Hazel Marie, Ph.D., P.E.
Distinguished Professor & Chair
Mechanical & Industrial Engineering
Youngstown State University
For many of today’s engineers, the moon landing of 1969 was the inspiration to study the sciences. Dr. Hazel Marie remembers Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and it ignited her ambition to become an astronaut. When she realized astronauts were all men, she decided to become the first woman astronaut. Living in San Antonio near the Air Force Base, it seemed a natural choice.
But as she grew older, she realized that even though she was good in math and science, her path would be a bit different. “When I was a senior in high school, I was the top in math and science. My advisor said, “You should be an engineer.” I’m like, “Okay.” Dr. Marie was the first person in her family to go to college so she really didn’t know any engineers.
Professor Irene Busch-Vishniac changed that. She was the only female mechanical engineering professor Marie had at UT Austin. “She shaped, not just my decision to become an engineer, but how to be a woman engineer. She was strong. Many of the men in my classes would say to me, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ which made me want to show them. But Busch-Vishniac inspired me to excel in her class. I think back about that a lot. She didn’t even teach the area of mechanical engineering that I ended up in, but I look back and her inspiration was key to my junior year, of saying, “I want to be excellent like her.”
Marie received her Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering, Mechanical, from the University of Texas in Austin in 1984. From there, she moved to Northeast Ohio with a scholarship from General Motors to work for one of their divisions. She never expected to stay in Ohio, having been born and raised in Texas.
She worked at GM for five years before she decided to get her advanced degrees. So after the birth of her first child, she left GM, and started working part-time on her Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering, which she received in 1998 from Youngstown State University.
When her youngest of three children was four, she decided to pursue her PhD, which she received in 2005 from the University of Akron, which isn’t far from Youngstown. “I did my PhD research at NASA Glenn in Cleveland.”
While finishing, she started teaching at YSU in 2002, moved to the tenure track in 2005 and has held assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor positions. She is now the chair of the department and has been so for seven years.
Barriers women in engineering face
As a professor, Dr. Marie has seen first-hand the barriers that women in engineering faced and continue to face. “The barriers women encounter are huge,” she notes. “As a professor, I see that today’s students came into this field differently than their parents. Many did not grow up working with their dads on cars, for example, which used to be a major pathway to engineering for men.
“Today, the girls are still ridiculed for not knowing something a guy typically knows and they will bully the women with, “Oh, it’s ‘cause you’re a girl.” “Well, no, it’s ‘cause she wasn’t exposed to it like you were.
“The perception seems to be that when a woman doesn’t know something, it’s because she’s female. When a guy doesn’t know something it’s just because he hasn’t learned it yet. I see this all the time. There’s definitely a bias there.”
Marie tells the story of a visit to a middle school for career days. “There were only two girls in the class and I was speaking about engineering in general. After my talk, the teacher came up to me and said, ‘You would not believe what happened before you showed up. All the boys were saying to those two girls, ‘Why are you in here? This is engineering. You shouldn’t be here.’ Then you walked in.’ The teacher watched the boys’ faces and some of them were very surprised. They found out they were wrong, that women can be engineers.”
Marie thinks women still combat this prejudice. Of the 11% working in engineering, she notes that YSU graduates about 18 to 20% of that 11% in mechanical engineering. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t moved on to management positions or this or that. For example, I’m not considered in the workforce because I’m in academia. Women in engineering are not necessarily leaving the field, but with only 11%, there are still not enough role models to get even the young males thinking differently.”
Engineering challenges in the workforce
Like other engineers, Marie faced a few engineering challenges when she worked in the traditional workforce.
“My biggest challenge as a young engineer was to accept that you aren’t going to always make the right decisions. I’m a perfectionist and the first time I made a really bad decision that affected a large chunk of money, I was devastated. This was when I was in the Packard Electric Division of GM. They’re called Delphi now. They did all the wiring harnesses for under the cars and I was a materials engineer, which meant I knew copper alloys.
“That division made the little connectors that connect wire to a part of the harness train. This copper connector has to be bent over in different configurations and it was cracking on tight bends. We did some analysis and I suggested to my boss that we do half hard instead of full hard. He agreed, of course, it wasn’t just me making the decision.
“We brought in all this strip metal of a half hard copper alloy and tested them. There was no crack on the tight bend. We sent it to Mexico where they were assembling the wire harnesses. But the travel conditions affected those connectors. By the time the Mexico plant received the box, these half hard copper alloys had deformed and held their deformed shape. They weren’t bouncing back. We had a bunch of copper alloys that were messed up.
“What I learned is that whether you’re male or female, you are going to make mistakes and that you’re not doing your job probably if you never make a mistake. The challenge is to know how to back up, fix it, not walk away from it, not cower from it. You have to conquer it and resolve it. You have to resolve it by knowing that this is going to happen, but that you can fix this. I think that is the hardest thing, especially for high achieving students. They’re in school. They’re making the highest grades or whatever and then they go out in the work force and it’s not quite the same. It’s a bit messy. It’s very hard for our young twenty-something males to learn this lesson. It’s hard for anybody, though, to admit they made a mistake.
Despite the prejudices and challenges, Marie is a big advocate of programs that encourage women (and men) to enter engineering; programs like STEM and STEAM.
“I love STEAM because it brings the arts into it. What I find grabs students interest is the art part of STEAM, because they want to be creative. Whether it’s art, whether it’s building a milk carton car or a Rube Goldberg, there’s art in that. The big thing in my department now is 3D printing. We did a project working with a veterinarian to create a brace for an animal, a dog that had a deformity on one of his legs. We 3D printed the brace in different types of material so that it was pliable where needed and firm in other areas. We work with all the different engineering disciplines. As the chair, I try for their education to not just be mechanical engineering. I’m trying to get all of the STEM disciplines involved.
Part of STEM and STEAM involves mentoring. “While I’m mentoring older students, I encourage them to mentor younger students. It’s good to bring in a junior female engineer who had similar issues with a freshman or sophomore student and show them the other end. I try to do the full circle that way.
As part of the STEAM opportunity, Marie has done something different. “We have an industrial engineering course in my department. I invited junior and senior mechanical engineering students to take the course even though it’s not in the mechanical curriculum right now. It’s called Additive and Digital Manufacturing and is a junior level class. Three students replied immediately, all female. I think that was because of the artistic aspect of 3D printing. I think that might be a way to encourage more women into engineering fields.
Engineering has always attracted problem solvers. And problem solving nearly always involves helping others. But the helping aspect has not been addressed in a way that appeals to women. This is where new technologies, like 3D printing, can show how engineering helps others. And Marie thinks this angle will help bring more women into engineering. “I’m seeing a path showing how mechanical engineering can be used to help society. I think that is why engineering and particular mechanical engineering has low participation with women. It’s because there’s not an obvious connection as to how it can help others.
“I think the connection with the additive helps bring in a connection to helping. Whether it’s a custom brace or custom implant, or dental implants. 3D printing is already associated with the medical field, which is a helping field. I am seeing young women just fascinated with it, even more so than the males. Engineering is absolutely a helping field, but it hasn’t been seen that way. If the helping aspect of engineering is promoted more, then I think we will see more women becoming engineers.
With experience in corporate America and academia, Dr. Marie can offer much wisdom to young engineers.
“Having a competitive nature, I would tell my younger self that it doesn’t have to be about, “Well, I’ll show them.” There is so much more that you don’t have to show the guys that you can do it, or show anybody that says you can’t. There’s so much more to this career that I’ve had that has nothing to do with me proving myself. If I could give myself career advice, I would say to make my decisions not based on showing others that I can do it, but to look at my decisions from the value that they have in and of themselves.
“The other career advice involves life choices. I freaked out when I decided to quit work. I thought that the whole world of females was on my shoulders. A woman has a baby and she quits working and so this is a reason not to hire them. I felt really apologetic about that. But what I would tell my younger self is, there are so many paths in engineering. It will never do you wrong. You can go back to it. I could have gone back to working in industry if I wanted but I wanted my advanced degrees. You can strike your own path and with a degree in engineering you will never have to worry about getting a job back if you decide to take time off. Or not.