An all-male school for 130 years, Notre Dame first admitted
women in fall 1972. What was it like then, to not only be part of the
first class of women at the University, but to also be among the first
women engineering students? Was it harder to be a woman in the engineering
program? In industry? What is it like today?
Let’s face it, there are still plenty of myths about boys and girls and
how they learn, especially regarding math and science. One of the biggest is “Boys
are better at math and science than girls are.” Is it true? Is
it biological, or do other factors play a role?
Some of the other myths are just as frightening: “Girls don’t
like technology,” or “A woman can’t succeed in a male-dominated
these myths, or is it really harder, almost impossible, to be a successful
Those are some of the questions we asked Notre Dame engineering
alumnae, several of them from the first class of women engineers. Here’s
what they had to say about being a woman engineer and about Notre Dame
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO PURSUE ENGINEERING?
At age five, Francesca O’Connor knew she wanted to be an engineer. “My
earliest memory of wanting to be an engineer is when the Challenger
space shuttle exploded,” she says. “I told my mother if
I had worked on the shuttle, the accident never would have happened.” By
age seven, she had decided she wanted to be an electrical engineer
at Notre Dame. Ten years later, she was a first-year student at the
O’Connor (B.S., EE ’02) is currently a systems
engineer with Raytheon in San Diego, Calif. She is responsible for
naval ship integration on multiple platforms, encompassing a range
of systems from architecture to life cycle support.
DO YOU THINK BEING A WOMAN HINDERED
ORHELPED YOUR ACCLIMATION TO THE ENGINEERING PROGRAM?
Some of our alumnae felt the college and classes were skewed toward
the men. Not Kathleen (Fochler) Piwko (B.S., EE ’90), one of
seven women in the electrical engineering class of 1990. “I don’t
think that being a woman affected how I acclimated to the engineering
program. Every night, my friend, Tina, and I studied at the same table
on the second floor of the library. Since we usually had the homework
done ahead of time, a lot of guys would come find us if they had questions.”
Piwko does believe, however, that women have a disadvantage
in that they don’t generally gravitate toward engineering or technical hobbies. “I
remember my brother, who was 12 at the time, understanding how a toaster
worked when as a second or third-year engineering student, I had never
given it a thought. I think that girls don’t think about life
from an ‘engineering’ viewpoint, and if they do, they usually don’t
have many girlfriends with whom to share that interest,” she says. A
resident of Sparta, N.J., Piwko is a stay-at-home mom. She “retired” as
director of the Information Systems Department for Travelers Insurance
Company to raise her four children.
|As a graduate student
in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Jessica
Anderson studied ionic liquids and their potential use in carbon
dioxide capture and sequestration. Recently, she acceted a position
as visiting assistant professor of chemical engineering at Rose-Hulman
Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., where she is teaching
courses on conservation principles, material, and energy balances
and also energy and the environment.
WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES
ABOUT ENGINEERING AT NOTRE DAME?
Sally (Naxera) Benson (B.S., CE ’76), who now lives in Naperville,
Ill., had no trouble coming up with two of her favorite memories. She
actually started her college career at Saint Mary’s College in
1972 (math and chemistry), but transferred to Notre Dame in 1974 to pursue
a degree in civil engineering. There were fewer than six women enrolled
in the college at the time. “I remember the first class I had with
the mechanical engineering guys. They knew I was coming to class, so
they got there early and filled all the chairs in the room, except one.
It was in the front row on the far side of the room,” she says. “There
were mumbles, comments, and a few whistles as I sat down. So I politely
stood up, turned to the class with my most genuine smile and then said
something like ‘Hi, guys. Thanks so much for that warm welcome.’ We
were all good friends from then on.”
She also remembered that Professor Jerry J. Marley, now
professor emeritus of civil engineering and geological sciences, asked
her to start a student group for women engineers. “He told me
about an organization called ‘SWE.’ I
just wanted to be one of the guys, so I actually argued against bringing
a section on campus. I now understand how wrong I was, and what the
value of such an organization can be. I’ve even spoken to the
Notre Dame section since that time.”
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, DO YOU BELIEVE
IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOW MEN AND WOMEN APPROACH ENGINEERING?
Lezlie (Potter) Roosa (B.S., EE ’99) had always been told that
she was good in math and science. That’s why she choose engineering
as an undergraduate at Notre Dame and pursued a master’s degree
in electrical engineering at Stanford. After graduation, she worked
in semiconductor fabrication for Intel Corporation for two years. Today,
she teaches sixth-grade math in Centennial, Colo. “To broadly
generalize, yes, I do see a difference. I think men tend to be quicker
and more intuitive in their approach to concepts and problems, but
women ask more questions and come up with more thought-out reasoning
to back up their results.”
Roosa also coaches the middle school math teams, as they
compete against other middle schools in solving logic problems. Last
season the teams placed second and third in the Cherry Creek School
of my motivation to teach was a desire to give back to the community
every day. I want to eventually teach at the high school level, where
my background can more directly benefit students interested in engineering,
but I hope that even now I’m preparing my students with a mindset
[toward engineering] for the future.”
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB AFTER GRADUATION?
It’s been interesting that while many of our alumnae have continued
in engineering, a few have pursued other careers. Every one of them
has stressed that they were able to do that because the engineering
degree taught them how to think and logically solve problems. Anne
Clarke (Weber) Kane (B.S., CBE ’75) was one of the first
women to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. Her first
job after graduation was with Amoco Oil Company. She was a design engineer.
But her career continued to evolve. “At 27, I got an M.B.A. and
pursued positions as a financial analyst for corporations,” she
says. “When I was 40, I obtained my teaching credentials (physics
and chemistry at the high school level). And, I recently completed
my master’s in educational
administration and now serve as a middle school vice principal.” Kane
lives in Lihue, Hawaii.
A senior studying aerospace
Camille Legault works with local middle school students
in the annual "Is Engineering for Me?" program. Legault
is also a research assistant, working with Associate Professor Scott
C. Morris in the Hessert Laboratory for Aerospace
WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?
Marianne (O’Connor) Price (B.S.,
MET ’74) from Indianapolis,
Ind., is actually on her second career. Coming from an all-girl high
school made for an interesting time as the only girl among 400 men
in Professor Emil Hofman’s freshman chemistry course.
After graduation, she worked in research and development at Union Carbide
Corporation for 15 years (3 years full time and 12 part time). After
she had her fourth child, Price took some time off, but missed engineering
and science, so she pursued and obtained a Ph.D. in medical and molecular
genetics from Indiana University School of Medicine. “I
am now director of research and education at the Cornea Research Foundation
of America, where I manage between 12 and 15 clinical research studies
each year, and publish and present the outcomes worldwide,” she
says. “I think one
of the most exciting areas of engineering is biotechnology, developing
an understanding of how nature’s systems work and applying that
knowledge to benefit people. The recent studies we have been involved
with have dramatically changed how cornea transplants are performed.”
WHAT IS THE MOST EXCITING PROJECT
ON WHICH YOU’VE WORKED?
Suzanne Hardie (B.S., CBE ’75), director of new growth platforms
for Procter and Gamble (P&G), found it difficult to pick a single
project. She loves creating new products for consumers. She’s been
with P&G for more than 30 years, but still gets a thrill about making
things new and better. “The breakthroughs in consumer goods that
push the boundaries of what is possible to enhance the lives of the world’s
consumers, especially in developing nations, are tremendously exciting.
Our science and approaches can make a huge difference in the way people
live,” she says. “Because women tend to approach engineering
more holistically, with the total experience in mind, I think they better
appreciate and empathize with the human factor in engineering.” Hardie
is from Battle Creek, Mich.
WHAT DOES BEING AN ENGINEER MEAN TO YOU?
Recent graduate Elizabeth Rollins (B.S., AME ’07)
grew up wanting to invent a process to get rid of nuclear waste. As
an eighth-grade student, this was enough to motivate her to pursue
engineering, and eventually space science. “Being an engineer
means that I have the opportunity to come up with creative solutions
to real-world issues,” she says. “I can make contributions
to projects in new and exciting fields that can help people and make
a difference in the world. Being an engineer allows me to make a positive
impact on the lives of others.”
Rollins is well on her way to achieving her goals. She
is a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
where she works in the Draper Laboratory as a Draper fellow. She also
received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
A native of Houston, Texas, she is studying dynamics and controls in
the aeronautics and astronautics department of MIT.
IN WHAT TYPE(S) OF ENGINEERING EDUCATIONAL
OR SERVICE ACTIVITIES DO YOU PARTICIPATE?
Notre Dame engineering alumnae are active in service and educational
outreach programs. For example, Margaret (Peg)
Curtin (B.S., AME ’76;
M.S., AME ’78) gives workshops at the annual Expanding Your Horizons
conferences in the Seattle area. “There
are four different conferences for middle and high school girls,” she
says. Like some of the other alumnae, Curtin transferred to the University
in the early 1970s. Her first job as an engineer was in the aerodynamics
group at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “I worked
on the 777, starting with the preliminary studies until about the time
the first airplane was delivered, and I was able to watch its first
flight,” she says. “After more
than 28 years, I’m still in the aerodynamics group, and I’m
still having fun.”
IF THERE WERE ONLY ONE THING YOU
COULD TELL YOUNG WOMEN (AND YOUNG MEN) WHO ARE CONSIDERING ENGINEERING
AS A CAREER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
The chief executive officer and founder of Stellar Solutions, Inc.,
Celeste Volz Ford (B.S., AME ’78) chose aerospace
engineering because she was good in math and science. But it takes
a little more than good grades to launch and grow a successful company. “It’s
been exciting to build an engineering company that aligns the dream
jobs of employees with our customers’ critical needs,” she
best advice I could give anyone is to find an engineering job that
you can be passionate about. For women, in particular, engineering
can be a family-friendly field, because you are judged by results,
not necessarily the hours charged (such as in law or accounting).”
According to Volz Ford, engineering is also “fun” because
of its high impact. “At Stellar Solutions, we work with a variety
of space projects that positively impact people’s lives. We’ve
also been able to establish a foundation that contributes to the community
service interests of our employees, and we give our employees bonuses
for their participation in engineering outreach programs— such
as speaking in schools about space and coaching robotics teams.” In
addition to her other activities, Volz Ford serves on the College of
The bottom line for all of these women is that they love
what they do. They chose engineering because of its scope and the career
options available ... the ability to chart their own paths. While many
of them had stories about “being the only woman in the room,” none
of them allowed a male bias, real or perceived, to alter their course.
And, after 35 years, the women in and from the College of Engineering
are still charting their own paths and making a difference in the lives
Editor’s Note: We’d like to thank each
of the alumnae who responded to our questions.
They are truly amazing women with stories to match.
SWEet It Is
Members of the Notre Dame section of the Society
for Women Engineers (SWE) have a couple of reasons to celebrate.
For the second year in a row, the section (SWE-ND) received the
Outstanding Collegiate Section Award for a medium-sized section
(36 to 100 members). The award was presented at the SWE national
conference in October in Nashville, Tenn. This is not the first
award the section has received. SWE-ND has also been honored
by the University, as club of the year (2003) and for program
of the year (2005).
Chartered in 1977, SWE-ND is also celebrating 30 years on campus. Adviser Cathy
Pieronek, director of academic affairs and the Women’s
Engineering Program, says that the section is one of the most
active engineering organizations in the college. In fact, membership
in SWE-ND has increased from a handful of women in 2002 to
more than 75 active members.
The section’s on-campus activities include participation
and sponsorship of Engineering Industry Day, numerous leadership
luncheons and professional development events, study sessions,
monthly meetings, and football concession stand duty.
SWE-ND is also very visible in the community. SWE members participate
in programs such as Relay for Life and Ms. Wizard Day and Expanding
Your Horizons (annual workshops that introduce young girls to
careers in engineering and science). The students also sponsor
toiletry drives for the local women’s shelter,
assist Girl Scout troops with technology badges, and volunteer
at middle school science fairs.
activities throughout the year. On Halloween
night, it sponsored the first Trick-or-SWEet run, a 5K around
St. Joseph and St. Mary lakes on campus. The event was a fund-raiser
for the Ms. Wizard Day program. Founded by Lauren
A. Liang (B.A.,
during her junior year at the University, Ms. Wizard Day exposes
fourth- through six-grade girls to engineering, math, and science.
Liang is now an assistant professor in the Cross-departmental Reading
Program (College of Education) at the University of Utah.