The first was Dr. Elizabeth Adams. I’ve been concurrently enrolled at Chandler Gilbert Community College, CGCC, for a few years now, and she was my first engineering teacher. Dr. Adams is an incredibly skilled woman who ran such a fun classroom setting. In addition to working in engineering education, she has a background in civil engineering as well as infrastructure and utility design. She earned her undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and PhD in civil engineering. To save you time, I’ll jump right into the interview.
Me: First question, did you know you wanted to go into STEM before you started college?
Dr. Adams: Yes, from the beginning. I figured out in high school that I wanted to combine my math skills with my environmental concerns.
Me: What lead you to choosing your career?
Dr. Adams: When I was in high school I learned that there was this thing called environmental engineering and that was appealing to me because I had always excelled at math, not so much science, but math. And I wanted to use that. Also, I was very conscious about the environment. I grew up in a railroad town, so it was always very polluted and dirty. When I learned about environmental engineering, I was able to shadow an environmental engineer for about a month. And that really cemented with me what I wanted to do so I started my first year of college with civil engineering and everything took off from there.
Me: What was something that you struggled with education wise that made you stronger?
Dr. Adams: I would say a lot of things. When I was in high school things were really easy. I didn’t have to do a lot of homework, and I didn’t have to study. But then I started my first year of college and it was really eye opening because that wasn’t the same situation. I took a botany class, which was with plant cells and such. And I struggled a lot with that class and I ended up getting a C. It was really hard for me because it was the first time I had gotten a C in my life and I had studied hard. Learning to adjust my study habits and focus on how college required much more time and energy was a big change for me.
But I adjusted. I ended up making friends who had a lot of the same classes and adopted some of the better students’ habits. I spent lots of time with them, and eventually learned how to keep the grades and GPA I wanted. That was probably the biggest challenge. And managing my time. It all paid off really well because now I’m organized, and I was able to get involved in student organizations, and that lead to a lot of opportunities and internships and jobs after graduating. But yeah, that initial hump of transitioning from high school for college was something that taught me a lot.
Me: Okay, this is kind of just out of curiosity, but is it weird being in a male dominated field?
Dr. Adams: Sometimes. I would say that for a most part, I got used to it in college. Just having a few female peers. I was part of the Society of Women in Engineering [SWE] so it was kinda exciting to promote the inclusion of women and promote women in engineering. It didn’t really bother me, it was fine, but you definitely notice you’re one of the few women in the class. When I went into practice in civil engineering, it was not a big deal. It came up occasionally when I did a lot of military projects. There were different dynamics in how men and women are treated sometimes in those environments. I think maybe it made me a little tougher. I think that a lot of times women that are present in engineering are a little more thicker skinned.
I personally don’t think that should be the case and I’d like to see that change as we move forward. I think that STEM fields should be open to all women, regardless of how tough you are. There should be a better balance. Now working in academia, I noticed more of it. I feel like there are less women than in the field. I’ve run into some issues professionally that I feel I am now a much stronger advocate for women in engineering and increasing diversity in STEM. That’s much more of a priority for me now. I feel like I have an obligation to improve the situation for underrepresented people in engineering and other STEM fields.
I got my bachelor’s degree 15 years ago, and so far nothing has changed. The percentage of women in engineering is about the same. The number have stayed pretty much the same since the 90s. It’s discouraging because back then, I was so excited to see how things were going to change in our field for diversity. It’s something I try to actively foster a really inclusive environment in my classes and do a lot of outreach. It’s why we [CGCC] do Hermana’s Day [a STEM event for 8th-12th grade Latinas held annually at CGCC] and things like that.
Do you think it’s weird as a student to be in a major with mostly guys?
Me [plot twist right?]: Well, I think so in the way that I walk into a classroom and I’m clearly one of the only girls. It’s common to be working on a project and be the only girl in this swarm of guys. And I’m Mexican too, so I just feel a lot different sometimes…. It’s not bad or anything, unless I’m stereotyped or something.
And apart from that it would just be nice to have a few more girls. I’ve noticed that in general guys and girls have different thought processes. We approach things differently because we’ve had some different experiences, and I think that in STEM, it's important to have a lot of different viewpoints so you can analyze a situation thoroughly.
Dr. Adams: And that’s exactly why we need more diversity. The thought processes are different and we need more perspectives at the table. More voices. And we need more people willingly listen to our perspectives, instead of just shutting them down because nearly everyone else at the table has perspective that differs.
Me: How can we encourage other women in STEM or considering STEM?
Dr. Adams: Help each other understand that when you do learn something new that’s overwhelming, just because you didn’t figure it out the first time, doesn’t mean you won’t get it after working towards it. Failure isn’t always a bad thing. You can work towards success from there. And once you succeed, celebrate it. I think that starting and being part of all girls organizations so you can be in a room full of girls who have similar passions because it can be challenging sticking out, even if no one gives you a hard time. So yeah, encourage each other in any way you can, even the smallest accomplishments.
Me: If for whatever reason, you were able to talk to your younger self, before you were in college, what would you say?
Dr. Adams: I would encourage myself to keep putting in my best effort because it really does pay off. Getting a degree in engineering opened doors opened doors I didn’t even imagine. It’s not necessarily job you expected to get, it’s opening doors you never considered because you didn’t think it was possible. I had an opportunity to live in Japan and Hawaii. Don’t let bad grades let you down, because what you’re doing is worth it.
If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the blog schedule.