January 10, 2011Her job: Graduate Research Assistant, Northwestern University
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
I’m a graduate research assistant at Northwestern University, working towards my PhD in Materials Science and Engineering.
Why did you choose engineering?
My dad is a chemical engineer – when I was a kid, he was always pointing out cool things about science and telling me about all the fun projects he’d worked on in his career. I also went to a science and engineering camp when I was in middle school, where we learned more about the kinds of things that engineers do, and it all seemed really interesting to me.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I went to Case Western Reserve University and received my Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering (with a minor in music). I’m now completing my PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
I work in a research laboratory – usually, I set up some kind of experimental system, tweak some details, and then look at the outcome and figure out how to make it better. Part of what I do is to study organisms that form minerals and try to see how we can use them for practical applications. For example, right now I grow algae, then add different trace metals to the culture solution, and then use imaging techniques such as X-ray microscopy to see how the elements are taken up by the cells. I’m hoping to use these algae to clean up radioactive environmental contamination, so I need to optimize the amount of the contaminant that is taken up by the organism.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
Engineering work is great because you get to see how things you do can lead to immediate improvements. A lot of engineering involves designing something to work better, and it’s always rewarding when you get the results you want.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career?
The lack of other women in my field used to annoy me, and it often took some work to convince some people that I was as capable as the guys that I worked with. This got a lot better when I started making efforts to network more with other female engineers, so that we didn’t feel so alone and could support each other!
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals?
My short term goal is to finish my PhD – after that, I hope to move into a field where I can use my science and engineering background to communicate technical information with non-technical audiences (such as science communication or science policy).
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
Always pursue options that leave as many doors open as possible. For example, if you think engineering sounds fun but you might also be interested in management, consider that an engineering degree can always help you get into management later, but a management degree won’t let you get into engineering.