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 there be light!

This week’s M&M (Mass & a Museum) Sunday routine was spent in Kensington at the Science Museum and Our Lady of Mount Caramel.  I say routine, but life in London is always full of surprises.  On this particular morning, my walk to the tube station crossed paths with a herd of half-marathon runners.


Other than the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum was the only thing on the “Exceptional” / “Worth a Journey” list on my trusty street map that I hadn’t yet visited.  There were enough bio-exhibits to keep me satiated, but in general this wasn’t one of my favorite museums.  (Perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps, with such gems as the Imperial War Museum or the British Museum, my standards have shifted to be quite high?)


The one objective bonus of this visit was the other museum-goers: apparently Sunday morning is the prime time for parents with children 4 years old and younger to venture out.  Many a buggy (stroller) to be found.  Though I’ve grown rather accustomed to the British accent, there is something absolutely adorable about it’s utterance in a child’s voice. To get the full effect, you must put on your best English accent whilst reenacting this scene:


Boy 1: Mummy! (tugs at the neckline of a darling little sweater) I’m warm, Mummy!

(Mom proceeds to help Boy 1 take off his sweater, take off his shirt, remove his teeny-tiny undershirt, and get dressed again.)

Mom: John (presumably the father) can you check with Henry? He also might be a bit warm.

(Henry, the younger brother who couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, trots around the nearby exhibits.  He darts behind a tower of old VWs and, out of direct eye sight from either parent, attempts to get into the passenger’s door of the lowest one. Meanwhile, John lengthen his stride to catch up to the swift toddler, soon discovering Henry’s situation.)

Dad: Henry!  Come out from there! (The space between the Tower of Cars and the wall surely would not have fit a full sized person. John’s voice becomes a bit more stern.) Henry. Come out. Now. No, do not touch the car.  Henry! No, you cannot get in the car… (John continues to rationalize with Henry until the boy surfaces again to the open air…)


Perhaps this doesn’t appear to be so humorous to the general populous, but for me, it brought back a flood of memories of growing up with my younger brother, Henry.  At 6’5″, he is now considerably taller than the British Henry that I had the pleasure of encountering this week, but he (17 years old) and my lil sister Geraldine (15 years old) bring just as many smiles to my face.  Special shout out to H & G, who will be heading to the State Championship matches this week for high school Varsity Tennis and Golf, respectively.  I’ll be cheering you on from London!

Just before I headed to Our Lady of Mount Caramel, I received a message from my friend, AB: “They’re celebrating Diwali in Trafalgar Square today!” Goodness, and just when you think you’ve made it through the “Exceptional” / “Worth a Journey” list!… 😉

I made it to Trafalgar Square around 2pm, just in time for the public dance performances. Nothing like a good bit of Indian dance music (including Bollywood favorites like “Jai Ho!”) to put a little swivvle in your hips.  Since the music and dancing could be heard from all parts of the Square, I was able to check out the side booths, quickly joining the queue for a free sari.  That’s right folks: they had piles of folded saris (~6 meters of beautiful cloth– it’s all in the way it it tied on you) that they were dressing people in FOR FREE.  The queue looked rather short, but since it takes a non-negligible amount of time to tie a sari, this translated into ~40 minutes.  I passed the time by reading one of the few physical (not digital) books for class.  This one was about Cosmopolitanism, which (as Wikipedia succinctly defines) is a philosophy “that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community”.


Considering the circumstances, I couldn’t have chosen a better reading topic.  Here were a few of my main observations.  (Before I get myself into stereotyping situations, I’ll preface this by saying that my understanding of Indian culture is mostly shaped by my travels there in 2013 with the University of Michigan Society of Women Engineers.)

  • Diwali is the Hindu festival of light  that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Like other religious feasts such as Passover (Judaism), Easter (Christianity), and Ramadaan (Islam) the specific date depends on various lunar calendars instead of our traditional 12 month Gregorian calendar.  This year, Diwali falls on October 23, but London got a jump start with their October 12 festival.  (I liken this to having a Christmas parade in early December.)  When I glanced at the announcements from Our Lady of Mount Caramel, I was admittedly a bit amazed when I saw the main article was about celebrating light.  Upon further reading, I realized that they weren’t actually advertising the celebration on Trafalgar Square– rather, remembering the other-worldly solar activity (now referred to in Catholic tradition as the Miracle of the Sun & apparition of Our Lady ) at Fatima in Portugal October 13, 1917.  Though the overlap of events probably wasn’t intentionally constructed interfaith dialogue, it provided an excellent bridge for understanding.
  • India is a fascinatingly diverse country with a cultural color palette that is very different from what I’ve grown accustomed to in the US.  My interest in Indian culture began when my older sister Gretchen spent a 11 weeks working as an engineering intern in Chenai, and incidentally, wore a sari every day.  When she returned home, we attempted to resurrect our childhood days of playing dress up, but despite Gretchen’s best efforts I never managed to successfully make the sari look presentable.  Even when I traveled to India with SWE, the pants, long top, scarf combo of the salva kameez was all that I could handle. Since this (London) was my first experience getting fully draped in a sari, it seemed only fitting that my “blouse” was my Keep Calm and SWE On cranberry V-neck.
  • If the Brits love of queuing is on one extreme, the almost non-existent queuing strategy in Indian culture is on the other extreme.  I particularly remember a situation when I was trying to order food in the domestic airport terminal in Delhi.  Though American’s don’t queue with the same amount of fervor as Brits, I still relied on my American mindset as I approached the display case… which turned out to be rather ineffective: I stood while a steady flow of business men (from my perspective) “cut in front of me”, ordered their meal, paid for their meal, and began eating.  I’m not trying to make a case for either system, just trying to contrast the two.  While proper use of elbows and hand waving are key components of communication in India, I’m pretty sure that would earn you a stern British glare in London.  Such a juxtaposition: forming a queue while women tied saris and men politely guarded the entrances from passersby that tried jumping the queue. (Madam, madam!  The queue is this way!)


(Click on photo for expanded view + full caption.) 

The day was made complete by a delicious lunch of chole (spicy chick peas). Though it may not measure up to the dishes that I enjoyed wilst in India, it was indeed tasty.  My task now is to find the restaurants that have made London legendary for having the best Indian food outside of India.

Featured Image: sunrise from my apartment window