STEM: Women Engineers Breaking Through
As more women pursue careers in mechanical engineering, NYU-Poly may well be setting the pace for the competition.
A number of remarkable young women at the University are doing doctoral work on the vanguard of fields like robotics, fluid dynamics, aeronautics and controls.
Several of these doctoral students are also taking time to spark an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects in New York City classrooms thanks to their participation in NYU-Poly’s four-year-old K-12 STEM programs. These researchers are not only ambassadors for women in mechanical engineering, but ambassadors for science and technology in inner-city classrooms.
This diverse group includes women who hail from Iran, Italy, Uzbekistan and Nigeria. One is a former activist and journalist; another was a consultant for NASA and first-time author of a book for lay people on robotics. Another also worked at NASA on environmentally friendly aeronautical designs. Two others are mathematicians by training who found themselves in mechanical engineering because it let them apply math to biological systems. All of them embody NYU-Poly’s philosophy of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship—i2e.
Maurizio Porfiri, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who advises several of the students, believes more women are attracted to the field because it is cross fertilized by other disciplines. “The boundaries of mechanical engineering are changing over time,” says Porfiri. “New areas of research using nature as a route to designing better engineered systems is bringing more women to the field to do bio-inspired engineering, or biomimetics.”
Dustyn Roberts, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Delaware, is a robotics designer who worked on NASA’s MSL (Mars Science Lab) mission scheduled for launch late this year. A beneficiary of a 2011 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, Roberts is working on three major projects in the Applied Dynamics and Optimization Lab of Assistant Professor Joo Kim.
The first, in which NYU-Poly is a subcontractor on a NASA project, involves designing a robotic hand for testing the tensile strength of a new spacesuit glove. That and a second project—a partnership with a New York Veterans Administration Hospital involving development of an accelerometer for measuring knee stability in patients who have had total knee replacement—are grant-funded.
Her third project, which is independent, involves using robot “metabolism” to address efficiency of human physical activity by measuring energy expenditure in direct-current motors. “This is something we had talked about since I interviewed for the program,” she says. “It has been largely self-guided, but also driven by Kim. However, it’s very flexible in that we both decide where we want it to go." She says practical applications are myriad, with implications for areas like rehabilitation and sports, and even space travel.
Roberts says her NSF grant is liberating. “ I’m not anchored to one project. I have my own funding,” she says, adding that her goal is to stay in academics, but in a position that lets her keep a hand in commerce.
Nicole Abaide did undergraduate and graduate work in mathematics, but discovered there were few job prospects outside of finance or teaching. Her advisor at the University of Kansas knew of Porfiri’s work on smart materials, mathematical modeling and biomimetics. After speaking with Porfiri, Abaide says, “I knew the project was awesome.”
In her lab is a wading pool where diminutive golden shiners dart about in schools. Abaide is observing how those fish behave to design mathematical models of animal shoaling behavior. The end game is to develop robotic fish that can influence shoals of real fish.
“If there’s a pattern you can write the math for that pattern,” says Abaide. “And if you have the math you can implement it for robotics,” she says, adding that practical applications include a means of leading shoals of salmon to bypass a route in the spawning run that is blocked by a dam.
From her work at NYU-Poly, Abaide has coauthored three accepted journal papers as the first author and has three other papers in review or preparation. With Porfiri and colleague Vlad Kopman, Abaide has filed a provisional patent for the use of these robots as an interactive education tool. Says Abaide, “To get paid to do math and play with robots and fish is awesome.”
Flavia Tauro, another of Porfiri’s students, was admitted last year to a joint PhD program between NYU-Poly and Sapienza University supported by a three-year scholarship from the Italian Ministry of Education and Research.
At NYU-Poly, she is developing fluorescent tracer particles designed to be perfused into rivers and other topographic drainage routes. The tracers can be “seen” by UV optic sensors (that she also helped to design) placed along the banks of those drainage routes. The technology will let researchers model natural hydrologic events as they happen. And that will make it easier to do things like predict floods, says Tauro.
“The particles are white in daylight and become bright green under UV light,“ Tauro explains. She says that besides aiding scientists studying drainage patterns, her work could also make it easier to create “risk maps” to help builders and planners avoid launching construction projects in flood zones. “This would also be very important for understanding diffusion of pollutants in the environment,” says Tauro.
After Tipsy Talwar’s ’04CE ’04TN family emigrated from India to the U.S. when she was a child, she soon found herself drawn to math and science. “Asian families push the STEM subjects,” she says, and “art would have probably raised more eyebrows than science.” She graduated from NYU-Poly with degrees in computer engineering and telecommunications networking, and now works for Morgan Stanley in equity sales and trading.
Yet Talwar is still something of an exception: women remain underrepresented in science and engineering, making up about a fifth of most science and engineering jobs. (NYU-Poly is among the best STEM universities for women, #7 in the nation, according to Forbes.)
Certain expectations work against them, such as a perception of engineering as a white male domain. “Another stereotype is that middle-class families, at least in the U.S., don’t want their children to do engineering,” says Magued G. Iskander, professor, Civil Engineering. And research suggests that women prefer professions where they feel they are contributing to society—without realizing that engineering does exactly that, Vikram Kapila, professor, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, points out.
“I wish there were more diverse students, not just females, studying science,” says Jin Kim Montclare. “You need diverse minds, more viewpoints and perspectives to attack problems and make discoveries.”
Talwar’s experience is encouraging. “I have never felt discriminated against, not from parents, classmates or coworkers, and I’ve never looked at myself as a woman in a man’s world,” she says. “I’m doing the same thing as my peers, trying to do a good job. I just happen to be a woman.”
Also a native of Italy, Francesca Fiorilli ’11ME graduated from NYU-Poly in May. “It was a stimulating environment that allowed me to learn how to abstract problems and look at things in a different way,” says Fiorilli of her experience at NYU-Poly, which included coauthoring three accepted journal papers on organization of complex systems. Another paper, with colleague Matteo Aureli, is under review.
Like that of Abaide, Fiorilli’s work is at the nexus of computer sciences, electronics and biology. “She worked on modeling behavior of complex biological and engineering systems,” says Porfiri. “So she was looking at behavior exhibited by systems that are very large and that interact one with the other, specifically synchronization through circuits and the collective behavior of animals.”
This diverse group includes women who hail from Iran, Italy, Uzbekistan and Nigeria... All of them embody NYU-Poly’s philosophy of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship — i2e.
Tayo Ladeinde, who took her PhD qualifying exams in August, hopes to eventually work in aerospace engineering. With a master’s from California State University-Long Beach in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), Ladeinde is just back from a year at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
“I was part-time in my first year at NYU-Poly and later decided to take a year to work at NASA, in part, to try to find a dissertation project, since I am interested in ‘green’ aviation.” She says her work at NASA on hybrid-winged bodies—a blended wing body whose design reduces the aircraft’s noise profile—led her to pursue aeronautical acoustics. She is hoping her work on aerodynamics, and green aviation becomes the basis for her doctoral work.
Irina Igel, a native of Uzbekistan, is “teaching” robots to work together to do tasks such as terrain mapping. Her work centers on creating distributive systems whereby autonomous robots use onboard computation to “speak” to each other without the intercession of a separate, remote, computer.
“I had no idea that I wanted to do this,” says Igel. “I had a hard time at first. But after a while I realized that I had… different interests I always wanted to follow—aerospace, or algorithms, and they all came together around artificial intelligence and programming.”
She says animals functioning in organized clusters are great models for machine “group-think.” “Like Nicole, who is using fish to inspire algorithms, I am looking for inspiration in insects—ants or bees, for instance—that can explore a topography without communication with a central source,” she says.
Born and raised in Iran, Susan Mousavi studied engineering at Tehran and Azad universities. After working part-time as a consultant engineer, she became an activist for women’s rights and moved into journalism, becoming editor-in-chief of women’s affairs at a major newspaper, and starting a blog for women.
When Iran’s government restricted political and social activities, she left the country to pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering and was admitted to NYU-Poly in 2006. Her doctoral work is on the thermo-physical and dynamic properties of ferro-fluids.
Mousavi explains that since ferro-fluids are liquids suffused with metallic nanoparticles, they exhibit the magnetic properties of those particles—in this case, the iron oxide magnetite (Fe304). These fluids, under proper conditions, can be manipulated and even physically shaped by exposing them to strong magnetic fields.
The challenge is describing how variables such as the size, shape and density of ferrous particles and even the type of fluid in which they are suffused affect how ferro-fluids behave. “We know if we have magnetic nanoparticles suspended in liquid we can control the liquid using external magnetic fields,” she says. “It isn’t clearly known precisely how.”
While she isn’t working on applications as part of her work, she says it isn’t hard to see where her research could lead. “One application would be in scanning systems like MRIs, or in drug delivery where treatment involves targeting a drug to a specific point,” explains Mousavi. The work also has applications in energy storage and thermal conductivity, explains Mousavi. “…the thermo conductivity of water is low. But by adding even a small measure of nanoparticles, you can increase and enhance thermal transport.”