STEMinist Profile: Carla Fair-Wright, Software Engineer

Oct 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Carla Fair
Carla Fair-Wright, Software Engineer
Optimal Consulting LLC

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My high school math teacher Sister Donna Blaul. She always encouraged me to do my best and be authentic. Unfortunately, her life was ended by a tragic event before I could thank her. However, I recently found out about a scholarship that was created in her name.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I was a rebel growing up. I joined the military after a year in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University against family wishes. While I was on active duty in the US Air Force, I worked in war planning. It was extremely complex work and very challenging. Every day was different. I don't miss the pace, but do sometimes miss the challenges.

Role models/heroes:
Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO for the Society of Women Engineers; Madeleine Albright - First woman to become the United States Secretary of State; Dr. Thelma Estrin - a pioneer in biomedical engineering.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The career opportunities are limitless. You are bound by your imagination and your will to succeed. Being a Software Engineer and Project Manager, I get to work on all types of projects across every industry. My current software project is for one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the US. Prior to taking on this project, I worked for British Petroleum on the Spill Response effort in the Gulf.

Before that, I worked in the automotive industry. I could never be the kind of person that worked for 30 years for a company doing the same job. Owning my own company, seemed like a natural choice for me. I encourage my daughter, who is an actress, to be independent and fiscally aware. At sixteen, she is starting a small theatre workshop for elementary children. I already applied for a spot on the popular TV show Shark Tank for her to pitch her business!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Heed the lesson of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin discovered the helical structure of DNA. Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick admitted they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. But, Rosalind preferred to work alone and lives in the shadows of history. To be successful and reach your full potential you must learn to work with others. To quote Ursula Burns, mechanical engineer and now CEO of Xerox, "If You Don't Transform, You're Stuck."

Favorite website/app: Twitter

Website: Technological Women Blog
Twitter: @TeknoWomen

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STEMinist Profile: Maria McKavanagh, Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

Oct 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized


Maria McKavanagh

Post Graduate Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

The University of Manchester, UK

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved mathematics and physics from a very young age. I liked how logical they were and how I could always see why I was right or wrong. My brother, who is now a software architect, gave me a book called "Java in 24 hours" when I was 12. This was my first taste of computer programming and I loved it!

When I went to grammar school there were many "Insight into Engineering" days and I went to all of them. My love for problem solving just grew and grew and so a degree in Electronic Systems Engineering was an obvious choice.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest project would have to be the one I worked on in the third year of my degree. It was a colour reader for blind and visually impaired people. I have always wanted to help people, and teachers at school suggested I become a doctor, however the sight of blood makes me faint so it didn't seem like the career choice for me!

The outcome of this project was something that had the potential to seriously improve the quality of some people's lives and I thrived on that. The realisation that being an engineer still allowed me to help people reaffirmed that it was the career for me.

Role models/heroes:
I watched a TED talk a short time ago by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. It was called "Why we have too few women leaders." I found it extremely inspiring. I would also have to say my mother. Despite never having worked as one, she is one of the best engineers I know. She can solve any problem and I've seen her fix everything from a shelf to an extractor fan. She is determined and will stop at nothing to solve a problem.

One day I witnessed her saw off a door frame to move a piano from one room to another, and have it glued back on and repainted before my father got home! When she decides she is going to do something, she will always find a way, no matter how long it takes to learn how to do it—I definitely have her to thank for where I am today.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Working in STEM makes me feel like I can change the world! That may sound silly, but in my research I may just discover something that no one else has before. Every single day is different which keeps me motivated. Working in a university means I cross paths with some of the best in the field of electrical engineering and I find them fascinating to talk to.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you are considering a STEM career DO IT! It is challenging but there are big rewards. For those embarking on their career I would say work hard and have confidence in your ability. STEM is still male dominated which can sometimes be a bit intimidating, particularly early in your career, but women bring skills to STEM that men can't.

We are lateral thinkers which means we can sometimes come up with very innovative solutions to problems. I have heard many men in the profession say that women bring a whole new aspect to their team and so industry is crying out for more of us to join.

Favorite website/app:
I love Appy-geek. It is an app for Android and iPhone which gives you all the latest technology news in one place. It has an alerts feature so when an article on something you are interested in becomes available you know about it straight away.

Twitter: @IgorinaJP

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The Gender Gap in Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math Occupations

Aug 04 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The U.S. Department of Commerce just released a report on the continuing gender gap in STEM jobs - that is, science, technology, engineering, and math. While women make up roughly half of the total paid workforce, they still held only a quarter of STEM jobs as of 2009:

In fact, we saw no change in the gender make-up of STEM fields between 2000 and 2009.

There is significant variation in the gender composition within the STEM category, however. At the high end, women hold 40% of jobs in the physical and life sciences; the low point is engineering, where only 14% of employees are women. And the proportion of women in computer science and math jobs actually fell between 2000 and 2009, from 30% to 27% of workers.

This isn't simply because of differences in education, either. Here we see the proportion of both men and women in STEM jobs at various educational levels; while increased education correlates with a higher likelihood of having a STEM job for both groups, women are significantly less likely than men at every educational level to have a STEM job:


The gender disparity in STEM jobs is especially noteworthy because, on average, STEM occupations pay significantly more than other private-sector jobs, and the gender gap in pay is actually lower than in non-STEM sectors:

If we look only at women with bachelor's degrees, women who earn STEM degrees and work in STEM jobs earn, on average, 29% more than other women.

So the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs means that women are missing out on some of the best-paying occupations in the U.S.; in fact, this type of gender-segregation of jobs is one of the leading causes of gender gap in yearly and lifetime earnings.

The authors of the report don't go into detail about potential causes of the gender gap in STEM careers, though they note that among those earning STEM degrees in college, women are significantly less likely than men to hold jobs in related STEM fields. They suggest this might be because STEM jobs are relatively unaccommodating to those who take time off for family obligations (disproportionately women), because of a lack of female role models in STEM fields (including as college professors), or because of gender stereotyping about math or science aptitude (like this, or this if you prefer a t-shirt) that pushes women away from STEM degrees and careers.

The complex interplay of factors that lead to a gender gap in who holds STEM-sector jobs provides significant challenges to increasing the proportion of women in these occupations --- as indicated by the lack of change over the past decade. But particularly as we see increasing economic divergence between well-paid tech and information sector and low-paid service sector jobs, addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs will be essential as part of any effort to improve women's lifetime earnings potential and overall economic outlook.

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Florence Violet McKenzie

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Traveling for spring break? Need something new to listen to? This isn't a new audio program, but I just heard it this week, and it was so well-done I wanted to share it here. Signals, Currents, and Wires: The Untold Story of Florence Violet McKenzie about Florence Violet McKenzie (1890-1980), Australia's first woman electrical engineer (her 1923 diploma is in the collection at the Powerhouse Museum), first Australian woman to hold an amateur radio license, founder of the Wireless Weekly, correspondent of Einstein's, founder of the Electrical Association of Women and the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps. Oh, and she taught over 12,000 servicemen at her signalling school--she was a gifted teacher of Morse code, visual signalling, and international code. And she did all that teaching as a volunteer, refusing all offers of payment, saying it was her contribution to the war effort. The podcast is a fascinating hour-long study of her life and work, starting with her girlhood tinkering with switches and wires, and following her legacy through interviews with her students and colleagues.

There's something a little funny about listening to a program about a Morse code specialist on an mp3 player. But Catherine Freyne and the folks at ABC Radio National have made an excellent program here, and it's something I would never have heard broadcast in 2009. It's the kind of content that deserves to be downloaded and heard by a very wide audience. (And now I'm off to check out some of the other Hindsight programs available for download. As far as I can tell, there aren't transcripts of the program available on the site, it's audio-only content, with online summaries and images.)

If you listen to the podcast, and decide that the untold story needs to be told more, McKenzie is still "redlinked" at Wikipedia. Perhaps you can start her an entry there?

Image below: Florence Violet Wallace (as she was known in her younger days), photographed with a wireless set. (Source)

Florence Violet Wallace, wearing a headset, at her wireless

Florence Violet Wallace, wearing a headset, at her wireless

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Future of Engineering

Feb 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

As my final guest post here I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the future of engineering: both in education and in western society. I thank you all for reading my few posts here, not as many as I would have wanted, but of course I keep myself busy posting on my own blog Design. Build. Play. and over at Engineer Blogs. I have really enjoyed the conversations and comments here.

On that note, on my first post here a subject that came up in the comments was whether to teach engineering in school. But even in my public education experience we did plenty of engineering projects, only didn't know what that's what they were. I'm sure many students are familiar with the infamous egg drop project.

There's been discussions on the 'net about how we teach science before college. There have been a lot of complaints that teaching science in elementary, middle and high schools is akin to teaching auto repair without actually having a car to work on. I think more hands on experiments are crucial for where we want to go before college and in college as those were my most memorable experiences.

I've built an egg drop case, a car that was propelled by a C02 cartridge, a ramp and even a trebuchet. The problem with the last two were that a lot of work was required on our own and for those of us who didn't have parental support in building these projects they were much more difficult and it was much easier to cut corners. It'd be nice if build projects in school were done with access to a school shop and school materials. This is what made my engineering projects actually doable. It's not teaching if you have to do and learn everything on your own.

The other concern is if we're recruiting only people who have a familiarity with the topic due to the support of family and friends. And that's not always going to bring in the most qualified people.

But as I discussed in my last post on this guest blog, how do you recruit people into an industry that has its problems?  Besides the obvious problems I mentioned there there's a lack of government and public support for the STEM fields right now. I mean, there's a pretend support that we "need more scientists and engineers" but that has yet to be backed up with government money or private corporations doing business here.

One of my fellow engineers, Chris Gammel, just wrote a great post on starting a technology manufacturing company- then and now. He looked at the success of the guys who started HP and the relative comparison of startup costs and how to compete with low cost foreign manufacturing sectors.

It's definitely difficult to start up a company that actually makes something in the US these days and that's a problem much of western society has had to deal with. When intellectual property is often absorbed by the countries that make the high tech devices designed by engineers here they no longer need the education and higher paid engineers in the west.

But there are still some places where western nations could succeed and even cooperate with the rising and growing manufacturing countries. I think about Germany that's been able to keep much of its manufacturing by focusing on high precision and high quality items. In fact, German engineering is renowned in many places and many auto components manufacturers are based over there with not only the engineering but the manufacturing as well. And that may be where other countries can find their niche.

Right now we're exporting software and financial instruments. But these are not products from a country that was great because it could make things. Auto makers, aviation and defense manufacturers tend to be the last holdouts in this country and I think we can do better. There's probably not enough profit in green and sustainable energy by itself but combine that with space exploration, machine manufacture, energy equipment for industrial applications, and high tech building design and I think we have a start. If we could take back much of the computer, cell phone and medical device manufacturing we've exported I think we'd be even stronger.

So I hope the future in education and in the grand art of making stuff is bright. Thanks for reading me, please chime in with your own opinion on STEM education and the future of engineering and manufacturing, and I hope to still have great conversations with many of you I've met here in the future.

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Anger & Engineering Outreach

Feb 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

This week is National Engineer's Week in the US. Universities across the country are engaging in activities, competitions, build challenges, and outreach activities. GeekDad over at Wired has a great list of engineering links so you can celebrate the week with the young people in your life. I love the outreach aspects of this because I think engineering, but science in general, is often done behind the curtains from the public. And while I wouldn't advocate every single kid grow up to be an engineer they shouldn't be afraid to be an engineer and those who are not should still have some idea of what the profession is.

Today's day in E-Week is Introduce a Girl to Engineering. It's not been too long since we've had our first engineer barbie so we're at that point where it's easy to feel like we're succeeding. Like Luke in fending off TIE fighters we have to be reminded, great kid, now don't get cocky! Over at Engineer Blogs my colleague Fluxor wrote a great post about women in engineering.  And this is where you see the total disconnect of those that get it and those that don't. The comments there were generally supportive but the comments on the article over at reddit are enough to make me sick. Bitter enough I ranted angrily on my own blog. The comments were of the flavor that women engineers are basically taking jobs away from qualified (white?) dudes (they took 'r jooobs!) and doing some piss poor justifications that women aren't as good as men.

But the post on my own blog shows that what they won't say to your face will still come all wrong. And it's frustrating to have to deal with that crap every day. I know so many women in academia, industry, science, engineering, technology- who all have to deal with that daily battle. And even at my youngish age, you just get tired. And thankfully I can come here and write about it and laugh about it and feel like I'm not alone and that not all men are total douchebags (just the ones I work with apparently). But I've also seen my industry serve as a training ground to indoctrinate once decent fellows into the ways of the sexist and racist dinosaurs that run the place. So I'm not convinced a sudden infusion of women or minorities is going to change anything.

Which brings me back to introducing a girl to engineering. Sometimes I feel like the young women I know and care about, there is no way I would want to convince them to go into this field. I would have a hard time being genuine in encouraging them. Or a hard time glossing over all of the tough parts. I mean, don't get me wrong. Most professions have their pitfalls and require a lot of hard work and dedication, at least at some point, that might or might not pay off later. But when a woman has to work 2.5 times as hard as a man to be considered equally capable it's difficult for me to sell the parts of the field that I love. This article from womens enews provides a great rebuttal of a lot of the articles lately that have chimed in with some false research conclusions about how it's all okay now and women having supposedly achieved parity.

But past all the difficulties and drudgeries and long, angry days, I do love engineering. It's going to be less than two hours now until the final Space Shuttle launch at NASA. I hope on this day that girls, and boys, and all of us supposed adults have a chance to watch this memorable day. It's hard for me to think that the space shuttle era is an era at all. That it has to end. That I won't be able to stream live launches anymore of the shuttle that means so much to me. I'm not sure why it's emotional to me, but maybe because the shuttle was to my youth what the Apollo program was to the generation before me. I'd go buy this shirt but I think wearing it will only make me sad.

When you hear the astronauts speak, many of whom are training on future missions that will be using the Russian's Soyuz rocket to get people to the space station, they don't sound sad at all. They know that closing of certain programs is just something that happens in technology and another era will eventually take its place. They know whatever the future of space flight is that there will be a future and that whatever that future is it's worth believing in and worth taking risks for.

And maybe that's how I should look at engineering. It hasn't been easy and sometimes it tries to break my heart but sometimes it gives me gifts and fulfillment I never would have suspected. I know that for me at least the risk is worth it that had I to do it all over again I would do everything exactly the same.

So how about you dear readers, do you ever have trouble trying to encourage young people into your discipline? Do you wonder whether the pitfalls of your particular field were worth it, or maybe worth it only for you? Do you think it'll be better some day, that telling our daughters to go into STEM isn't sending them into an ultimately frustrating place? Do you worry the general attitudes towards STEM fields in general will discourage people or do you think the future will be brighter? Are you as heart broken as I am about the final shuttle launch?

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Marketing vs Exploration

Feb 15 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things I'm passionate about is space flight. I just wrote on Engineer Blogs about how NASA partnered with industry to build a quieter jet engine. I believe both manned and unmanned space flights need to continue because what we gain in knowledge and experience far outweighs the short term costs and risks. The image below is from a flight just last night of the Stardust-NExT. It passed the Tempel 1 Comet at 8:41 PST at a distance of 946.05 trillion kilometers on Valentine's Day for a romantic encounter and a few pictures.

We last flew by the comet in 2005 with the Deep Impact mission. What are the advantages of whizzing by a comet a second time? It certainly doesn't come free.

Total cost of launching and running the Stardust program was $300 million (US). It's actually part of a low cost series of proposals NASA put out to industry to see what kind of cheap unmanned space flight could be built for scientific endeavors. It's built and run by Lockheed Martin. When you consider Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet costs $92 million of the shelf, not including development costs built into the contract and what it actually costs to train pilots, pay ground crew, and support repairs and further operation of the F-35 (of which the US has agreed to buy 2,443 so far) the Stardust looks like a freaking bargain. The F-35, as kick ass as I think it is, can't even go into space.

In the movie Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is asked what he thinks about the possible end of the Apollo program and he asks the reporter, "What if after Christopher Columbus no other explorers had returned to the Americas?" I think the near total annhilation of Native Americans at the hands of European imperialists is probably a terrible metaphor. But I think many people do wonder what the point of going up into space now. We've already been to the moon, we've built a space station, what more is there to do? It's gotten so bad NASA has to sell every single project it does in some neatly packaged PR blitz. Though I think the wallpaper they designed is rather adorable (click to embiggen).

You don't see Lockheed or Northrop having to justify their expenses to the public with a "why are we building this" even when in the short term fighter jets don't seem to be a crucial part of our successful war strategy. And many would argue that neither a large defense program or a space research program are necessities we should be spending tax dollars on. I won't argue on behalf of needing a strong and modern air force today, but I do think having a strong space flight and research program is equally as necessary and yet completely undervalued. It's to the point now where our shuttle astronauts are hardly astronauts anymore as much as they are marketers and spokespeople for manned space flight and for the space station. Shuttle Astronaut Shannon Walker asked "Why should the United States explore space?" in a YouTube video contest. The three winning entries are worth watching and their excitement and attitudes really inspire me and give me hope for a future where space is a cornerstone of who we are and continues to contribute in powerful ways to our science, technology, manufacturing and industry.

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