Within the tech world, it’s a known fact that women are outrageously underrepresented. Silicon Valley is notoriously full of white men, and even many of the giants of the tech corporate world reveal disappointing numbers regarding diversity in annual reports. In 2013, only 26% of computing professionals were female.
But there’s a shift occurring. As pushes for increased diversity — and more women — in STEM fields become stronger, more and more female students are enrolling in engineering programs and graduate studies.
George Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science is one such institution making an impact. Its engineering graduate programs are consistently ranked as including some of the highest percentages of women in the nation. And the school’s efforts extend beyond the student body; in 2013, half of all faculty hires were women.
Below are profiles of several graduate students and faculty members on their efforts, STEM-focused projects and thoughts on the future of women in scientific fields.
Meet the women shaping the STEM workforce of tomorrow
For women to begin making a dent in the STEM workforce gap, a few role models must first emerge. Below are four women who fit this bill.
1. Bharathi Balasubramanian, first-year grad student in engineering management
Bharathi Balasubramanian is originally from Mumbai, India and holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Prior to attending GWU for graduate school, she worked for SMG Convonix in digital marketing for two years, which led her to the realization that she was interested in more than just technology, but also management. She’s currently an SEAS 2015-2016 graduate ambassador at GWU.
When deciding upon which path to pursue for a graduate degree, Bharathi Balasubramanian found that not many universities offered the specific type of Master’s in which she was interested — engineering management and systems engineering. She ultimately decided upon GWU, which offers over five different specializations in EMSE.
Another appeal about GWU was its high percentage of female professors and faculty. “It’s inspiring,” she says, adding that it’s also helpful to have a supportive community of other female engineers.
In the course of her graduate work, her favorite project has been a simulation that asked students to respond to an emergency situation (a hypothetical Anthrax attack) and devise a rescue system.
“This included planning a medicine distribution system, crowd management, pathways to reach the area where the medicine would be distributed and segregation of infected people from healthy people,” she explains. “The whole simulation was very interesting, as it not only gave us an idea of what disaster management professionals have to deal with on a regular basis, but also ensured that we came up with creative solutions to a tough situation.”
Outside of the classroom, Balasubramanian is currently learning both Python and R-Programming.
Her words of encouragement to other female engineers and potential students include advice to voice opinions they care about. She adds that finding the right mentor can help to ease the journey.
“It doesn’t matter if you think you are right or wrong, only if you speak up will you ever know the right answer,” she says. “Don’t give up too early in the journey. Everyone has something that they are good at; just find your niche interest.”
2. Megan Leftwich, assistant professor, GWU School of Engineering & Applied Science
Megan Leftwich believes in teaching students about engineering and the sciences in a hands-on manner.
“In all of my classes, I try to incorporate as much active learning as possible, so we build a lot of things, break a lot of things, take a lot of things apart,” she says. “In any class you’re teaching, I feel like there’s something you can do to incorporate active learning, so I work hard to do that.”
Engineering is part of her DNA, she says. She never had to deal with the struggle of weighing potential career options.
“I am an engineer. I always was an engineer. It wasn’t really something I became,” she says. “There wasn’t much deliberation; it just didn’t make sense to do much else.”
Leftwich works with students both in and outside of the classroom. One of the most interesting projects she’s worked on as part of a summertime lab is studying the movement of sea lions underwater.
“We physically went to the zoo here in D.C. and filmed the sea lions and interacted with them, and then we came back to the lab, analyzed the video and tried to figure out how the sea lions interact with the water,” she says. Her team, led by a GWU graduate student, then set to work building a robotic version of a sea lion named Flipper. The group then conducted lab studies on the robot.
Leftwich says that thanks to the university’s high percentage of female engineering students, she’s lucky enough not to have to go to extreme lengths to recruit female students.
“One of the best things about GWU Engineering is that we’re graduating something like 42% women from the engineering school, which is really, really high. My classes tend to be about 45% women. It’s so close to 50-50 that you don’t really notice the difference,” she says.
Leftwich also makes an effort to attract other underrepresented groups to her classroom and labs, such as students of color, students with disabilities and members of the LGBT community. “62% of my lab qualifies in some way as an underrepresented group,” she says.
When asked what advice she’d give to women hoping to enter the world of STEM and engineering, Leftwich encourages students ask for what they want and need.
“Don’t get discouraged. Go out there and say, ‘I want to do this.’ And keep asking until you find somebody who wants to help you,” she says. “Ask and ask and ask until you get the answer you’re looking for.”
She’s hopeful for the future of women in STEM.
“I think right now we’re at the beginning of a huge push for diversifying science. It started maybe four years ago, and so I think for the next decade or so, we’ll see the results of that. We’ll see women entering STEM fields at a much higher rate,” she says.
3. Dr. Zoe Szajnfarber, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GWU
As a child, a family field trip to the Kennedy Space Centre sparked something inside Dr. Zoe Szajnfarber. She became fascinated with “everything space,” she tells the Canadian Space Agency in an interview.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a need to understand how things worked,” she said in the same Q&A session. “I drove my parents crazy taking apart toys and asking a million questions about everything, but I didn’t make the connection between ‘how things worked’ and engineering until I was applying to university.”
Ultimately, Dr. Zoe Szajnfarber made the decision to follow a piece of career advice that encouraged her to “do what she likes, and everything else will fall into place.” So, she picked aerospace. “Not because I was sure that it was my calling; or because it necessarily had the best career prospects,” she told CSA, “but because robots seemed cool and the ones that went into space were the coolest of all. I’ve never regretted that decision.”
Of her research, Dr. Szajnfarber said that it’s important to understand how particular technologies move throughout their life cycles — from ideation to implementation and finally to advanced space missions.
“My kind of research doesn’t happen in a lab,” she said. She spends a good deal of time reading, researching and discussing ideas with colleagues before beginning the next stage of data collection.
“The final phase is probably the most fun. After collecting all the data I get to analyze it and see if my theories made sense,” she said. “Of course I hope my hypotheses were correct, but in some ways I’ll learn more if I was wrong. That’s the beauty of exploratory research –- good questions beget more questions.
4. Yulia Kushner, first-year grad student in computer science
Yulia Kushner describes herself as a “global citizen.” Originally from Russia, she’s also lived in a diverse range of cities around the U.S., pursuing her education and working with a variety of organizations around the country.
Having the flexibility to pursue a Master’s degree at her own pace is key, she says. “[At GWU,] students are able to enroll in any graduate level CS class and are not required to follow one path or one emphasis,” she explains. “This is a wonderful opportunity for folks to experience a variety of subjects or tailor their studies to a specific interest.”
One of her favorite pieces of work to date includes creating a complete video game as part of a final class project. She was able to build the game from concept to reality — including coding, art, etc. — from the ground up. The game itself involves players navigating a series of levels and obstacles to transition from an “ambitious pony” into a rainbow unicorn.
In her free time, Kushner is working on learning more coding languages. “It is very interesting to create programs, solve problems and build something new,” she says.
For other female students interested in STEM, she’s got one piece of advice: “Never stop learning.”