June 20, 2019 | Updated: July 10, 2019
June 23 is International Women in Engineering Day, and we’re celebrating by chatting with Ella Atkins, IEEE Senior member and Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, and Paige Kassalen, IEEE Graduate Student Member and Future of Mobility Market Analyst at Covestro.
While women have made massive contributions to the engineering community for decades now, International Women in Engineering Day is an opportunity to recognize their leadership in STEM-related fields.
We asked Atkins and Kassalenabout their decision to become engineers, and what the future holds for women in STEM.
How did you get involved in STEM and when did you know you wanted to become an engineer?
I remember being a very young child when I watched the first moon walk on my family’s black and white TV – I was excited, and even though I grew up in an area where academics weren’t prioritized, my family used this as one of many opportunities to encourage me to develop my mind and to pursue my dreams.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend MIT, where I had an opportunity to study aeronautics and astronautics as both an undergraduate and graduate student. By this point, I was, as you can imagine, fully committed to being an active, accomplished member of the STEM community.
Kassalen: I’ve always loved to solve problems on my own – as a child, I remember enjoying the challenge of assembling things without using the directions. It made me feel so powerful, capable and independent.
When I was in high school, I had a chance to further my interest in STEM by taking classes in woodshop, applied engineering and computer aided design.
By the time college rolled around, I was fully committed to pursuing a career in STEM. I studied electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, which was a phenomenal experience for me both in and out of the classroom, as I had three STEM-related internships during my time at school.
How did you learn to take risks and pursue your dreams in STEM?
Though I grew up in rural America, my family encouraged me to develop my mind, to pursue my dreams. I didn’t bother to worry about how gender would impact my career because I was always told I could achieve whatever I wanted academically if I worked hard, and I learned pretty quickly. I therefore jumped right into engineering with no fear because I wanted to build cool toys that fly. I still build and fly cool toys today.
When I was working with Solar Impulse 2, the world’s first airplane to fly around the world only using the powers of the sun, the limits on what I thought I could accomplish became less and less. Then, when the plane landed in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and completed a journey that no one thought was possible, all of the boundaries of what I thought I could accomplish were shattered. I was standing on an airport runway in a country I didn’t think I’d have the chance to visit and ran to stabilize the wing of a world record setting solar powered airplane. That moment inspired me to take the message of innovation and clean energy further and to keep challenging myself to live by that pioneering spirit.
I don’t think enough women have these amazing opportunities to shatter the boundaries they set, so that is why it is important for women in STEM to share their stories and be real about their challenges.
What do you think the future holds for women in STEM?
Atkins: I’m excited for what the future holds for women in STEM, as we’ve historically been quite underrepresented in most related fields.
Hearing from other women might help encourage young women and girls to reach for goals they might have been told were beyond their grasp; events such as these provide a clear message that women are highly capable of “getting the job done,” so to speak.
I look forward to a day where we, as a society, will not pre-judge someone based on their gender; I look forward to a time where we, in the STEM community, collaborate openly, freely and creatively, without stifling input based on preconceived notions of value.
Women have been making great strides in STEM for decades now, and I’m excited to see this trend continue.
Kassalen: When I was in high school, less than 10 years ago, there weren’t STEM-related clubs and initiatives in place; there wasn’t a community for women interested in pursuing careers in STEM-related fields, so there was a lack of both opportunity and support.
I’m excited to have seen that change over the past decade, as a lack of either of the aforementioned can be crippling to young women and girls considering a career in STEM.
The future of women in STEM is bright, to say the least.