Thursday, September 20, 2018

TEEX #WomenStepUp: Dr. M. Katherine Banks, Vice Chancellor and Dean of Engineering, Texas A&M University

Why engineering?

I consider engineers to be problem solvers. These can be major national problems, global challenges, or specific issues with technology. You can start thinking about it at very high levels, or you can focus on the day-to-day level. You choose a problem, and you determine how you are going to solve it. Then, you break it into daily tasks to meet the goal of correcting or addressing the problem.

For example, in biomedical engineering, you might determine there is a need for a device for people with a specific challenge-- perhaps it is a new orthopedic device. The overall problem or challenge is to make that device efficient and effective in its use. The process to develop or improve the device may take years to complete, so the issue becomes how do you break down the process into manageable tasks?

First, you will need to investigate components and applications. Then ask yourself questions such as, can I use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help with this problem? How do I put it together? How much is it going to cost? How will it handle weight and stress? You will have to investigate all these things and others --maybe on a daily basis--but at the end of the project, you may have changed the world.

Do I have to love math and science?

You do not have to love math or science to be an engineer; you just have to be able to use them. Remember engineers are not theoretical mathematicians or theoretical scientists. We use math and science as tools. As an engineer, you will need to work hard and focus. Don’t be afraid to get tutoring in math and science if you need it.

Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?

I didn’t know that I wanted to be an engineer right away. I was a late bloomer; I had never met an engineer as a child, and I had no idea what engineering actually was. I did know that I enjoyed problem-solving, and I was decent at math and physics. When I arrived at college, I thought I wanted to do something in biology or chemistry. I did not realize that I was interested in engineering until I took an engineering physics class.

However, that path would be difficult today. You usually have to decide to pursue engineering in your first year of college. What I would recommend is this: if you have an interest in problem-solving during your senior year in high school, apply to the College of Engineering. If you are accepted, join us. You will have an entire year to consider if it is for you; and if not, to move on into something else. 

What are a woman’s biggest obstacles to succeeding in a male-dominated field?

My biggest obstacle when I first entered the workforce as an engineer was probably the lack of support from others who were going through the same work/life balance challenges. Women today are more likely to have other women in the workplace to support them. My male colleagues were not sexist or necessarily negative—they just were not going through the same experiences. For example, child rearing. I was the only one who was pregnant; the one who usually had to deal with childcare issues; and as a mother, I was the primary parent in many ways. It was a challenging time, and my home / life balance was my biggest concern. At that time, there was no maternity leave; you took vacation time if you had it.  Men rarely took time off for the birth of a child.

Now, I have to say times have changed. We don’t have perfect family leave policies but they are much improved.

The secret to success in engineering?

You just have to be persistent. Persistence and resilience will make you successful, not sheer talent.

 Again, why engineering?

Because you want to make the world a better place. The types of problems we solve are global challenges: what if you could help a disabled veteran walk again; what if you could save millions of people with a new drinking water treatment method; or what if you could develop a new pharmaceutical approach that could cure cancer. All are engineering challenges. 

If you want to save the world, be an engineer.