Isn’t engineering just a boy’s game of math & science? #tbt #SWE

Short Answer: No.

The rest of the story:

A few weeks ago, I found a gem of an email in my inbox:

Dear Andrea,

We are TA and DD (middle school girls in the US) and we both love engineering and art. We both play string instruments.

For our Language Arts class, my class had read and analyzed an article on Stamps Scholars. We decided to see if we will be able to contact one of you, looked through some of the Featured Scholars for people who interested us, and found your name. We were surprised that you were one of the only women on that page who was enjoyed engineering. We also liked and  support the way you brought engineering to undeveloped areas. We also saw how you enjoyed art-related subjects.

What made you go towards engineering when you are more art focused? For example, you play the violin and sing in the Women’s Glee Club and enjoy writing, hand-crafting jewelry and cooking but you decided to major in engineering. Also, why did you decide to learn the Polish language and study literature when you are more focused on engineering? Engineering is not related to literature and languages at all.

If you have any advice for us, please contact us. Thank you for your time,


These two perceptive middle schoolers are correct that my interest in engineering doesn’t seem to fit society’s picture of art, music, cooking and other ‘girly’ things.  (Through my experiences in Society of Women Engineers, I’ve entered into the discussion about what is or isn’t ‘girly’ many a time. I’ll hold back on that topic for now.)

Engineering can seem quite different from the humanities, but if I’ve taken anything away from my experience as the Roger M. Jones Fellow, it is that the humanities maintain their importance in the digital age.  This is something about which I feel very strongly. It has influenced my path that includes engineering and bioethics as a foundation for studies in medicine, and I am happy to discuss this with anyone curious enough to join me for a cup of tea (or virtual chat).

Dear TA & DD,

Thank you for your kind note– it is pleasure to meet you.

My response is a bit long, but I thought your thoughtfully composed questions required a thorough answer.

As you’ve seen from the Stamps page, I majored in Biomedical Engineering (BME) and minored in Music, which means that I took most of my classes in BME and fewer classes in Music. However, as you’ve also noted, I really enjoy the Fine Arts. 🙂


Although Engineering and Music seem quite different, there are a number of connections. For example, since you play stringed instruments you probably know how to tune. If we had to choose Engineering or Music, most people might say that tuning is more relevant to Music, but actually it is also very relevant to Engineering. Not convinced? 🙂 You might enjoy this Wikipedia article about the physics of violins.

Moral of the story: you might feel like you have to choose Engineering or Music, but you don’t! Math and music use some of the same brain function, so there are many people that feel just like you do. Over 1/3 of the members University of Michigan Marching Band study engineering, and a lot of the members of the youth symphony that I played in when I was in middle & high school went on to study engineering, too.

I chose to study Engineering because I love how versatile it is. Instead of thinking about engineering in terms of what people can do or make (ie: Aerospace Engineers work at Boeing and make airplanes; Computer Science Engineers work for Microsoft and design software) I like to think of it more broadly. In other words, I see engineers as creative problem solvers who make the world a better place. The problem solving skills that you learn in engineering can be used in many ways. For example, I am using my BME problem solving skills to study Bioethics. In Bioethics we look at tough questions in healthcare like:

– If we have 100 hospital beds and 125 people that need treatment, what is the best way to give people the care they need?

– You and I both seem to feel very alive when we participate in the arts. How do we define ‘being alive’? How do we define being human? How does medicine fit into the picture?

– If there were a new medication that has 50% chance of curing someone’s cancer and a 50% chance of making the cancer a lot worse, should patients receive the medication? Can doctors / law-makiers stop them from taking the medication if they want to take it?

– If a treatment works really well in the US and there are a lot of people in developing countries that need that treatment, how do we help those people get the treatment they need?

This last question was really important in my BME design classes– keep reading to see what I mean. 🙂

Language, Literature, & Culture?

I wanted to study Polish because I have Polish roots.  When my family and I would visit our relatives in Poland, it was nice that they could speak English, but I really wanted to try to speak with them in their native language, too– there are some things that just do not translate very well.  From a practical standpoint, learning another language helps engineers communicate with customers / companies that do most of their work in another country. From a more nuanced perspective, studying languages / literature helps you understand more about the culture in which it was written. For engineers to be successful, they need to not only consider technical aspects but also the cultural aspects– especially those that do not ‘translate’ well.

For example, for my capstone engineering project at UM, I worked on a student team to design and prototype a low-cost hearing screening device for newborns in South Africa.

Why bother? Hearing loss is one of the most common problems that children are born with. If left untreated, this can cause language development delays which lead to lower educational and employment levels in adulthood. Studies have shown, however, that deaf children who begin treatment before 6 months of age can reach the same academic level as their peers by the time they enter grade school.  A parent might notice that their child is deaf around the age of 2 (just by watching them), but that’s ‘too late’ to avoid these developmental delays. In order to catch it before 6 months, you have to use a hearing screening device.

Although it might seem like the major task was making a device for $$ when it normally sells for $$$$$, my team and I realized that we also needed to know a lot about South African culture to ensure that our device would work for patients we desired to help.  Questions that we had to ask ourselves included:

– A tech operates the hearing screening device in the US– who would be responsible for operating this device in South Africa? What training do they receive?

– A lot of people in the US have smart phones. If we made our device work with a smart phone, how many people in South Africa have smart phones? How do they charge their phone (if they are not connected to the electrical grid)?

– If you identify that a child is hearing-impaired in the US, there are a number of resources available for treating them. What resources exist in South Africa? How much do they cost? Are they easy to access?

– What is the ‘deaf culture’ like in South Africa? Are children likely to be teased (or otherwise discriminated against) if they are diagnosed as deaf? How do parents respond when their child is diagnosed as deaf?

In looking at questions like this, it might be a little bit easier to see how your language / literature / culture studies are also important for engineering. 😉

Hope this helps answers your questions! I wish you the best with your continued education.




Featured photo: Representing SWE at UM Engineering Welcome Day 2013. Photo courtesy of Joseph Xu with UM Engineering.

Let the dissertation work begin!

Hi folks,

May is the exam season at KCL, but thank goodness that’s an experience that I can say I’ve tried once and don’t have to repeat.  Instead of locking myself away in the library to study for exams, I’ve locked myself away in the library to write papers. 🙂

D-day is May 14, but in the mean time, I’m also gearing up for full time dissertation work. Today I conducted my very first interview and I’m happy to report: so far, so good! The wifi even lasted for an entire hour!

For those that are interested, I’ve included a segment from (the revised edition of) my proposal that I submitted in February at the bottom of this post. Be forewarned, this has a lot of jargon in it! As I continue to work on my dissertation (due in September) I foresee myself writing some blog posts and will do my best to break it down like I did with my first mtDNA update.



Reproductive Counseling (RC) for Adolescents Diagnosed with von Hippel-Lindau

Current methods of genetic testing are most prescriptive for highly penetrant, monogenic disorders such as Huntington’s Disease and Neurofibromatosis (Cecil et al. 2012, p 184-187).  Although each monogenic disease is rare, it is estimated that the global prevalence for all monogenic diseases is 1/100 births ( 2015).  Since symptoms of some of these monogenic diseases can be quite severe or even lethal, receiving such a diagnosis often influences a person’s reproductive decision-making process.

I would like to focus my research on von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, a lesser publicized monogenic disease caused by mutation in the VHL tumor suppressing gene located on chromosome 3p26-25.  VHL follows a pattern of autosomal dominant inheritance, but approximately 20% of cases occur via a de novo mutation (Frantzen et al. 2012).  It often manifests itself first via tumors on the retina, but may also affect the kidneys, adrenal glands, and central nervous system (Frantzen et al. 2012). The most recent calculation of a VHL patient’s life expectancy was approximately 50 years, but early diagnosis, vigilant surveillance, and proactive management of tumors help reduce the morbidity and mortality of affected individuals ( 2015).

Although patients with monogenic disorders such as VHL have more reproduction options than in any previous decade, there are many important ethical considerations that must be considered in navigating these family planning decisions.  These ethical considerations are perhaps most exaggerated for adolescents (age 12-17 years) diagnosed with a de novo mutation. Understanding that none of the patient’s family have the disease and that discussions regarding family planning are often regarded as private and sensitive:

  • How do VHL patients perceive their involvement in RC that they receive as adolescents?
    • Why do adolescents have the counselors that they have?
    • Who is / should be initiating RC sessions with adolescent patients?
    • When considering RC for adolescents, how is the de novo case unique?
  • How are bioethical considerations incorporated into RC sessions with adolescents?
    • What understanding do VHL patients have of the ethical considerations relevant to reproductive options?
    • Do patients perceive themselves to be cognitively and emotionally mature enough as adolescents to understand the technical details / risks / ethical considerations being discussed in RC sessions?
  • To what extent do patients perceive the RC received as adolescents as beneficial for making reproductive decisions?
    • How do patients’ social identities (ie: cultural, religious affiliations) impact their interpretation of the RC they receive?
    • Based on the research, should patients receive RC as adolescents? Why or why not?


**Note: these are my revised questions which reflect a slight shift in focus from when I originally submitted my proposal. You’ll notice that I only have one de novo specific question. After 2 months of recruiting de novo participants, I still did not have enough volunteers. Consequently, this past week, I modified the requirements so other people that inherited VHL could participate. I’m still ironing out some of the changes to my research plan, but am quite happy with my current questions. They emphasize the adolescence (more than de novo / inherited) qualifier and thus target the area that I am most interested in investigating.


Literature exists on prenatal genetic counselling for pregnant adolescents (Griswald et al. 2011; Peters-Brown and Fry-Mehltretter 1996); the influence of a patient’s cultural (Weil 2001) or religious (Evans 2010) identity on his decision-making process; the parental response to a child’s diagnosis with a rare disease (Picci et al. 2013); and attitudes that VHL patients have toward modern reproductive technologies (Lammens et al. 2009). However, to my knowledge nothing exists at the cross-roads of these topics. Recognizing this knowledge gap in published literature, I would like to study the various forms of counselling that adolescents receive when they have been diagnosed with VHL because I want to find out how these adolescents navigate reproductive decisions in order to understand how to better support their decision making process.

Although my research objective focuses on adolescents, I have specifically chosen to speak with adult patients because adults will have had more time to process what it means to live with VHL, what reproduction entails, and how a VHL diagnosis may influence their reproductive decisions.  This extended processing time will likely make them more willing and potentially less sensitized to discussing these topics. Recognizing that this does not eliminate the risk of inducing psychological stress or anxiety, I will provide participants with supportive resources through the VHL Alliance (VHL Alliance 2015) and clearly state that participants have rights to withdraw from the study via the Consent Form.

I have not specified an age range for these adult participants because reproductive decisions are deeply personal, associated more closely with an individual’s personal experience than with his / her age.  I do not want to assume—based solely on his age—that a qualifying adult is (not) prepared to reflect on his experience as an adolescent.  Participation is voluntary and will hopefully be guided by a patient’s personal comfort level in discussing these topics openly.  Furthermore, a wider variety in age may provide me with a better ability to understand how reproductive decisions and / or counselling services shift with a patient’s age.


Cecil, R L, Goldman, L and Schafer, A I, 2012, Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. Philadelphia: Elsevier/Saunders. Print. pp. 184-187.

Evans, J H, 2010, Contested reproduction: Genetic technologies, religion, and public debate, University of Chicago Press.

Frantzen, C, Links, T and Giles, R 2012, ‘Von Hippel-Lindau Disease’. GeneReviews®.  [Internet]. Available at:  [Accessed 4 Feb. 2015].

Griswold, C M, Ashley, S S, Dixon, S D and Scott, J L, 2011, “Genetic counselors’ experiences with adolescent patients in prenatal genetic counseling”, Journal of genetic counseling, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 178-191.

Lammens, C, Bleiker, E, Aaronson, N, Vriends, A, Ausems, M, Jansweijer, M, Wagner, A, Sijmons, R, van den Ouweland, A and van der Luijt, R, 2009, “Attitude towards pre-implantation genetic diagnosis for hereditary cancer”, Familial cancer, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 457-464. 2015. Orphanet: Von Hippel Lindau disease. [Internet]. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2015].

Peters-Brown, T and Fry-Mehltretter, L, 1996, “Genetic counseling for pregnant adolescents”, Journal of genetic counseling, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 155-168.

Picci, R L, Oliva, F, Trivelli, F, Carezana, C, Zuffranieri, M, Ostacoli, L, Furlan, P M & Lala, R, 2013, “Emotional Burden and Coping Strategies of Parents of Children with Rare Diseases”, Journal of Child and Family Studies, , pp. 1-9.

VHL Alliance, (2015). Getting Support – VHL Alliance. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Feb. 2015]. 2015. World Health Organization. “Genes and human disease: Monogenic Diseases.” [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2015].

Featured image: Internet photo inspired by the signs that students leave on the library computers when they take a break from studying.  Another favorite, akin to my Grandma’s To be Continued: Keep Calm, I’ll Return.