Women in STEM: Natalie

The engineer Natalie

For the fifth episode of Women in STEM I gladly host Natalie, founder of @sheengineered.

Hi sheengineered! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi, I’m Natalie. I’m originally from Austin, Texas and I completed my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Texas State University and I am now a first year PhD student in electrical engineering at the University of Virginia.

When did you start your blog and your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

I started my blog and Instagram this past September. The idea came to me in two different ways. I was originally motivated to do this because, as I was applying to graduate school, I realized there was SO much I didn’t know about the application process, how to choose a school what to expect, etc. I also felt like there were so many resources that were hidden or not well advertised. I knew I wanted to find a way to create a platform to share what I had learned. At the same time,  I had been listening to a lot of podcasts from female entrepreneurs who talked about how they had tuned their passions and the message they wanted to share into a business helping others learn what they had.

Between wanting to share what I learned about doing well as an engineering student and applying for grad school, and hearing so many stories of these entrepreneurs, I decided to start sharing opportunities with the eventual goal of turning all of that content into workbooks and things like that for other girls in engineering.

Basically, it all came down to the belief that figuring out your path in engineering, and especially grad school, shouldn’t be a big confusing process.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

A big thing I am working on right now is not taking any work home with me. As a grad student, I have a desk and can keep a more normal 9-5 or 9-6 schedule if I really stay focused during that time. There are definitely exceptions to that around deadlines but for the most part I can get my work done during normal hours. I have a bad habit of telling myself “I’ll just finish that when I get home” and then the work bleeds over into my personal time.

It is definitely something I have to pay attention to but if I really put in good work when I am at my desk I can leave at the end of the day and not feel like I should be working.

During your studies how many women were in courses? Why in your opinion?

During my bachelor degree, my classes were ~40% women, now in my PhD my lab group is 4 women out of 13 students and my classes are closer to 40 – 50% women. I think for electrical engineering especially, there is a big disconnect in that people don’t view EE as a “helping” profession. When we think of EE we think of fast computers and self-driving cars and fail to see things like biomedical applications, and public health and safety applications. From my experience a lot of women want to make sure their work has a positive impact on society, and the engineering field is not always portrayed as such even though it is.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

I haven’t had any times where I have felt particularly singled out. I think there have been times where I’ve taken criticism harder or more personally that my male counterparts.  

How did you become passionate about science? 

When I was maybe 12 years old I saw the Paralympics on TV and was totally mesmerized by the prosthetic devices that some of the athletes used. I decided then that I wanted to design and build prosthetics. I did some googling and learned that engineers are the people who make them so from then on I wanted to be an engineer. I think that experience is what helped me frame engineering as a “helping profession” in my mind and made me even more interested in STEM because of how it could help people.

My dad is also an engineer and we would build rockets or furniture for my dolls or build-a-bears or solder LED lights together, so I wasn’t really intimidated by any of that, engineering always felt like an option to me.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

Right now I’m a PhD student in a robust low power VLSI lab. Basically, our group’s motivation is to design self-powered systems. Things like heart rate monitors that are powered by body heat, room occupancy sensors that are powered by light, etc. The idea is that as the Internet of Things expands and we start putting wireless sensors on everything, we will never be able to replace all of the batteries they require, so self-powered sensing nodes will be really important. The work the group does is primarily in designing ultra-low power circuits. The circuits in these sensing nodes have to be low powered enough to use things like solar and thermal energy.

I am still finding my place in the group, but one of the projects I am joining is developing a low power analog front end chip for sensing things like ECG for heart rate, PPG for things like blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation and sensing ozone. I really like how this project combines lower level engineering work to a big, “helping” application.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in stem?

The biggest thing is to find a mentor. Even if you aren’t sure you want to study engineering, find someone who is an engineer and learn more about what they do. As you move forward you will want mentors who can help you figure out your career path, work through imposter syndrome and things like that. The different mentors I have had along the way totally shaped my experience.

Another thing is to expect to be a little bit uncomfortable but know that you aren’t alone in that and that the discomfort is making you better! Engineering does take a lot of concentrated work and there will be times where you feel like the dumbest person in the room but don’t let that drive you away. Engineering is so rewarding in part because you have to overcome some challenges.

Have a look to the blog of Natalie: http://sheengineered.com/

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