to have a positive impact on peoples lives. Engineering is very "hands on" but can also be extremely creative.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
At Stanford University, I was awarded dual Bachelor of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering and in Biological Sciences. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, I earned a Swiss diploma in Mechanical and Process Engineering and went on to get my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
I experiment on bones and build computer models of bones. I peer through the microscope at the world of cells and their networks, trying to understand how cells know where they are needed and how to get there, as well as how cells build tissues. I interact with students in the classroom and in the laboratory, trying to share my excitement for science and engineering. I write papers and book chapters and business plans for science projects (we call these "grants"). I share my discoveries with colleagues at research conferences.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
Engineering is creative! It is a great way to combine all your favorite school subjects with the joy for discovery. Engineering has literally opened up the world to me, allowing me to travel to many interesting countries and meet other scientists and engineers, all in the pursuit of knowledge!
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
The discovery of something unknown is the accomplishment which brings me greatest joy and pride. For example, my research team showed that exercise feeds your bone cells by squeezing and moving the fluid in your bones. This fluid carries nutrients to cells that are entombed in bone mineral. We also showed that the cells in the outer sleeve of your bones are the "expert builders of bone"! We have developed materials that suck fluid in when you press on them (instead of pressing fluid out, like when you press on a sponge).
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
I was a poor (as in poverty-stricken) student for many, many years. There were few women role models when I went through college and through graduate school. Sometimes I had to overcome peoples' preconceived notions about what girls and women can achieve. However, I persevered through the challenges and now hope to be a great role model for girls interested in engineering and science.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have a small but close family. My husband is an orthopaedic surgeon and we are lucky to do research together. Our daughter is nine years old and loves to come to the lab with me.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
In the short term, I hope to bring several innovative ideas and projects to fruition, like making several new materials a reality (taking the idea from my brain and building it into an actual material!) and discovering how to teach cells to build bone tissue. In the long term, I hope to keep making new discoveries and help to shape the field of engineering to make it welcoming for all people who are interested in joining!
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices?
While reading William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in high school, Polonius taught me, "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any [hu]man." Traveling the world and experiencing a variety of cultures, I have always felt the profound influence of a voice from within me, extolling me to make my own decisions based on my core values, to "do the right thing" and thereby contribute to making the world a better place.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Don't be afraid to take risks! The world is your oyster ==> go reap the pearls!!!
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
I love to explore the world actively and will never bore of sailing, walking, biking and climbing to new places.