Sometimes, life directions can change with a chance conversation or unexpected opportunity. Danielle Lower said she fell into engineering in a completely unintentional way. When she enrolled in university her freshman year, Lower said she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.
“I listed metallurgical engineering as my major at the recommendation of a friend who was recruiting for the department. They had a good amount of scholarship funding available and not enough student interest. I figured it would be a good way to receive some financial support and try a few math classes until I figured out what I really wanted to do. I had always been good at math, so I figured that whatever I ended up selecting as a major would be math oriented. As I got into the program’s course work, I found that I really loved the challenge. Engineering courses are hard, and I think more than anything I wanted to prove to myself that I could graduate with an engineering degree, even if I still wasn’t sure what I would do upon graduation. I later switched my major to mechanical engineering because I felt that it would offer a wider range of possible career opportunities in the future. While I was uncertain in my decision at the time, I am glad that I stuck with engineering for where it has led me.
During the summer after Lower’s second year of college, she was selected as an intern at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At this point, she was still uncertain as to whether she’d continue as an engineering major. Her mentor at JPL discussed future plans with her on several occasions, and she explained that she will never forget those discussions, and how instrumental they were.
“He encouraged me to stick with engineering. He said that an engineering degree shows employers that you are willing and able to learn. He assured me that I would be able to use this degree to open so many doors and opportunities, not just within areas that would generally be viewed as typical ‘engineering’ roles. He also said that most companies will teach you what they want or need you to know to be successful if they can see your potential. In my experience, everything he said has been true,” Lower said.
Lower, who is the Research Excellence Lead in the Energy and Environment Science and Technology (EES&T) directorate at Idaho National Laboratory, thinks that her greatest challenge has also been one of her biggest engineering accomplishments. Prior to her current position, she was working as part of the Idaho Cleanup Project, which focuses on the environmental cleanup of radioactive waste from Idaho.
“While on this project, I was working on a first-of-a-kind facility for processing radioactive waste. I was brought on to the team to assist with developing a predictive model for calculating fluidized bed jet lengths,” she said. “I was working with a senior research scientist to develop these calculations based on limited previous research and resources. We would validate our estimates and assumptions with full-scale testing. This was an incredibly challenging project, where I was researching similar technologies, developing and validating theories and assumptions, and generating a predictive MathCad model to develop future predictions. As a team, we were able to develop a representative model of our one-of-a-kind fluidized bed. I was still a relatively new engineer at the time, so I think I brought a fresh perspective to the team. I asked a lot of questions (to learn) and I think my questioning attitude motivated senior engineers to critically think about the model we were designing, ultimately making the project a success.”
Lower feels that each woman working in engineering brings her own unique perspective, just as men do, and thinks we need a variety of unique perspectives to create a diverse team.
“The best ideas generally come from diverse teams — not just from diversity of gender or color, but from a diversity of experience — and to get a true diversity of experience, you need representation from all walks of life: male, female, married, unmarried, newly graduated, seasoned employee, and so on. So, we need women on our teams — a diverse representation of women — as each one of us are going to bring a slightly different perspective based on our wide array of life experiences,” she explained.
Lower also thinks that we need to help young women see the realm of possibilities available in the field of engineering and understand that it is so incredibly diverse.“Right now, I believe that when a lot of young women think about careers in engineering, they think of large-scale factories and mass-production industries like the automotive industry or careers in oil and gas,” Lower said. “These fields may interest some, but we need to show young women that a career in engineering can be so expansive. For example, I spent a portion of my career working as a patent examiner in the mechanical engineering department for IP Australia (which is an agency within their government that administers intellectual property rights), and currently, I use my engineering background … at Idaho National Laboratory. So now, while I don’t necessarily do ‘traditional engineering,’ I use my engineering background in my work to support our research community by ensuring safe, efficient, and effective operations.”
“I think that instead of telling young women what engineering is, we need to learn more about what their personal interests are — and show them how engineering relates in that area and how they might be able to use an engineering degree to work in their areas of interest. For me, I have never really been interested in designing large systems, but I was ecstatic to once find a job position for a kitchen tool design company advertising for a mechanical engineer to perform stress calculations for their new kitchen tools. While I didn’t go down that path, I think it would have been so much fun to design the next generation of kitchen gadgets!”
As far as barriers for women, Lower thinks that the biggest issue today is the stigma that they can’t (or shouldn’t want to be) engineers.
“I think this stigma causes many women to second-guess their desire to pursue a career in this field. Even now, I often hear comments about engineering being a ‘man’s field’ or expressing extreme surprise that I elected to be an engineer, and while I am set in my career, these types of comments can be negatively impactful to younger women trying to determine their career path,” she said.
Getting up to speed
Lower has some advice for women who are new to engineering, so they can develop confidence in the workplace.
“As with any new skill, you gain confidence with time and practice. Mistakes are a natural part of life. One of my current roles is working as a Human Performance Improvement (HPI) practitioner. HPI philosophy centers on the fact that all humans make mistakes while providing a practical approach to reducing human error, enhancing human ingenuity, and creating a capacity for resilience. HPI philosophy has helped me to accept my own personal fallibility and provided me with tools to set myself up for success. So, for those new to the field of engineering, I think that it is first important to accept the fact that you are going to make mistakes; it is inevitable, but realize that we were all once new engineers. In knowing and accepting that you are going to make mistakes, you begin to create that capacity for resilience for yourself, setting yourself up for success,” she said.
“How do you set yourself up for success? Ask questions! Ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid. Show your willingness and desire to learn. Utilize your peers; peer reviews are incredibly valuable and important. Finally, when you do make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it. We tend to learn more from our mistakes more than from our successes, but we can also help others learn from our mistakes as well. In our HPI onboarding training, we always close with the following quote: ‘I would rather surround myself with people who make a lot of mistakes and have no problem admitting to them, than to surround myself with people who think they make none.’”
Lower said that what makes engineering fun for her is that most projects/tasks are like solving a puzzle, because the puzzles are always different.
“Some are simple, while others are like a 1,000-piece monochromatic jigsaw puzzle without an image on the front of the box to guide you. Engineering (at least in my case) has also been so diverse in the types of projects/tasks that I have been able to be a part of,” she said. That diversity has allowed me to essentially mold my current position in research excellence into a career that allows me to use my technical background in somewhat of a non-traditional manner while allowing me to explore other areas of interest and learn new areas of research operations.”
If she could advise her younger self, Lower said she’d emphasize not to be afraid to ask for what you want or what you need.
“Opportunity isn’t always going to fall in your lap. If you see something that interests you (a project you want to work on, a conference you want to attend, a course you want to pursue), speak with your manager; ask for it,” she explained. “You may not always get a yes, but it will always be a no if you don’t try. I spent too much of my earlier career waiting for opportunity. It’s only in the last couple of years that I started expressing interest in new development opportunities, and I am fortunate to have a management team who is very supportive.”
Filed Under: Women in Engineering