Women in Engineering at Tech
The disproportionate number of male to female students at Georgia Tech may long have drawn attention to itself – despite the fact that the Institute has established itself as the No. 1 producer of female engineers in the United States. In reality, though, those female engineers have been drawing significant attention of their own.
If the advances of undergraduate Jamie Clark, recent alumna Melissa McCoy, and faculty member Karen Feigh offer just a glimpse into what Georgia Tech’s women in engineering are capable of accomplishing – in what’s been a traditionally male-dominated field – the female face of engineering, at Tech and beyond, is set to take on a whole new look.
It’s engineering’s “influence in every part of society” that was the draw for Jamie Clark.
“I love that engineers have a hand in almost everything we use in society – from the buildings in which we work and live, to the cars we drive, to the clothes we wear, and the food that we eat,” said the civil engineering major.
Of course, the fact that she was raised in an engineering household may have had a little something to do with her chosen path.
“My parents are Georgia Tech alumni, and they made it a point to make sure I was being educated in a way that allowed me to think both critically and creatively,” Clark said. “The experiences they provided for me allowed me to love engineering even before I truly knew what engineering was.”
Clark, who has always been interested in architecture, history, and world cultures, says that through civil engineering, she can learn the technical aspects involved in creating the architecture that’s always fascinated her. Then there’s always that civil engineering bonus – the one that offers opportunities for travel and humanitarian work.
“I would love to travel to developing countries and help build community housing in a sustainable and efficient manner,” said Clark. “I am particularly interested in countries with limited natural resources.”
Clark wants to explore how these countries can create safer living conditions using only their limited resources – without importing expensive materials their governments cannot afford.
Since enrolling at Tech, Clark has had the opportunity to travel for research purposes. Her involvement in the Structures Group of the Caribbean Hazards Assessment Mitigation and Preparedness (CHAMP) Project took her to Belize and Puerto Rico, where she and her colleagues examined limiting the effects of natural disasters in Caribbean countries.
At home, she’s been fortunate to get two summer internships under her belt already – both with Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., one of the country's premier design consulting firms.
“Through my internships, I learned a good deal about the applications of traffic engineering and signal design,” she said.
Currently, Clark is an undergraduate research assistant for the Limestone Cement Project. This project explores the effects of increasing limestone in standard cements. Adding more limestone would create a more environmentally friendly product and lower the manufacturing cost of cement; however, the addition of limestone could also have negative effects on the cement’s performance.
“In the lab, we want to find the amount of limestone that can be added before the performance of the cement is compromised – with the goal of creating a material that is safe, efficient, more environmentally friendly, and more cost-effective,” Clark explained.
The project is being conducted in the laboratory of Kimberly Kurtis, one of the female associate professors in Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“I think many people believe that because less than 30 percent of engineering students at this school are female that women feel alienated from the rest of the male-dominated campus, but this is the exact opposite of what I have experienced,” Clark says. “Women have so much support here whether it is through the official campus programs and offices such as Women in Engineering and the Women’s Resource Center, or student organizations like the Society of Women Engineers. People want to see us succeed.
“They are eager for the classic stereotype of men sporting pocket protractors to change into a more accurate reflection of the diverse group of individuals that are today’s top engineering professionals,” she continued. “I have been privileged enough to have met many role models — women engineers in academia and industry – who are successful, innovative thinkers, but who are also relatable and friendly.”
Because her experience in her chosen field of study has been so positive and her time at Tech has been so promising, Clark is eager to encourage others to follow in her footsteps. In fact, as a member of Tech’s Women in Engineering (WIE) Program, she participates in an initiative in which female engineers from Tech visit schools in the Atlanta area to teach children and young adults about engineering and to inspire them to learn more about different engineering fields.
So what does Clark have to say to those girls and young women who may be hesitant about pursuing engineering because of its reputation as being male-dominated?
“To engineer a better society, we need people of different genders, races, and backgrounds solving our problems; therefore, to all those young women who may feel hesitant about entering this world in which we are the minority, I would say that the field of engineering will only be a male-dominated one as long as we allow it to be so. Start crossing those boundaries and maybe you can inspire others like you to do the same.”
In her almost four years at Tech, Jamie Clark has been involved in organizations such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, and the Georgia Power Mentorship Program, in addition to being a WIE ambassador. She plans to pursue her Ph.D. in civil engineering, as well.
Jamie Clark Photos
When Tech alumna Melissa McCoy joined her high school science team, she not only quickly got used to being outnumbered by the boys, but she also gained confidence in her ability to perform as well as her male counterparts.
“In all honesty, I came to be more intimidated by other women than men,” McCoy said.
Although engineering is virtually in her DNA, given that she was born to two engineers, McCoy did have to make a conscious effort to overcome intimidation as she tried to make her mark academically. The environment at Tech was a big help in that regard.
“Tech’s Women in Engineering program was phenomenal, and I definitely benefited from its Mentor & Mentee Program,” said McCoy.
But that was far from the only channel McCoy used to boost her self-development and leadership skills. In fact, having joined Tech as a President’s Scholar, she actually created the President’s Scholar Mentoring Program, which is now in its fifth year. She also served as a leader in AIESEC, the global youth network for university students interested in engaging real-world issues through international internships. And she even founded her own social entrepreneurship conference and student organization, Enterprise to Empower (En2Em), which engages hundreds of students in speaking events, internships, and volunteer opportunities, and challenges them to start their own businesses that solve social problems.
Dori Pap, assistant director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship, got to know McCoy through En2Em. “As En2Em’s faculty advisor, I had the opportunity to witness up close Melissa’s genuine ability to inspire and rally people in support of an important cause and secure the necessary resources to deliver results,” Pap said.
Of course, delivering results is naturally the essence of the engineering-minded McCoy. In 2011, prior to graduating summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, McCoy, along with three other Tech students and alumni, founded Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics (TOHL), which developed an efficient, economically viable solution for getting water to remote places, particularly during disaster relief.
She credits the TOHL venture as a valuable hands-on, team-based experience, which, she says, is a key aspect of development for any woman serious about succeeding in a career in engineering.
“Smart women often thrive in the classroom where grades are based on tests, but find it harder to succeed when they need to speak up and show this intelligence when working with a team of men,” said McCoy. “Getting an understanding of engineering as it exists in the real-world and getting used to working side-by-side with men is one of the best things you can do.”
And with a professional track record like hers, McCoy should know.
Apart from co-founder and VP – Engineering at TOHL, the titles on the 23-year-old’s resume include: co-founder at Authentise, a company providing a patented software platform that lets users access proprietary 3D printing designs; business analyst and associate consultant at Partners in Performance, an operations and strategy consulting firm focused on emerging and developing markets; reservoir engineer at BP; and process engineer at Shell Oil.
Now, McCoy is looking forward to her next adventure: In October, she relocates to the United Kingdom where she will be taking up graduate studies as a Rhodes Scholar. She will be pursuing a Master of Science in Computer Science degree, followed by an MBA in social entrepreneurship at Oxford University, where she plans to focus on how information and communication technologies can promote development and enhance public service delivery – particularly for water – in resource-limited countries.
“I’ve felt for so long that I’ve been torn between classes and work, and now I can combine them,” she said. “I’m blessed that I’m coming into this program with an enhanced perspective on the world and what I can do to change it.”
The Rhodes Scholarship is widely recognized as the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship award in the world. Melissa McCoy’s receipt of this scholarship marks the second consecutive year the Rhodes Trust has awarded one of its prestigious scholarships to a student at Georgia Tech.
Soon after Karen Feigh stepped onto the Georgia Tech campus as a freshman, she got the feeling she had “found my people.”
“When I came to Tech, I fell in with a group of women students in aerospace engineering who were like me, and it was fabulous,” said Feigh, now an assistant professor in Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. “Because, up until then, we’d been the only women in our physics and calculus classes in high school, and that can feel sort of odd. At Tech, we didn’t feel that way anymore.”
That sentiment holds today, but for different reasons. “I get paid by an institution that basically tells me, ‘Look, you are smart enough and self-directed enough to pursue your research, so we won’t tell you what to do,’” she said. “Then again, it’s been said of academia that you are ‘free to work any 80 hours you want’ every week. And that’s probably true, too.”
Feigh doesn’t mind the work, though. She thrives on it. In addition to teaching classes like cognitive engineering, evaluation of human integrated systems, and flight dynamics, she is a staff researcher in the Georgia Tech Cognitive Engineering Center, which seeks to improve safety and productivity through enhanced integration of human and automated systems.
“The goal of my research is to make joint human-machine systems function as well as they can,” she said. “That usually involves a trade-off between three components: human effort, joint performance, and risk.”
Feigh has written quite a bit on this topic, which she began studying as a part of her Georgia Tech doctoral thesis on airline operations centers.
“I studied every aspect of an airline’s operations system and asked them why they did things. I saw what tools they used, where the information flowed, how things moved and what strategies they developed to make things work,” she said.
“After about three months, I understood how things usually worked, so for most of the next three years, I only visited when something out-of-the-ordinary was happening – like an ice storm. I needed to understand how they handled the difficult situations.”
Feigh still relies on observations she made in that ethnographic study.
“People in the workplace don’t always operate in an analytic, strategic way, so if you create a system that depends on that standard, you will have a fundamental mismatch. The amount of time people fully optimized their analyses before making a decision was probably close to 15-20 percent. It’s not that they are lazy. It’s that there are 10 other things going on.”
Broadly speaking, Feigh’s current research focuses on the analysis and design of decision support systems and computational cognitive modeling for engineering design. Both areas come into play with a project she is doing for the Office of Naval Research.
“Previously, we thought that people don’t make their best decisions in a reactive mode, so the thinking was, we’ll give you tools to optimize your analysis. But what I’m saying now is that approach doesn’t always work. We need to ask how to make tools that mitigate known pitfalls and for reactionary behavior.”
Because she is working on tools for the Navy, Feigh points out that she cannot fully divulge the parameters of her analysis. Nor will she necessarily know what the final outcome will be.
“I will come up with a design method appropriate for a variety of applications, including the Naval one, and then, a partner firm will use it to make the actual interfaces installed on ships,” she said.
If the secrecy shrouding her current project makes others shrug, it doesn’t bother Feigh one bit. The daughter of a career Air Force officer, she respects the strictures placed on her research, knowing that, if she is meticulous in her approach, other projects will come her way. She looks forward to those future challenges, at the same time seeing some humor in the process.
“In some ways, academic research is like a pie-eating contest,” she says with a wry smile. “What do you get if you win a pie-eating contest? More pie. If I love doing research, and I produce good work, chances are, I’ll get to do more.”
A former Marshall Scholar and the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Grant, Karen Feigh serves on the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and serves as a reviewer for several prestigious organizations, including the Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making, the Air Traffic Control Quarterly, and IEEE’s Transactions on Human Machine Systems.
The Women Engineers of Georgia Tech
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