SWE Hosts Women in Engineering Day

Research talks with women, leadership panel, and film inspire student engineers

May 07 2019 | By Joanne Hvala | Agrawal, Chilton Photo Credit: Timothy Lee Photographers | Di, Obermeyer Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman

Columbia Engineering’s undergraduate chapter of the Society of Women Engineers celebrated women in engineering on April 19 with a day of programming that featured “TED-Talks” with female faculty, as well as high-level executives from the Johnson & Johnson Women in Leadership Program.

The group, which organized a “Day of Appreciation” for female faculty in 2017, saw the event as an opportunity for female students to connect faculty and industry experts in an informal atmosphere.

Columbia Engineering sophomores Amy Huang and Iliana Cantu, and Columbia Engineering freshman Nina Taneja spearheaded the event. “We wanted to give our members a chance to hear about the research and career journey of our professors,” said Amy Huang.  “It was so incredibly inspiring to hear from our enthusiastic professors who are able to represent Columbia Engineering’s Engineering for Humanity mission through each of their respective departments and research endeavors.”

Dean Mary Boyce opened the event by sharing some statistics about women faculty in Columbia Engineering. In the last ten years, female faculty have nearly doubled from 19 to 37, while the number of women engineers who have received tenure here has more than doubled, from 10 to 23. She then introduced five faculty members—Professors Shipra Agrawal, Allie Obermeyer, Katy Barmak, Lydia Chilton, and Sharon Di—who highlighted their current research as well as giving advice and insights into their own respective career journeys.

Shipra Agrawal

Allie Obermeyer

Katyun Barmak

Lydia Chilton

Sharon Di

Professor Agrawal, assistant professor of industrial engineering and operations research, began by sharing her career path, which led to academia following four years in industry at Microsoft and Bell Labs after earning her PhD at Stanford University. She mentioned that shifting between industry and academia is typical in the field, adding that since the areas of study are also evolving and changing, there are opportunities to change career direction along the way. Her own work in operations research focuses on data and decisions. Agrawal pointed out how decisions made today, in turn, generate data for the future, creating a dynamic feedback loop. She introduced the audience to the multi-armed bandit problem, discussing reinforcement learning and how these trials have applications to dynamic pricing models and relate to the shopper’s experience.

Delving into biology, Allie Obermeyer, assistant professor of chemical engineering, discussed her work with cells, proteins, and organelles. “Cells take biomass and make useful products such as penicillin and ethanol,” she explained. She introduced the audience to organelles, which are compartments within a cell and can be membrane-enclosed or membrane-less, and are important to her research. Obermeyer’s research looks at the physical interactions of proteins, and in her presentation, she showed how electrostatic charges can be used to alter the properties of organelles. “I loved research,” said Obermeyer, who progressed from her undergraduate degree straight through to a PhD.  She praised her three “phenomenal male mentors” and advised the audience on the importance of having mentors, male or female.

Katayun (Katy) Barmak, Philips Electronics Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Materials Science Engineering, studied at Cambridge University, noting how the program required a high level of self-motivation. “You had no obligation to attend lectures or do the assignments set by your tutor, just exams at the end of the year and weekly talks with your tutor who would question you. You had to mentally engage and think—there was no hiding with only two students in the room, and not answering the questions was not an option,” she said. After three years at IBM, she found her calling in academia. Showing two materials, a silicon wafer coated with copper on one side, Barmak asked the audience to think about the hard matter in their cell phones, and the materials that have been harnessed to make them work. Silicon, she explained, is grown as a single crystal so that the transistors will work, but transistors are connected by copper and have to scale to a single digit nanoscale as transistors are made smaller to make them faster. Nano is not good for conductivity in metal, she pointed out, with the problem being electron scattering. She is working on perfecting the metal so the electrons don’t scatter. In her work in Columbia Nano Initiative’s Electron Microscopy lab, she studies matter at magnifications not possible with optical microscopes, and showed false color crystal orientation images to illustrate her research.

Lydia Chilton, assistant professor of computer science, brought a series of slides with visual metaphors from advertising, challenging the audience to interpret their meanings. With this demonstration, Chilton gave the audience an insight into how she brings her crowdsourcing and computational tools to the design process, turning a creative design problem into a search problem. In user studies, her method—which she’s dubbed VisiBlends—yields ten times as many creative results as unguided brainstorming sessions. Her research also helps explain why novices get stuck in creative task—many get caught up in improving one idea, rather than seeking multiple ideas, or spend too much time making the first step perfect, only to have to throw it away later when it doesn’t fit with the later steps, or settle for the obvious, rather than the novel, solution. Chilton, who says she’s happiest when finding areas in which to apply computer science, noted that New York City offers opportunities to collaborate with advertising agencies, entertainment companies, and even sports teams.   

Xuan (Sharon) Di, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, shared her work with self-driving cars, in particular how they interact with human drivers and the traffic environment. She is part of an interdisciplinary team from engineering, mathematics, computer science, and law that is looking at the implications of a transition period from human to autonomous drivers. She explained that there are many issues of product and driver liability that need to be resolved, and that autonomous vehicles may make human drivers less attentive, resulting in moral hazard. She closed with a glimpse into the future, when retail stores, medical clinics and laboratories, and social spaces might travel on wheels.

The talks were followed by a lunchtime Q&A session, moderated by Dean Boyce. An afternoon session featured a leadership panel, moderated by Katie Bettencourt, senior scientist at Janssen R&D Data Services. The panel included several women from Johnson & Johnson: Lona Vincent, senior manager, Insights and Experience Strategy; Tricia Solsaa, senior design manager, Environment; Tracy Wang, senior scientist, Global Upstream Innovation Platform, as well as alumna Dina Vaysman, director of Business Development at Ethicon, and Yijun Le, associate director of Analytical, at Ethicon.  

Launched in 2017, the annual J&J Scholars program at Columbia offers generous stipends to undergraduate women nominated by faculty to work full-time on campus over the summer in a faculty lab or on a mentored research project. The J&J scholars also participate in site visits to the company’s facilities in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they meet accomplished female engineers from academia and industry. The program offered in-depth insights into potential career paths—and helped build networks for ongoing career support.

Women in Engineering day concluded with a screening of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” the story of three brilliant African-American women at NASA who calculated the trajectories for Mercury, the space craft piloted by astronaut John Glenn. 

“Women in Engineering Day reached over 60 students this year,” said Iliana Cantu.  “The Society of Women Engineers is excited to continue growing its outreach and influence, in order to ultimately foster a welcoming community that celebrates women engineers on Columbia's campus."