Interview with Nevin Altunyurt by Grace Lam

Nevin AltunyurtNevin Altunyurt has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech and is currently an electromagnetic compatibility research engineer at Ford Motor Company. She was interviewed by Grace Lam in the spring of 2015.

Can you describe what you do in your current work situation?

I am an Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) research engineer at Ford Motor Company. I work in the Research and Advanced Engineering department, solving EMC problems between electrical systems in electrified vehicles. EMC engineering is a branch of electrical engineering that focuses on finding solutions to unwanted interference between electrical systems due to unintentional radiation of electromagnetic (EM) fields.

State-of-the-art vehicles, especially electric cars and electrified vehicles such as hybrid vehicles, have many electrical systems that need to work together in harmony. These systems and electric wiring between them create unwanted EM radiation and coupling, so solutions are needed to ensure that these systems don’t interfere with each other while operating. Some solutions are focused on preventing the unwanted radiation at the source, while others involve shielding the victim system so that it is protected against the unwanted interference. My job is based on finding these solutions.

What is a typical day at work like for you?

A typical day at work starts with logging in to my computer to check my email. Then, it involves a bit of teamwork, a bit of working on my computer, and sometimes working in the lab to conduct experiments and measurements to collect data. My meetings are either over WebEx, which is an over-the-phone and over-the-internet communication tool, or face-to-face meetings in conference rooms and mostly involve team work. My time in front of the computer mostly involves using the EM computational tools to study problems through simulations, and devising experiments/measurements to verify these simulations. Simulations help us understand source-victim interactions behind the EMC problems we are studying at that time. They also help us make predictions on the performance of a system without implementing the actual hardware system. This is especially useful when the hardware implementation is costly and time-consuming.

“I think we engineers touch people’s everyday lives through the things we do and create.”

In what ways do you work with other people in your job?

Sometimes I devise measurements and generate data that I share with another team for them to use that data to draw conclusions or further continue their studies. Other times, I help interpret the data that they provide me. Sometimes, we work together to discuss issues, brainstorm solutions, build an experiment and acquire results. Team work is laced into many parts of my job.

How did you get interested in electrical engineering?

I’ve always been interested in math and science classes, and I really enjoyed studying these subjects in school. I must say my science teacher in middle school was really inspirational for me. She had a genetic engineering degree, and I really enjoyed the way she taught the science class and explained scientific concepts. In addition to being a great teacher, she was a great mentor and she used to talk to us about science and engineering. She’s the first engineer I ever met, and she helped me understand what engineers do: they apply science to solve problems. In high school, it became clear that I wanted to study engineering. Since I really liked physics and biology, I considered two options: genetic engineering and electrical engineering. I eventually chose electrical engineering as I was drawn to the fact that it has a wide range of applications, and it also offers very good job opportunities.

Did your family play a role in you pursuing a career in engineering?

I don’t have anybody in my family who is an engineer so they could not mentor me in that sense, but they have always encouraged me to do what I would like to do, so I always felt their support. My brother is a medical doctor, so actually, for a long time, I wanted to study medicine as well. But I later decided to pursue engineering, and my family fully supported me.

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

I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Middle East Technical University (METU), which is in Turkey - I was born and raised in Turkey. Also, I have Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology.

How is your education related to your current work?

My education is quite aligned to what I am doing at work. Electrical engineering covers a wide range of areas, and my specialization areas in graduate school were electromagnetics and antenna design. Specialization-wise, what I do at work falls into electromagnetic compatibility, which is fundamentally based on electromagnetics. Additionally, my current position is in the Research and Advanced Engineering department so I do applied research which involves using the research skills I gained during my Ph.D. studies. I can say both the specialization and research aspect of my current job are aligned well with my education.

How do you keep up with changing technology?

This is really important and it takes some effort, mostly a lot of reading. There are two parts to it. First, the industrial part requires keeping up with technological websites, trends, and blogs. At work we regularly receive these news digest emails that summarize hot topics, recent advancements and news in the automotive industry. I find these emails very useful to keep up with the industry. The second part involves more technical details, learning new tools, reading academic papers, going to conferences and trainings to follow the latest research in my field. Because technology keeps on advancing, engineering requires constant learning.

“I think my job gives me good opportunities to contribute making a difference in the world.”

What do you like best about being an engineer?

Solving problems. I think we engineers touch people’s everyday lives through the things we do and create. Sometimes, this is not as obvious to see as in the case of other jobs that work with people on a day-to-day basis such as medical doctors or teachers. But engineers still touch people’s lives by creating products that make our lives easier, that enable scientific advancements, and that bring us closer to each other.

What was your greatest motivation in succeeding and overcoming the obstacles you encountered?

I am a goal-oriented person and I love learning new things. What drove me to study hard in high school and undergrad was to find a good job I enjoy, be successful, and travel the world. Back then success was to have a good job. Now I define success as having rich and meaningful experiences, learning new things constantly, and living a purpose-driven life instead of just living life aimlessly everyday. I am driven to create something meaningful with my time and effort both at professional and private aspects of my life. I think my job gives me good opportunities to contribute making a difference in the world.

What is it like being a female in a male-dominated field?

Diversity adds great value to workplace since our differences create new point of views. Therefore, there are a lot of benefits to having women in the workplace, and I would love to see more women in the engineering field. I think that a lot of my male colleagues feel the same way. Ford Motor Company is dedicated to diversity and there is an equal opportunity environment at work so I don’t feel alienated or as a minority at work. I am respected for my education, my contributions at work, and the value I add to the company as an engineer just as much as my male counterparts.

Was it difficult for you, especially as a woman, to go into engineering?

No, I don’t think it was difficult especially because my teachers and family all supported me when I decided to choose engineering. I really enjoyed studying science and math so there was always the fun factor. It is true that the ratio of female to male students both in my undergraduate and graduate level classes were low but I never felt that it was anything special or a bad experience. I had great supportive friends and we had a lot of great memories.

“I actually get inspiration from early female scientists, female leaders and influential female figures in the history.”

Why do you think there is such a small percentage of women in engineering?

I think it’s because the culture is set that way, especially in terms of roles of women and stereotypes about how women should be. A part of it is also because engineering and what engineers do is not well understood by high-school students. The general stereotype is that women are fragile and they do not belong to or they will not enjoy being in engineering environments such as labs and manufacturing plants. But, in reality, there are a lot of diverse work environments for engineers, and no place or job is too harsh for a woman as long as she wants it. I think the emphasis should be on finding what you enjoy doing, and what you are good at doing rather than your gender.

Do you recognize the gender gap on a day-to-day basis at work?

The department that I work in is pretty diverse. I have several female colleagues around, so I don’t notice a gender gap at work. Female to male ratio at my workplace is still less than 50% but I do not feel discriminated against based on my gender so I do not recognize the gender gap. It’s great that big companies value diversity and equal opportunity more and more every day.

Who are some of the women you’ve been able to look up to in your career?

I actually get inspiration from early female scientists, female leaders and influential female figures in the history. I really enjoy learning about the lives of these women because they give me inspiration. For example, there is an informative documentary series called Cosmos, which had a great episode about 5 female scientists who changed the way we understand the radiation from stars.

Who is your favorite?

My favorite these days is Cecilia Payne. She was an astronomer and astrophysicist, and she pursued a Ph.D. in the early 1900s. She proved that stars have high compositions of hydrogen and helium on the contrary to the belief that their elemental composition was similar to that of Earth’s. Her thesis was not accepted widely at first since what she proposed in her thesis went against what was commonly believed at the time. A well-known male professor in the field even tried to dissuade her from presenting her findings. But after four or five years, the same male professor came to the same conclusion with her using another method. He cited her work, but not to the full extent and for a long time he was given the credit for the discovery. I’m really touched by her experience. Later, her thesis “Stellar Atmospheres” became one the most fundamental books in astronomy.

“Once you start working, your job takes a big part of your day for most of your life, so it is really important to find the area you also have fun working at.”

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

My short-term goal for the next two to five years is to expand my technical expertise, continue learning and improving technical skills, and improve my leadership skills. And for my long-term goals, I would like to be happy, maintain a good life and work balance, continue learning, and lead a meaningful life.

What do you think are the key characteristics, attributes, and skills to being successful in engineering?

I would say to be curious, to be patient, to be determined, and not to give up easily. Having problem solving skills is also very important and this is a part of engineering education.

What advice would you give to a female student considering a career in engineering?

My advice would be to try to learn what an engineer does. If you have engineers around, talk to them. There are internships even for high school students in companies. Try to pursue these opportunities as well as science camps. But if you don’t have access to any of these opportunities, the Internet is full of information. Don’t get intimidated by the complexity of the engineering subjects. Never think that you’re not good enough for engineering, because as long as you have the interest, you will have time to learn during your education and even during your job at work, learning is constant. I think it is also very important to find out what your area of interest is. Please don’t pick a career just because it is more popular or it pays higher wages. Once you start working, your job takes a big part of your day for most of your life, so it is really important to find the area you also have fun working at. Even if you are very smart, when you’re not happy, it is difficult to reach your full potential. Engineering has a lot to offer, covering job opportunities in a lot of different areas. So, finding your interest area and your passion is one of the most important things.