Meet the Female Pioneers of Engineering: Part 1

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Today is National Women in Engineering Day!

As an all-female team, RE•WORK are strong advocates on supporting women in technology and science, so we're celebrating today by talking to female pioneers in the field about ensuring equality, future breakthroughs, encouraging others to become engineers and more.

The day was set up by the Women's Engineering Society and is dedicated to raising the profile and celebrating the achievements of women in engineering. By encouraging girls into engineering careers we will not only increase diversity and inclusion, but also enabling us to fill the substantial future job opportunities that have been predicted in this sector.

Get involved with the day and share inspiring women in engineering that you know or admire by using #NWED2016 



Limor Fried is Founder and Engineer at AdaFruit, a company she created to establish the best place online for learning electronics and making the best designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels. This month the White House honored her in their Champions of Change for her commitment to building both innovation and community, and creating resources for learning.

Sarah Ostadabbas is Assistant Professor in Electrical & Computer Engineering at Northeastern University, and recently formed the Small Data/Decision Support (SDDS) Laboratory to enhance human information-processing capabilities through the design of adaptive interfaces via physical, physiological and cognitive state estimation.

Michal Segalov leads groups of engineers at Google Play, focusing on apps and games discovery. She won the Anita Borg Institute Social Impact award for her work on the co-initiated Mind The Gap program, aimed at encouraging girls to learn computer science and math, which has expanded globally with more than 10,000 participants to date. 

Helen Wollaston is Chief Executive of WISE, a campaign created to increase the participation, contribution and success of girls and women in STEM, from classroom to boardroom. Prior to WISE, Helen gained extensive experience in promoting female talent, including directing campaigns for the Equal Opportunities Commission and her own consultancy Equal to the Occasion.


 

What inspired or motivated you to begin your work in engineering?



Limor: Working in engineering is about solving problems together. One of the first times I remember thinking I'd be an engineer was when I was about 7 or 8 I saw a bunch of balloons stuck to the ceiling at a local mall after an event, no one could reach them so I went home and constructed a mechanical arm with my Dad. After going back, getting on his shoulders and using the balloon catcher device we made we retrieved all the balloons and gave them to others who also wanted balloons.

Michal: Growing up, I never actually thought about engineering or computer science as a career path for me; I really liked art and painting so I thought more of a career in architecture. I also really liked math, puzzles and riddles. However, I never realized that computer science was solving math problems and puzzles every day. I thought it was super geeky and missed out on how creative it was! I remember my parents trying (and failing) to convince me to pick up some programing skills. At 18, things shifted. I found myself being forced into a programing course. This is when I realized this is what I wanted to do. Ever since, I’ve been learning and working in CS, enjoying every minute! 



How can we encourage more women and girls to work in engineering?

Limor: We like to say "we are what we celebrate" - how can we get others in the spotlight who are doing great work? How can print magazines, tv, online sites, social media networks and more celebrate the diversity in engineering that is there but often overlooked or ignored? What we all need to do is lift each other up on each other's shoulders more. 


Michal: Be out there. Be visible. Act as a role model and spread the word. In your organization, and in your community. It’s important for young women and girls to see role models they can identify with. Show the world the diversity in CS and engineering. Diversity is important not only because it’s fair-- studies show that diverse teams build better products and diverse companies have better financial performance. We need to be proactive about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in CS and engineering, it is not going to solve itself.

Helen: WISE looked at the evidence on this question for Network Rail a couple of years ago. We identified a conflict between how most teenage girls see themselves – the type of person they are - and their perception of the type of person who is a scientist or engineer. This identity conflict leads them to the conclusion that science and engineering is not for them and explains why despite many years of initiatives to encourage girls to work in engineering, it is still seen as an unusual choice of career for a woman in the UK. Our People Like Me campaign uses a fresh approach. In a 45 minute session for girls, they start by picking adjectives which best describe themselves - words like “friendly”, “organised” or “creative”. Their choices determine which “type” they are, they get a list of jobs which suit people of this type and are introduced to role models just like them doing an exciting and interesting job using science, maths or technology. Feedback from girls, teachers, parents and role models has been very positive. “A fabulous, innovative way to get girls thinking outside the box in terms of future careers” – Angie Baker, physics teacher. Since launching the original pack in September 2015, we have done spin off packs for Digital, Electronics, Physics as well as for individual companies such as Babcock International and Network Rail. These packs are free to download from the WISE site because we want them to be used far and wide. We offer expert training to take people through the theory behind the campaign and explain how to make the most of these resources to add value to science, technology and engineering outreach and engagement programmes.

The campaign opens girls’ eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. We are always on the look-out for different role models. If you want to help, why not nominate yourself or a colleague for a WISE Award? The aim of the Awards is to identify new role models and champions to work with us to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. As well of course as being a great way to boost your own career profile and extend your network. Please help us to spread the word before the 8 July closing date for nominations.


 Above all, my advice would be to be confident in your own worth and your own ability. Magic happens when we step outside our comfort zone - Helen Wollaston, WISE Campaign Tweet


 

What can we do to ensure equality in the field of engineering?



Limor: One of the things we can all do is provide opportunities and be inclusive with our goals as engineers. Being part of the hiring process, part of the checkins and reviews and working together across the field helps amplify others and keep the engineering excellent. Setting big goals, following up, providing ongoing learning and education for your teams also help get to their goals and the bigger goal of engineering, solving problems together. 


Sarah: One thing I’ve seen throughout my research career is the importance of diversity. Every culture and country emphasizes different skillsets. Some are better trained theoretically, while some are better able to build things, and others know how to write. From what I’ve seen, the best research comes from labs that have a mixture of people from different origins and backgrounds. As we move deeper into the 21st century, we must continue embracing this diversity, as well as get better at bringing women into STEM. Missing out on the contributions of 50% of our population is not the way to continue leading the world in scientific contributions.

Michal: Acknowledge that we have a problem and be part of the solution. Each one of us can make a difference, this is not someone else’s problem. You can start a program to encourage more women and girls to start a CS career, or increase the number of women in your organization. A real change has to also happen from the ground up. I was really inspired by the Mind the Gap ambassadors, making a change in their schools -- this is where it starts.

Helen: This is really important. Encouraging more women to choose engineering is not much good if they are going to be faced with stereotyped assumptions and a glass ceiling in the world of work. Enlightened employers review their policies, practices and behaviours to ensure women can be themselves at work, rather than expecting them to fit in with the prevailing culture. With the help of our industry partners and the Royal Academy of Engineering, we put together Ten Steps which make a difference to the retention and progression of women working in a science, technology or engineering environment. There is no single magic bullet which to deliver equality. Like any other transformation project, change requires sustained and systematic effort across the organisation, led from the top. 50 chairmen, CEOs and MDs have made a public commitment to implement the Ten steps in their business and to champion change in the wider industry. WISE brings them together to share good practice and learning. Contact us to find out how your company can get involved. 


Which emerging or future technologies are you excited about?




Limor: Sensors, home automation, low-cost IoT, we're currently working on an "Internet of Things" service for makers called adafruit.io, this will allow hobbyists and professionals to quickly build many of the devices and services they want and help young people prototype internet connected projects. 


Sarah: I am very excited about the technologies that aim to promote cooperation between humans and computers. Instead of choosing between a human or a robot for a task, many companies are looking at co-robotics where robots support human partners. This extends beyond just physical robots to AI. For instance, instead of diagnosing disease, AI is being used to give doctors more information for a better diagnosis. These systems augment human information processing capabilities to support better/faster decisions. In fact, I think this is such an important idea that these systems, called decision support systems, are a major focus of my lab. For example, we are developing an interventional technology to empower individuals on the autism spectrum using real-time emotional cue visualization.

Michal: This is already starting, we are all witnessing the deep learning revolution. We are getting better and better at predicting what people want. This means that machines can take on more day to day tasks that humans perform and do them better, faster. It can be small things like deciding which game you are going to enjoy before you go on a plane trip, and it can be (along with natural language processing advancements) bots finding and booking your next vacation. Google home and Amazon Echo are both examples of that. I think we are only starting to see the impact this can have on our day to day lives.

What areas of engineering do you think will have the biggest breakthroughs in the next 5 years?




Limor: Hopefully power, which is a tough problem to solve - we want more hours for all the portable devices, but there are challenges to making a better battery. 


Sarah: Ever since the 60s, AI was set to drastically change our lives 20 years from now. Every year, it was still 20 years. Then a few years ago, this number suddenly went from 20 to 0. People talk to virtual assistants, packages are routed using complex AI, and we get our food and movie suggestions from AI. Moving forward, even our trucking and cab drivers may be robotic. As more and more researchers are pouring in this area, subspecialties will start to emerge. One of these subspecialties is Big Data which looks at the unique problem presented by the massive amounts of data collected by websites, phones, and sensor technologies. A relatively recent subspecialty which I am very excited about is Small Data, which looks at figuring ways to meaningfully use data where some section is lacking. This occurs often with medical data where it is easy to collect vast amounts of data from healthy individuals, but difficult to collect enough data on sick people for traditional machine learning algorithms. This lack of data can be addressed by using pre-existing knowledge to build analytical models. Machine learning within these constrained models requires significantly less data. My lab solves Small Data problems with primary applications in healthcare especially related to the congenital or chronic diseases. For instance, in Georgia Tech, our team developed a non-invasive airway resistance estimation system to be used for infants. Current airway obstruction detection systems are invasive and can only properly be used on older children and adults, so doctors often rely on direct observation. By using a physics model, we were able to build an airway resistance measurement system out of parts typically used for gaming!

The best research comes from labs that have a mixture of people from different origins and backgrounds - Sarah Ostadabbas, Northeastern University Tweet  The best research comes from labs that have a mixture of people from different origins and backgrounds httpcttecms90b NWED2016
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in engineering?




Limor: Figure out what your goals are, what would you do everyday if you were not "working" - it's not work if you'd rather be doing something else and that's what will help the most with spending hours and hours of each of your days on tough problems to solve :)

Sarah: For people thinking of entering a research career in engineering—great choice! It is intellectually rewarding and forms the backbone of society’s efforts to improve the human condition through greater knowledge, better communications tools, and improved healthcare. The first thing you’ll need is a very solid math and science background. The second is vision: read widely and consider how you think you can best contribute. Third, you need passion. Science is hard work: a small part is theorizing, the rest is working to confirm and build the theory. Passion will get you through the hard parts. Finally, persevere. Nobody is born with a math gene. It comes down to hard work and practice. 


Michal: Make sure you are learning something new every month. If you start seeing that you learn less and less new things - it's time to change roles.

Helen: Do your research. Explore the huge and ever-growing variety of options available to you. There is a wealth of information online about engineering careers, including literally millions of videos on Youtube of role models talking about what they do. As a woman working in engineering in the UK you will be much-sought after by companies who want the benefits of a more diverse workforce. You can afford to pick and choose. Ask people about their experiences in different organisations, join professional organisations and attend events to extend your own network. Look at websites such as WISE and the Women’s Engineering Society to see which companies are partnering with us to improve gender balance. Above all, my advice would be to be confident in your own worth and your own ability. Magic happens when we step outside our comfort zone.

View Part 2 here!



Check out our 
Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As. If you'd like to contribute to the blog, please get in contact with Sophie via our form here.

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