Women Engineers Conference Inspires a New Generation

By Heidi Douglas

Engineering_Women2Wintry weather failed to dampen spirits at the “Celebration of Women in Engineering,” a daylong conference exploring the challenges of women engineering the future held Tuesday, February 18 in conjunction with national Engineers Week.   The ambiguity of the phrase “challenges of women” gave rise to dual discussions throughout the day; namely, women engineers applying their education and experience to solve societal problems, like clean water and food sustainability, and the personal and professional challenges confronted by women pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and careers.

Executive Vice President, and former Executive Director and CEO, of the national Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Betty Shanahan (Hon. D.Sc. ’12) kicked off the event with a poignant and insightful breakfast keynote address interweaving personal anecdotes, research findings and keen observations from her thirty years’ experience as an engineer, executive and ardent advocate for women in engineering.  Her words set the tone and themes for the day as she cautioned, lest anyone misunderstand her message, “Men are not enemies, men are our partners” in achieving workplace equivalence for women engineers.  Throughout the day, three notions dominated the conversation:  (1) the incomparable value of mentors and sponsors for women to reach the highest levels of professional success, (2) the insidious role inherent bias plays in sabotaging career progression and (3) the paramount importance of engaging and supporting STEM ambitions in young girls.

Following the keynote, the audience comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, alumnae, faculty, staff and special guests participated in parallel breakout discussions exploring three highly relevant topics:   Myths and Misconceptions: Women in STEM, Women Engineering the Future:  Diversity of Thought and Early Career.  Reflecting on the Early Career discussion, Jeanine Armstrong Gouin, P.E. (B.S. Civil Engineering ’87) Vice President and Managing Director with Milone & MacBroom, Inc. said, “It occurred to me as I looked around the grand reading room in Wilbur Cross filled to capacity, that 30 years ago when I attended UConn, such an event could have taken place in a small classroom.  It was inspiring to see so many young women preparing to embark on their careers in engineering and so many others who are paving the way for the next generation.  They will do UConn proud!”

Guest speakers served as judges for a special poster session organized by the undergraduate Engineering Diversity Program office.  Three prizes were awarded with the top spot going to freshman Civil Engineering major and SWE student chapter member Emily Bousaada for her beautiful depiction of all engineering disciplines captured in the form of a female ice skater.  Emily hand drew the skater and taught herself MS Illustrator over a weekend to add artistic enhancements.  Freshman Shwetha Jayaraj took second place and two teams, comprised of sophomores Kathleen Coleman and Laura Wilcox and freshmen Lauren Biernacki and Nicole Gay, split the third place win.

The afternoon session featured a panel of distinguished engineers sharing their experiences and insights as women who have truly engineered the future.  Moderated by Dr. Sharon Nunes (M.S., Ph.D. Materials Science, ’80, ’83) retired Vice President for Smarter Cities & Green Innovations at IBM, the discussion engaged questions posed by Sharon and audience members ranging from building latrines in Ethiopia and groundwater remediation, to student hobbies that enhanced the panelists’ educational experiences and advanced their professional careers.  Members of the esteemed group included Angela Cargill, Operations & Project Management Lead at Monsanto in St. Louis, MO; Nadia Glucksberg, Lead Hydrogeologist and VP at Haley & Aldrich, Inc. and past founding president of the Portland, Maine chapter of Engineers Without Borders; and Dr. Allison MacKay, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at UConn.

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Summarizing her impressions of the day, Sharon Nunes said, “Celebration was uplifting and inspiring.  I’m always energized by the maturity and intelligence of today’s engineering students.”   Continuing, she noted, “Female students were very engaged in the morning discussions, asking the experienced engineers for advice and hints on how to succeed in the business world.”  The afternoon panel challenged the audience to think about ‘extreme engineering’ solutions to deal with critical world problems, and to help find solutions for current and future generations.

As the last snowflakes of the day fell, an inspired and appreciative crowd gathered for the closing reception hosted by School of Engineering Dean Kazem Kazerounian.  Audience members and discussion participants mingled with guest speakers and continued the dialogue started early that morning.  Guest panelist Nadia Glucksberg laughingly conveyed sincere appreciation to the three students, including two women, who helped to push her car from the snow so that she could get on her way.

Relationships were forged through the Celebration and professional connections made.  Most important, dozens of student engineers were strengthened in their resolve and inspired by the heights their careers might attain.

Engineering_Women2bConference publicity attracted the attention of National Public Radio’s Where We Live host John Dankosky.  On Thursday, February 20, Sharon Nunes and conference participant Elizabeth Jordan Clark (B.S. Materials Science’06), Deputy Technical Manager at Pratt & Whitney, were guest panelists on a live broadcast of his radio show, “Gender Balance and the Culture of Women in Science,” extending the conference discussion of the challenges women face in pursuing STEM careers to a multistate audience.  Elizabeth, daughter of Dr. Eric Jordan, United Technologies Professor of Advanced Materials Processing in the UConn Department of Mechanical Engineering, credited familial role models and her early education for inspiring her career choice.  She said, “Confidence is the key” to achievement and that she “had not experienced” the discouragement of previous generations of women engineers, capping the show with an uplifting message for girls, their parents and mentors.

Thank you to the generous support provided by the School of Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, Monsanto, Haley & Aldrich and Dr. Sharon Nunes for making this event possible.

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