By Jason KUROSU
Clark Magnet High School recently celebrated women’s accomplishments in STEM with an assembly on Ada Lovelace Day, founded in 2009 in recognition of women in the fields of science, engineering, math and technology.
The Ada Lovelace Day event was organized by Clark teacher Fred Blattner, who teaches math, computer programming and tech literacy. Blattner said that he was fascinated by Lovelace’s life story, calling her a woman “out of time and place.”
Lovelace, referred to by some as the first computer programmer, worked closely with mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, the theoretical precursor to the first computers.
In honor of the continuing work of women like Lovelace, Yogita Shah with the Aerospace Corporation and Jessica Bowles-Martinez of JPL spoke to Clark students regarding their school and career paths into a field where women remain largely underrepresented.
Shah is an engineer with scientific research and development nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, which works closely with the U.S. Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Dept. of Defense and NASA.
Similar to Ada Lovelace, Shah did not find much encouragement in her educational pursuits. Shah said that when she was growing up in India, women were not expected to pursue higher education and subjects like engineering were considered “way beyond their thinking.”
“I used to hear that and say, ‘So what?” Shah recalled.
Her father always had aspirations of becoming an engineer, but family and life in general got in the way.
“’I wish I had a son,’” Shah quoted her father. “’If I had a son, I would make him an engineer.’”
He got an engineer regardless, as Shah went on to study electrical engineering, before finding work at the Sunshine Electric Company in India designing electrical control panels. She then moved to California to be with her husband and work as an [radio-frequency] electrical engineer at AML in Camarillo, troubleshooting and tuning RF amplifiers for military applications.
Shah received her bachelor’s degree at California State University, Northridge and when a number of companies came to the campus for Career Day, she ended up with three job offers for the positions of software engineer, electrical engineer with the Dept. of Water & Power or with the Aerospace Corporation.
Shah said choosing the Aerospace Corporation was an easy decision due to her interest in space, leading to her current work as a research and development engineer.
Jessica Bowles-Martinez, an engineer at JPL, found her way into the field after much soul searching. Engineering was not something that she gravitated to at first.
Bowles-Martinez said that for some engineers, “From the moment they were old enough, they were taking things apart and trying to understand them and they just knew they wanted to be an engineer. For me, I wasn’t so sure.”
Bowles-Martinez grew up in Bakersfield, where she says the only engineers she encountered were helping maintain and design drilling equipment for the city’s oil fields, something she had little interest in.
Despite not having an overwhelming interest in the field, a high school summer program at MIT opened her eyes to the possibilities.
“After that, I realized that engineering could be a lot more than just sitting at a desk. It’s about being creative.”
The experience stuck with her enough to bring her back to MIT for college, where she studied electrical engineering, computer science and comparative media studies. She also took on internships with Hewlett Packard, Intel and Ball Aerospace.
Bowles-Martinez said that work and school dominated those years, but she was happy to be able to find work and pay off her student loans.
“I paid off all my loans, but that meant not buying a new car [and] living in a basement of a house. But for me, it was really important to get those loans paid down and have that freedom to do what I wanted to do afterwards.”
Bowles-Martinez arrived at JPL in what she described as a “roundabout way,” drawn to JPL after attending the annual JPL open house.
Since 2008, she has worked on the Juno spacecraft mission to Jupiter, which should arrive sometime around July 2016, and the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) project, which engineers hope will greatly improve communications between spacecraft and resources on Earth.
Both Shah and Bowles-Martinez touted the benefits of engineering not only for society, but also for the opportunities for personal growth in a multi-faceted field. Both women emphasized the creative aspect of engineering, whereby outside-the-box solutions are often a necessity.
Quoting aerospace engineer Theodore Von Karman, Shah said, “Scientists discover the world that exists. Engineers create the world that never was.”
Blattner hoped the event spurred interest in any students who may have been reluctant to explore engineering, particularly girls.
“Even in extremely progressive companies such as Google, only about 25% of the workforce is made up of women,” said Blattner. “If even a handful of girls thought there were doors open to them that they hadn’t known about before, then it was a success.”