Engineering grads solve problems for future generations
“Graduate students engage in research, scholarship and teaching for their own sake, and for the difference they can make in the world.” – Habib Mohamadian, Southern University
“Engineers should never consider their educations complete.” – John O. Attia, Prairie View A&M
By Claire Swedberg
Engineering graduate schools are pushing to boost diversity, and they’re making headway as more and more women and minorities earn undergraduate degrees in fields that have been traditionally dominated by white males. Yet there is still considerable work to be done.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the percentage of minorities in science and engineering doctoral programs has been growing but was still hovering at around 10 percent in 2010. Of the 34,000 females in engineering graduate schools in the U.S., 11,000 were white and about 2,800 were Asian or Pacific Islander, 1,300 African American and 1,500 Latina. Of the 115,000 male engineering graduate students, 42,000 were white, 7,700 Asian or Pacific Islander, 2,880 African American and 4,179 Latino.
The National GEM Consortium (gemfellowship.org) is working to drive those numbers up. The nonprofit is a network of universities and employers dedicated to attracting and supporting the participation of underrepresented groups in post-graduate science and engineering education and the technical workforce. Since its founding in 1976, the consortium helped more than 3,000 diverse researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, inventors and business leaders get advanced degrees. More than 200 of them have earned doctorates in the physical sciences, life sciences and engineering.
Diversity is on the rise in Prairie View A&M’s EE grad programs
Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, TX) offers electrical engineering MS and PhD degrees with four areas of emphasis: power engineering, communication, microelectronics and computer systems, says John O. Attia, PhD, PE, professor and department head of electrical and computer engineering.
The PhD program, which began in 2003, has graduated seventeen students so far, most of whom have gone into academia or research work at government labs. Four of the PhD recipients were African Americans and three were Africans who are now permanent residents. Last year the program graduated its first woman.
Four of the eighteen students now in the program are female. “In terms of our graduate program, the diversity is increasing,” says Attia. “The school has made an effort to attract more diverse applicants.”
Prairie View A&M grad students had high GPAs as undergrads and a background in EE. Some had taken academic leveling courses, and many had done undergraduate internships.
Attia advises applicants to identify someone in a school’s department who is doing work that interests them. “Not all programs are equally funded,” he adds, “so students also need to consider which faculty members have funded projects.”
Engineers should never consider their educations finished, says Attia. “Engineering programs now emphasize lifelong learning. Research continues throughout a person’s career.”
Women are well represented in Purdue’s engineering program
At Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN), Jennifer L. Groh, associate director of the women in engineering program, suggests that students consider the big picture when planning their graduate school work. “Can they afford the advanced degree and if not, are there funding opportunities? Are they interested in research-based work?” she asks. “Talk to alums who’ve established careers before making your decision.”
She agrees that students should look for faculty members doing research that interests them. “Faculty are often inundated with requests, so show that you’ve read their papers, and point out to them that you’re doing research that might be of interest to them,” she suggests. She reminds candidates, though, that a faculty connection doesn’t mean they can bypass a program’s application protocols.
“Our students are very active in research,” Groh says. “We’re looking for students who’ve demonstrated success, and have research experience and letters of recommendation that indicate work in the lab. Students worry an awful lot about grades, and grades are important, but research experience can also make a candidate likely to be selected.”
Currently, the school has 21 percent women in its graduate engineering program, and 22 percent in engineering overall. Female students get to meet their peers through a graduate mentoring program. Additionally, the Purdue Graduate Women’s Program arranges smaller gatherings for women in each engineering department.
Luis Ortega: PhD in financial engineering at Stevens
Luis Ortega recently received a PhD in financial engineering, his sixth degree from Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ).
Ortega grew up in Ecuador and came to the U.S. to attend Stevens. He earned his first degree in 1985, a BSEE with a specialization in telecommunications and digital systems.
He started at New York Telephone (New York, NY, now Verizon) as an engineer in the New York City area, and decided to continue his schooling. “New York Telephone was very supportive and it was just common sense to take advantage of the opportunity to expand my education,” he says. By 1989 he had completed a masters in computer science, and in 1991 he finished a second masters in management planning.
Ortega went on to become a project manager at Verizon Wireless.
In 2008 he decided to switch careers and go back to school full time to pursue a PhD in financial engineering. “It was a very challenging decision,” he says.
In 2009 he earned both an MS in financial engineering and an MBA in technology management.
Ortega’s work experience provided a valuable foundation for his PhD. “I acquired mathematical knowledge as an undergrad,” he explains, “but as an engineer, I became disciplined, goal- oriented and a good planner.”
His PhD thesis is titled, “A neuro-wavelet model for the short-term forecasting of high frequency financial time series of stock returns.” His research focused on the application of special mathematical tools to the simulation and forecasting of financial markets.
Engineering is a very special discipline to Ortega. “It is not just conforming to a set of predefined principles that are to be applied to build something,” he explains. “Engineering also requires ingenuity and a great deal of creativity, valuable skills for a successful career in any field.”
In June he started as an associate in the risk model group at Goldman Sachs (New York, NY).
Sarah Hernandez: PhD in civil engineering at UCI
Sarah Hernandez earned her 2007 BSCE with a specialization in transportation engineering at the University of Florida (UF, Gainesville). The Florida Bright Futures scholarship program (www.floridastudentfinancialaid.org/SSFAD/bf/) helped fund her education.
After graduation she went to the University of California-Irvine (UCI) for her 2009 MSCE, also specializing in transportation engineering. She’s now on track to complete her PhD in civil engineering at UCI by June 2014.
As an undergrad, Hernandez had two summer internships in transportation engineering. She worked in the project development department at Tampa engineering firm PBS&J, then with a professional engineer at a small engineering firm, ICON Consulting.
“The internships gave me a good perspective on the type of work professional engineers do,” she says. “It also made me realize that I needed the advanced knowledge that I could get in graduate school.”
Hernandez’s research experience as an undergrad made her decision easier. “I worked with a professor and PhD student at UF and really got to see what getting a PhD entails,” she explains. “I was exposed to the coursework, dissertation writing, applying for funding, the lifestyle and workload of faculty, and the type of research that’s possible.”
The professor was a strong female role model who encouraged Hernandez to go to grad school. “She sent me to a national conference in Washington, DC run by the Transportation Research Board,” Hernandez remembers. “Seeing professionals in academia, industry and government was incredibly influential in my decision to continue on an academic path.”
Hernandez chose UCI because of the school’s strength in transportation engineering and the high level of funded research in its Institute of Transportation Studies. A first-year fellowship with a small stipend for moving expenses also helped. UCI’s location in Southern California was appealing, but the cost of living there concerned her. “Luckily, when doing my research about different graduate programs and universities in the U.S., I found out that UCI provided subsidized and guaranteed housing to PhD students,” she says.
Initially, Hernandez was overwhelmed by the large number of international graduate students. “After being at UCI for five years, I have come to really enjoy and participate in the many cultural experiences offered by my fellow graduate students,” she says.
“Graduate school offers more freedom in what you choose to study and how you spend your time,” she notes. “What helped me get through the first year was finding senior graduate students to talk with about course content.”
Hernandez’s work focuses on truck traffic. Even though trucks represent only a small percentage of total traffic, they account for much of the environmental and infrastructural damage to cities and roads, she says. Accurate and timely truck data is used by air quality monitoring agencies and state and federal departments of transportation for highway planning, design and policy analysis, as well as for environmental policy analysis. Currently, most traffic data is collected and evaluated manually. Her goal is to provide advanced, automated methods for local and state agencies to evaluate data.
At UCI, Hernandez enjoyed her work as a teaching assistant for an intro class in transportation engineering, and she hopes to find a tenure track faculty position at a teaching-oriented university. As a Pedagogical Fellow at the Teaching, Learning and Technology Center at UCI, she improved her teaching and course development skills, “which has helped a lot with my professional development.”
She urges students considering grad school to visit campuses and meet with the students “to assess your ability to get along with them on a personal level. Having a supportive and friendly student environment has been key to my satisfaction here,” she says.
In 2013, the UCI grad school hosted two professional development panel luncheons for all grad students with panelists from local engineering firms, and faculty from local universities. “These events are important to me because they bring together all the minority students in active leadership roles and provide an organized social support group for minority students,” she says.
Bioastronautics research at the University of Colorado
Some graduate programs offer unique research opportunities. For example, at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science in Boulder, students and faculty are working on aerospace systems for life support in space. Under the leadership of associate professor David Klaus, the bioastronautics research group is focused on the biological, behavioral and medical factors governing humans and living organisms in space, and examines life support systems that could be used in this effort.
Christine Fanchiang: PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado
Christine Fanchiang had an early interest in aerospace engineering. She got her BS in aerospace engineering at MIT in 2007. She is currently working on her PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science in Boulder. She’s part of the bioastronautics research group.
Fanchiang started her undergrad program as a brain and cognitive sciences major and completed two undergraduate research projects with MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. She learned about the structure of the hippocampus and used bacteria to identify different proteins expressed by the brain.
She also got hands-on experience helping friends organize and participate in a vehicle design summit hosted by MIT. Five international and several U.S. universities participated in designing and building cars that use five alternative energy sources: biofuels, fuel cells, human power and solar power, plus hybrid power sources.
“I've had so many unbelievable opportunities working on aerospace projects throughout my undergraduate career. That made me want to learn more and got me excited about this field,” she says.
Today Fanchiang is enhancing her knowledge with a mix of cognitive psychology and aerospace studies as she applies her understanding of human psychology and cognition to spacecraft design. She is working to define a metric to assess how well a spacecraft is designed for human use and operation. If the spacecraft is poorly designed and hard to fly, the crew might make more mistakes and ultimately cause an accident, she says.
“Luckily, within the aerospace field, we have many options for life after a PhD,” she says. “One possibility is to jump back into the industry and work at one of the commercial space companies hoping to launch humans into space. Another is working with NASA to develop long-duration space mission design protocols. I’m also considering the possibility of staying within academia to continue my research in human-machine interfaces.”
Fanchiang urges undergrads to keep their minds open to all fields of science, engineering and even the arts. “A major part of engineering is creativity, and it often helps to see how people in other fields solve problems,” she says. “Now that the world is becoming much more integrated and multidisciplinary, it is especially important and incredibly useful to have a larger perspective.”
Bianca Howard: PhD in mechanical engineering at Columbia
Bianca Howard is on track to earn her PhD in mechanical engineering in 2014 at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (Columbia Engineering, New York, NY).
She earned her BSME at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2009. She chose mechanical engineering because it seemed broader than other engineering disciplines. “If I wanted to switch later, it wouldn’t be as big a process,” she says.
Howard found that she liked the field and became fascinated with energy systems during a thermal systems course she took in her junior year. “I wanted to learn more about them so I started to look at graduate programs,” she says.
Columbia Engineering offered a masters in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on energy systems and it was located in New York City. “I’m from Nebraska and I have an adventurous spirit, so I was itching to move to the big city,” she says with a smile.
Once there, Howard decided to get her PhD. Her research focuses on methods for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with providing energy to urban areas. Her team developed a building energy consumption map for New York City that provides the ability to estimate the end-use energy consumption of each tax lot in New York City.
When she finishes her PhD, Howard will apply for academic professorships or postdoctoral positions so she can continue researching topics related to sustainable energy. She would also consider working for an energy consulting firm with a research-oriented approach.
“Try as many options as possible before graduation,” Howard urges undergrads. “Do internships, study abroad and do research for a faculty member. You don’t have to wait until your junior year. Opportunities are available as early as the summer after your first year, and that experience will let you know what kind of work you’re interested in.”
When pursuing a masters, choose your school and program based on your desire to conduct research or obtain a practical tool-based education, she adds. “Look into the school’s professional development activities. Your studies will be done sooner than you think and you’ll be in the job market.”
A PhD is a long road and it will be difficult if you don’t enjoy day-to-day research, she cautions. “Consider the location and social environment as well. You’ll be at this institution for five active years.”
Initiatives yield increased diversity at Columbia Engineering
Undergraduate students should consider a number of factors as they decide whether or not to pursue a graduate degree, says Tiffany Simon, associate dean of graduate admissions at Columbia Engineering. If students want more expertise in a specific area to better prepare for the job market, they should seriously consider pursuing a masters, and possibly a PhD. At Columbia Engineering, the masters can be completed in two or three semesters of fulltime study.
When selecting the right program, Simon urges undergrads to consider location, reputation of the graduate program, cost, funding opportunities, faculty, course availability and the job placement record of recent graduates. “Many engineering graduate schools host visitation programs and provide travel grants for prospective or admitted graduate students to visit the campus,” she explains. “When you’re there, talk with graduate program faculty, currently enrolled grad students and alumni to get multiple perspectives on the program.”
Simon has seen growing diversity among Columbia Engineering grad students, in part, she believes, because of its many diversity recruitment and retention initiatives. For example, Columbia Engineering hosts Engineering Achievers in Graduate Education (EngAGE), an annual recruitment program that selects college juniors from a competitive application pool and invites them to visit the campus and meet with faculty, current grad students and administrators. During the all-expense-paid weekend program, participants learn about academic and research opportunities, graduate student life, and career paths in STEM fields, as well as how to prepare competitive graduate school applications and how to fund graduate school.
Affinity groups like Diversity in Graduate Engineering and the Graduate Group of the Society of Women Engineers support currently enrolled graduate students through programming sponsored in conjunction with the office of graduate student affairs.
Caryn Homsher: research in metallurgy at Colorado School of Mines
Caryn Nicole Homsher, PhD student at Colorado School of Mines (Golden, CO), intends to become a professor of mechanical metallurgy some day. But she’s still trying to decide which will be more rewarding: teaching fundamentals of engineering materials to undergraduates or being a research-academic advisor to graduate students. “I’m open to both options,” she says.
Ahead of any professorship, however, she intends to spend time in industry so that she can bring real-world problems to her classroom and show her students direct applications of the subject matter.
Homsher received her 2010 BSME from Kettering University (Flint, MI), where she focused on manufacturing and failure analysis. When her failure analysis professor, Charles V. White, said that her questions regarding failure analysis would be best answered if she had a fundamental understanding of materials and metallurgy, she began exploring that option. White had worked with professors at Colorado School of Mines and helped Homsher set up interviews with the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center (ASPPRC) there.
“My interest in how the world works, specifically related to creating products the world uses, led to my studies in metallurgy,” she says.
Homsher is now studying steel production for plate steels used mainly in the oil and gas industry. She’s researching the change in critical temperature in relation to the change in alloying additions (vanadium, titanium and niobium) and processing conditions like speed, force and time. This critical temperature, known as the non-recrystallization temperature, is essential to creating steel with appropriate strength and toughness.
Students and engineers should never stop asking questions, says Homsher. “At the end of my undergraduate career, I knew I wanted to help people and inspire them to learn and grow in their understanding of the world through engineering, but I didn’t know how. The idea of finding a thesis topic was daunting. But I found a mentor and asked a lot of questions. He helped me figure out which path to take, which questions to keep considering, which to throw out, and ultimately what to focus on.”
Based on her personal experience, she urges others to “find a mentor who will challenge you, listen to you, and help you make the best decisions.”
Homsher often forgets that she is working mostly with men. “I do not like to use diversity as a crutch or a stepping stone,” she notes. “My biggest challenge has been standing tall among my peers, who all seemed to have an air of confidence.” As an undergrad and new grad student she was intimidated by that confidence and would occasionally back down and let the more experienced students take charge.
“It took many years for me to realize that my ideas were valid and plausible,” she says. “When I stay true to myself, speak out when appropriate, and ask questions when I am confused, I find I exceed every expectation.”
Research experience is valued at Colorado School of Mines
For candidates applying to grad school, experience can come in the form of research work done at the student’s undergraduate school, says Chester Van Tyne, professor in an endowed chair at Colorado School of Mines. Most importantly, students need to decide if they have an interest in academia or in a research position.
Those who plan wisely, he reports, can get funding through research work at the school, and can receive stipends that pay their education costs. That can help to make graduate students self-supporting as they educate themselves for a career in a commercial sector, government lab or in academia.
Sherry-Ann Tim Kee: PhD in ChE at NJIT
Sherry-Ann Tim Kee is a PhD student at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, NJ). She just completed the first year of her chemical engineering program.
Tim Kee came to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago for her BSChE, which she earned at Lafayette College (Easton, PA) in 2012. As an undergrad, she did research with Javad Tavakoli, an NJIT PhD chemical engineering alum, who suggested she consider NJIT for her PhD.
She researched various PhD programs online and was intrigued by the school’s research in sustainable energy. “There were so many different angles that it was being tackled from, ranging from catalysis to carbon capture and conversion,” she says. This program would give her an opportunity to really explore her interests.
After completing the first year of her chemical engineering program, Tim Kee is looking forward to continuing her research. She and her team are seeking novel, relatively inexpensive ways to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into useful products. They hope to create a carbon neutral cycle that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“My overall goal is to help make sustainable energy a reality for everyone regardless of socio-economic status or geographical location,” she says.
Tim Kee believes research and networking are essential elements to pursuing a graduate degree. “As a double minority, black and female, in my PhD program, I think I put added pressure on myself,” she says. “It definitely motivates me to be more diligent and prove that I deserve to be here as much as my male counterparts.”
Maurice Washington: PhD in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State
Maurice Washington is a PhD student at Iowa State University (Ames, IA). His focus is on agricultural and bio-systems engineering.
Washington earned his BS in agricultural engineering at North Carolina A & T (Greensboro, NC) in 2009. He interned at the USDA and at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, where his work with emerging contaminants inspired his educational focus.
He went on to Pennsylvania State University in State College, PA for his 2012 MS in agricultural and biological engineering. His thesis related to research on the degradation of antibiotics in compost from dairy waste. His work focused on an antibiotic known as monensin, which is used for growth stimulation in dairy cattle, and centered on methods to degrade monensin in manure before it’s applied to farmland.
As a PhD student, Washington’s work now focuses on monitoring emerging contaminants. He’s studying the fate and transport of two antibiotics used in swine production that have been found in the South Fork Watershed north of Ames, IA, which feeds into the Iowa River. He’s working with a passive sampling device designed to sample water soluble chemicals in aquatic environments. “It’s like a sandwich with an interior that absorbs contaminants,” he says.
After his PhD, Washington hopes to work for a government agency or a national laboratory that will send him overseas to help with agricultural engineering and policy. Ultimately, he wants to teach at a university and become a college president or dean so that he can influence more minority students to become engineers.
He’s already done some recruiting at his former high school where he tries to entice students by telling them, “Without agricultural engineering the quality of our water and food would be distinctly worse. The field has a very broad scope, from renewable energy to waste management and bioprocessing.”
Washington urges college students to stay focused on their grades, and recommends that they seek out internships and research opportunities before applying to graduate programs. Perhaps even more critical, he adds, is networking.
“Even if a student’s grades aren’t high enough for an internship, they can help professors with research, make important connections and get some experience as well. You have to work to get where you want to go. No one else can motivate you; it has to come from you.”
Michelle Han: MS in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon
Michelle Han earned her BS in civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh, PA) in 2012. She continued there for her MS in civil and environmental engineering.
Two internships helped narrow her focus. As an undergrad, she interned in architecture, but found that the field didn’t suit her. But an internship with the New York State Department of Transportation the summer after her senior year sparked her interest in transportation engineering.
In grad school, Han worked as a consultant on construction projects, and her emphasis turned to sustainability. She has studied LEED design requirements and integrated project delivery. Her intention is to use her education to provide sustainability consulting to the construction industry.
Han speaks Korean, some French and Mandarin, and envisions taking her skills to employers in the U.S. or overseas. “In grad school we learn the more recent practices,” she says, “including building information modeling software programs that model design of a construction project through digital representation.”
She urges students considering grad school to examine the courses being offered and to make sure the department fits their personality and interests. “Don’t be afraid to pursue what you’re interested in,” she adds, “whether your gender or ethnic background is represented there or not.”
Alabama A&M offers a multidisciplinary program
Alabama A&M University (AAMU, Normal, AL) offers a materiel engineering program that combines electrical, mechanical and civil engineering with a systems engineering flavor. This unique program is led by F. Michael Ayokanmbi, program coordinator.
According to Ayokanmbi, colleges need to fill professorship positions, and grads with PhDs and an interest in academia are highly sought. “If you look at academia today we have more foreign-born citizens getting into that field,” in part due to a shortage of such candidates in the U.S.
There is a growing demand for chemical and biomedical engineers, he says, and for systems engineers like those who come out of the AAMU program. “This program is a unique opportunity for specializing in systems,” he says. Graduates have gone on to work at NASA, at military installations or corporations like Intel.
“In our program there are more males than females, but in the undergraduate environment that seems to be changing,” notes Ayokanmbi and adds that the school is continuing to seek more diversity in its programs.
Southern University prepares grad students for leadership roles
Many students of engineering in masters and doctoral programs focus on sustainability, increasing efficiency and solving problems for future generations.
“Graduate students engage in research, scholarship and teaching for their own sake, and for the difference they can sometimes make in the world,” says Habib Mohamadian, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Southern University and A&M College (Baton Rouge, LA). “A graduate degree in engineering offers employees an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the workforce.”
Southern University offers a master of engineering program in the College of Engineering to prepare graduates for leadership positions in the engineering profession. The focus is on applied research with strong ties to industry, federal agencies and economic development within the state, Mohamadian says. The program is designed to be flexible so students can pursue a masters and maintain a work-life balance.
“Being an historically black college and university, the diversity of Southern University’s faculty, staff and students has influenced its strength, productivity and intellectual personality,” says Mohamadian. “It has contributed to the richness of the environment for teaching and research. The college maintains an atmosphere that enhances the student’s ability to achieve the optimum learning experience.”
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