What it Takes to be a Material Science Engineer

This 2014 interview with Ruoyi Zhou, Director of Customer Experience at IBM Research in San Jose, CA, was done by Alice Wu from Leland High School.

What do you do in your job?

I am the Director of Customer Experience at the IBM Research Lab in San Jose, CA. As you know, the emergence of big data and social and mobile cloud has fundamentally changed the way we live and work, so many of our clients are facing challenges in terms of transforming their customer experience. My job is to manage about a hundred researchers around the globe to develop new technology to help our clients transform their customer experience.

Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?

I went to the Harbing Institute of Technology in China for my undergraduate studies, and I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey for graduate school. I have a PhD in Material Science.

How would you describe the field of material science/engineering for young girls who are interested in this subject?

Material science is a very fun field! It’s an applied science and is close to engineering. Essentially, it combines different disciplines such as physics, chemistry, double-E, mechanics, and more to design new materials, characterize new materials, or improving existing materials.

Were there any challenges as a woman engineer that you had to overcome, and if so, how did you overcome them?

Most people still don’t believe that girls can be engineers. For me, it started with my principal; he often said, “Girls, you’re lucky if you can get into a third-tier school. Just be focused on being a teacher or a nurse.” My parents were the same way: they were strongly against the idea of my going to engineering school.

When I went to work at the Los Alamos National Lab, I was the only woman out of 80 or more people working in the superconductivity center. What I would suggest for young girls, is that when you are in such a situation, believe in yourself, demonstrate that you can do as well as the men, and don’t give up. Ever since I joined IBM, I have been in such a great environment for women; I feel that I can work and compete with the male engineers on an equal level.

What do you enjoy most about being an engineer?

As a hands-on person, I like to make things. What makes me happy is when I can develop new things; for example, when I first joined IBM, I developed a new disc that has 20 percent more capacity than the older-generation discs. That made me extremely happy. In my last project as a manger, we developed a costing-and-pricing tool that supports IBM’s $20 billion strategic outsourcing business; that was very rewarding and gave me a strong sense of accomplishment. What I enjoy about being an engineer and what makes my job so rewarding is seeing end results and impact.