Case Study: Rachel
My name is Rachel and I am a rising sophomore at Northeastern University majoring in chemical engineering and biochemistry. I plan to pursue the Plus One program at Northeastern or obtain a master's degree elsewhere, and I am currently considering pursuing a Ph.D. after entering the workforce with a master's degree for a few years. I am planning on going into the pharmaceutical side of chemical engineering and possibly going into research. I am an Asian female. While Asians are not generally underrepresented in STEM, I felt that I should mention it, because in my engineering-related classes, I do feel that very many people are Caucasian. My friends and I actually observed that the past year's leadership board (15 people) in Northeastern's branch of SWE (Society of Women Engineers) was entirely Caucasian, and next year's elected board will be all Caucasian as well with only one exception. At Northeastern, however, the engineering classes that I have had so far have had a fairly even balance of men and women, which came as a surprise to me. I have, however, heard anecdotally that women tend to leave chemical engineering after entering the workforce much more than men.
This was my first research experience of any kind, so this NSF-funded Engineering Research Center served partially as a time for me to understand more about what research may look like and the kind of work it entails, since I am considering working in research after graduation. Further than that, though, I consider myself a very multi-disciplinary person (part of the reason I chose chemical engineering is because I had heard that it was very flexible and covered a wide range of different strengths), so even though this lab was not very closely related to chemical engineering, I wanted to get a sense for what research on mechanical engineering and materials science fields entailed. I am a very curious person, so I have always wanted to learn about many different areas, even if they weren't what was ultimately relevant to me.
I worked in Professor Nian X. Sun's lab (Advanced Materials and Microsystems Laboratory) under Alexandria Will-Cole, my graduate mentor. Alex's work focused on ferroelectric modeling and characterization, so much of the work I performed revolved around developing a shadow mask to be used in the sputtering of ferroelectrics onto thin films to create a top electrode, researching into materials and products required to run testing, testing bulk samples of dielectrics and ferroelectrics, and modeling hysteresis (Polarization-electric field) loops in MATLAB. The original intent of the project was to allow me to use the shadow mask we had developed to sputter thin films and to use the metal-insulator-metal structures to test properties of the ferroelectrics. However, we were held up by the companies we had to order materials from, so the focus shifted to bulk sample testing and modeling hysteresis loops.
I learned a lot about ferroelectrics and the entire area of paraelectrics, piezoelectrics, and the corresponding magnetic materials. I had gone in with no knowledge of that kind, and in writing a literature review as well as preparing slides on information and doing extensive research into the topic, I learned a lot about the entire field. Specifically, while working on a team, I learned that I cannot be afraid to take initiative. Growing up as a girl in a less than progressive Asian household, I had somewhat been taught to just keep quiet and let others lead. I subconsciously saw (and still see) this behavior in myself, letting those who appear to be more confident (but may or may not have good reason to) lead, taking the backseat myself. Especially with this research group, which consisted of myself, my freshman female partner, and a junior electrical engineering major male, all under the leadership of Alex, a female graduate student, Alex encouraged us two girls to not let our male partner's age and slightly more experience intimidate us and to be sure our voices were heard in doing work and making decisions. I found myself for the first time initiating communication about teamwork and organizing meetings, not being afraid to take some of the lead in the group.
As mentioned before, I think the biggest thing I learned about myself was that I could take the lead in some cases. Being in an unfamiliar research laboratory with little related experience and being surrounded by people who had much more experience than me was intimidating at first, but I (with the encouragement of my mentor) learned to lean into that to not be afraid to ask questions and to offer different perspectives that, while not always correct, could let people think about things in a different way. For our shadow mask design, we had different sizes of "holes'' because that was how we understood the assignment. It was not something that our mentor had even considered, but she let us go through with it. As a result, we could test a wider range of top electrodes that our mentor would not have done if not for our "misunderstanding." I learned that, when I put my mind to it, I can learn a significant amount and apply it in a short amount of time, and I am able to adapt well to unexpected challenges.
I think the best advice I might have to offer other underrepresented students is to not be intimidated. In fact, they should use their underrepresentation as a reason to stand out. It can be intimidating being different from a lot of the people you are working alongside, but it is important to remember that you are just as qualified and have valid and good ideas, and to always voice those ideas even when you are scared of being wrong. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way and don't shy away from your identity as an underrepresented group even though it may appear to work to your advantage to.
Engineering faculty who interact with underrepresented students should make sure that their voices are heard but not treat them differently. Make sure that you provide support and notice when they might need help, but also make sure you don't subconsciously think they may need some different treatment. At the same time, help them to feel included and relevant to the group, especially when others who are the majority may naturally feel closer to each other.