U.Va. Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Women Excel at Home and in the Lab

February 05, 2009
February 5, 2009 — University of Virginia mechanical and aerospace engineers Pam Norris, Silvia Blemker and Hilary Bart-Smith are rare among their colleagues in the field.

It's not because Norris is a tenured full professor with six active research projects representing nearly $9 million in funding. Or because Blemker maintains a joint appointment in orthopedic surgery at the U.Va. Medical Center as she explores the clinical applications for computer models of human muscles. And it's not because Bart-Smith is a Packard Fellow and lead principal investigator for a U.S. Department of Defense Multi University Research Initiative.

It's because they are women — women who are successfully pushing the limits of engineering research and teaching while balancing a family life.

According to the 2007 National Analysis of Minorities in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities, published by the University of Oklahoma Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, fewer than 10 percent of Ph.Ds granted in mechanical engineering are earned by women.

But then the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering itself is rare. While fewer than 9 percent of the tenured/tenure-track faculty at the top 100 mechanical engineering programs in the country are women, at U.Va., 14 percent (three of 21) of these faculty are women.

When it comes to academia, the question that keeps many women away is whether or not it's possible to have a family and a normal life while juggling the demands of achieving tenure, acquiring research funding, conducting research, carrying a full teaching load and serving the University community. Hossein Haj-Hariri, chair of the department, would like to see the percentage of female faculty increase.

"Our department places a high value on maintaining an environment that is not only conducive to promoting leading-edge research and high-quality teaching, but also considers the importance of our faculty members' family lives," Haj-Hariri said. "The University and Engineering School have strong policies in place, but they require support from your colleagues."

Role models are important in the development of young faculty. "It's very hard to imagine juggling the demands of an academic position and motherhood without successful role models," Norris said. "Seeing other women manage both gives you an idea of what's possible and what's normal."

The importance of female role models is supported by a recent survey of more than 8,000 doctoral students across the University of California system by the American Association of University Professors. An article about the survey results in the January-February 2009 issue of the group's publication, Academe, reports, "Women doctoral students in particular seem not to see enough role models of women faculty who successfully combine work and family, and they rate the family friendliness of research-intensive universities based on this fact."

The women in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department are models of what is possible. All three are married with young children, and all three are highly successful.

In addition to being a tenured full professor, Norris directs two labs employing eight graduate students and two research scientists and is the lead principal investigator for a $7.5 million project that involves five universities and nine different principal investigators. Norris and collaborators on the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative are exploring new integrated ways for providing thermal management for the next generation of naval destroyers.

Bart-Smith, an associate professor, is a lead principal in another MURI project. Her team, which includes faculty and graduate students at U.Va. as well as Princeton University and West Chester University in Pennsylvania, is investigating the fundamental issues involved in developing undersea vehicles that move with the effortless agility and precision of the manta ray.

Blemker, an assistant professor in the department and director of the U.Va. Multiscale Muscle Mechanics Laboratory, is applying her expertise in three-dimensional muscle modeling to understand the mechanisms of muscle injuries and the impact of disease on muscle function. In collaboration with faculty from the University of Wisconsin, her research is supported by a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The key, for these women, is the support they feel from other faculty members in the department and University policies that value their needs. The Engineering School's family leave policy, for example, relieves parents of either gender of their teaching and service responsibilities for a full semester around the birth of their child.

This is especially important in the sciences and engineering where any lapse in attention to research can have long-lasting ramifications on one's career. This policy is indeed what enabled Bart-Smith to write the proposal for her five-year, $6.5 million MURI project while her daughter was an infant. With the support of her colleagues, she was able to focus on activities that will sustain her research program for years to come.

Along with this, the University has adopted an extended tenure clock, which grants parents a one-year extension for one child and up to two years for two children, if desired, before they come up for tenure review. Parents can also take advantage of up to 10 days of subsidized back-up childcare for emergencies or work-related travel.

The success of these policies varies, however, depending on the attitudes among one's faculty colleagues.

Blemker, who celebrated her son's first birthday on Christmas, said her colleagues went beyond the formal policy when he was born. "I didn't have to say 'no' to any requests for service, for example, as my colleagues all said, 'You should focus on the most important thing for your career, which is your research.' It was clear that they had my best interests in mind."

The family leave policy isn't the only thing that makes women feel at home in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department. The department's mentoring program for new faculty has also made a difference for Blemker and Bart-Smith.

"My mentors — Pam being an important one — have helped me to learn what it means to be a faculty member," Bart-Smith said. "Having people who are honest with me and support me as I navigate the academic jungle is invaluable and has contributed to my success. It's one of the reasons I came here. I really feel that my colleagues are invested in me."

"Within our department, the attitudes are absolutely wonderful," Norris said. "That's really what makes it work, because people are able to come here and be successful while living balanced lives. It's one of the main reasons why I want women students to see us as role models, so they know engineering is an opportunity that they can choose."

— By Linda Kobert and Zak Richards