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Those who prepared the way
Women engineers share insights with new generation



by Sara Peters

For generations, young men engineers have donned the black and orange to rove the campus with their fathers and grandfathers, similarly garbed in tiger stripes and telling tales from the days of slide rules and planimeters.

Yet quite soon, and for the first time, a young woman student of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) will roam the campus, listening to old Princeton stories told by her mother. Julia Philip ’06, a chemical engineering student, is the daughter of Marian Ott, a basic engineering alumna from the class of 1976.

In May 2006, Ms. Ott will become the first SEAS alumna who is the mother of a SEAS alumna. She is, therefore, in a unique position to see how engineering has changed for women in the past 30 years.

“When I was at Princeton, we formed the first Princeton chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE),” Ms. Ott said. “Back then, the idea of a woman having a career was fairly radical. You had to almost deny any interest in family in order to be taken seriously.

“Now my daughter’s involved in SWE, and the focus of their meetings tends to be ‘how do you balance your career and your family?’ It’s an amazing change.”

The history of women at SEAS is a rather brief one. Engineering has ever been, and continues to be, a field with a high man-to-woman ratio, and it has not yet been 50 years since women engineers first made an appearance at Princeton.

Princeton began admitting women as graduate students in the 1960s. In 1970, Patayona Papantoni, an electrical engineering student, became the first woman to earn a master’s degree of science in engineering from Princeton.

Strong numbers of women in the graduate student population did not appear until the late 1970s, but since then they have remained consistent.

Women were officially admitted as undergraduates in 1969, but when commencement for those first Lady Tigers came around in 1973, only one was an engineer.

 

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Robert Jahn, professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering, was dean of SEAS at the time this sole woman undergraduate sat before Nassau Hall in her black cap and gown.

One of the great initiatives of his term was to improve the caliber of SEAS applicants, both male and female alike. During this period of growth, women went from being around 1 percent of the undergraduate population to over 20 percent.

While the younger generations of women were quickly bolstering the numbers of undergraduate and graduate women at SEAS in the 1970s, the pursuit of quality female faculty was a longer process.

In 1968 Princeton appointed its first female full professor—Suzanne Keller of sociology. Yet it took almost 30 more years for a woman to reach the rank of full professor in the SEAS. That distinction goes to Andrea LaPaugh, professor of computer science, who became a member of the Princeton faculty in 1981, earned tenure in 1987, and was promoted to professor in 1995.

The SEAS is now home to 16 women faculty members, nine of whom are tenured. About 30 percent of the undergraduate student body is female. In the incoming class of ’08, 40 percent are women. Women account for 26 percent of the graduate student population.

These stories will profile some of the distinguished, intriguing women who have passed through the Engineering Quad: women who have shaped their fields and the SEAS culture.

Josette Bellan *73 *74 S*76 P’06
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

When Josette (Rosentweig) Bellan arrived on the Princeton campus in 1969 as a new graduate student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering she was the epitome of the stranger in a strange land.

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Josette Bellan

• 1964 under-graduate degree, University of Sciences, Paris

• 1973 M.A. and 1974 Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

• 1978 Began working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

• 1997 Senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

• 2004 Chair of the AIAA Propellant and Combustion Technical Committee; and on the board of directors for the Institute for Liquid Atomization and Spray Systems, North and South America

She was a young woman on a campus where women were a rarity, particularly in the E-Quad. Compounding that, she was barred by a significant language barrier, with only a French–English dictionary as a rather unreliable key to the outside.

Yet these obstacles did not prevent her from becoming an internationally recognized researcher in the field of thermodynamics, and Senior Research Scientist at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), managed by Caltech.

In 1969, Dr. Bellan and her sister, Larisse, passed exams that qualified them to begin Ph.D. programs in France. That spring they visited family in New York, who encouraged them to give American universities a look.

So, Dr. Bellan picked up her French–English dictionary and drafted a letter to Princeton that she now admits was probably a grammatical nightmare. Nonetheless she was invited to visit campus by Professor Cemal Eringen. The sisters stumbled through a day visit, struggling to communicate as best they could.

“Two weeks later Professor Eringen called,” she said. “Apparently he had offered my sister and I fellowships that day, but we didn’t understand him!”

The Rosentweigs decided to stay in the United States and take on the challenge, but unfortunately, by the time they made their decision, it was past the admissions period.

“The dean of admissions said ‘They haven’t applied in time, they don’t know English, and we don’t have a tradition of admitting women,’” she said.

After some wheeling and dealing, it was decided that the sisters Rosentweig would work as assistants for the first semester, and would be allowed to take the TOFOL exam in January and be admitted as graduate students.

They initially worked with Professor Eringen in computer mechanics, but later opted to switch fields. Dr. Bellan worked on fluid mechanics and combustion with Professor Bill Sirignano.

“I had an excellent experience working with him,” she said.

In addition to finding a field of study and an adviser, she found love with graduate student Paul Bellan *76, now a professor of applied physics at Caltech. They have three sons, Norbert, Leon, and Steven. Steven is a sophomore at Princeton.

“I really loved Princeton,” she said. “There was a wonderful spirit in the department at that time. There were many foreign students as well as American students, too. I met a considerable number of people and I started noticing English–French dictionaries on a lot of people’s desks.”

The fact that there were only a handful of women in the school didn’t bother her.

“Many of the male students became and remain my friends,” she said. “Some of them found me a car and maintained it for me. They even found me a summer home.”

Dr. Bellan can look back on a prestigious career. Her current research focuses on multiphase flows—flows of two or more thermodynamic phases moving together, but not necessarily at the same velocity or temperature. They naturally occur in tornadoes, volcanic plumes, and sand dunes, and are also found in many manufacturing processes.

Her most significant discoveries include finding that:

• turbulence in two-phase flows and one-phase flows are governed by different phenomena;

• turbulence in high pressure flows and single-phase atmospheric flows are governed by different phenomena, and;

• in evaporating sprays, the specifics of drop-fuel composition can affect the features of local turbulence.

“I think that in order to do research you need to be very persevering,” she said. “It’s like having a frontier between the known and the unknown, and you’re trying to push the frontier closer to the unknown side and enlarge the known. That’s what you’re doing every day. You’re continuously learning things and developing your ideas. In fact, I’m always most excited and most proud of the things that I’m doing right now. Always looking forward. That’s the goal.”

Postscript

Dr. Bellan and her family established the Larisse Rosentweig Klein Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Graduate Research in memory of her sister Larisse Rosentweig, who died prematurely.

 

Marian Ott ’76 S’75 P’06, Basic Engineering

Princeton has long fostered a spirit of public service and encouraged its students to adopt that spirit.

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Marian Ott

• 1976 B.S.E. in Basic Engineering

• 1978 Transit analyst, Transportation System Center, U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Cambridge, Mass.

• 1980 Senior engineer, New Jersey Department of Transportation

• 1982 Assistant general manager, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Nashville, Tenn.

• 1988 Budget consultant Alameda-Contra Costa Transit Authority, Oakland, Calif.

• 1989 Senior consulting engineer at JHK & Assoc., San Francisco, Calif.

• 1991 Executive director, Nashville Regional Transportation Authority

• 2004 Fulltime volunteer for many civic organizations

 

Marian Ott is the quintessential representative of the success of this initiative. After a successful career in the transportation industry, she now is a full-time public servant, committing 40 to 50 hours each week to a long list of civic organizations.

“Public service has always been important and of interest to me,” Ms. Ott said, “but certainly when you’re at a place like Princeton, the culture validates it.”

Truly the Princeton culture has seeped into Ms. Ott’s blood. One of her many volunteer duties is serving as president of the Princeton Club of Middle Tennessee. She also admits to decorating her Christmas tree entirely with tiger ornaments.

She is married to civil engineering graduate Craig Philip ’75. Mr. Philip and Ms. Ott have two daughters, Jennifer and Julia. Julia is currently a SEAS sophomore in chemical engineering. Alain Kornhauser *71, professor of operations research and financial engineering was Ms. Ott’s thesis adviser, and also a member of the Ott–Philip wedding party.

Despite an apprehensive attitude toward women in engineering during the 70s, Ms. Ott made a splash in the field of transportation engineering.

She made the biggest impacts in Tennessee, working early in her career for the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, and later acting as the first executive director for the Nashville Regional Transportation Authority. This agency was created with the ambitious mission of developing a nine-county transit system.

During this time, she was appointed to the Tennessee General Assembly’s Legislative Special Study Committee researching the funding needs of transit in Tennessee.

Since she left the Regional Transportation Authority—and the working world—in 1998, Ms. Ott has devoted herself entirely to volunteer work. Yet, much of this is still committed to issues of transportation. She is chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board, and vice chair of Cumberland Region Tomorrow, an organization that is trying to reduce suburban sprawl in the region.

She is also involved in other civic matters. She has been a member of the League of Women Voters for more than 20 years, serving as president of the Nashville chapter from 2000 to 2002. Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen recently appointed Ms. Ott to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, an independent state government agency that enforces laws regarding campaign finance, lobbyist registration and disclosure, and conflict of interest disclosure.

“I have always been interested in public policy issues,” she said. “I ended up in engineering because of something called an urban engineering program. I thought that it sounded like a combination of my two favorite subjects: math and the history of politics.”

Finally, Ms. Ott also carves out time in her schedule to volunteer as a tutor for the Nashville Adult Literacy Council.

“That’s probably my favorite,” she said. “When I stopped working full-time, I wanted to do activities that would keep my name alive professionally, but also develop new skills and get involved in things that would give me direct interaction with people I otherwise wouldn’t meet.”

One cannot help but wonder what sort of clock Ms. Ott uses to find the time to do all these activities.

“The hard part is that I don’t have an office,” she said. “I’m really thankful for technology. The cell phone. The palm pilot. They help me stay organized and self-motivated.”

Another helpful tool is Ms. Ott’s Princeton engineering education.

“In public policy it’s good to be methodical and have a framework to use,” she said. “I developed my skills in problem-solving during my engineering education.”

Ms. Ott said that being the only woman in the civil engineering department at the time did not have any adverse effects on her experience.

“It wasn’t that different for me because I have six younger brothers,” she said. “Being in all-male company was not a problem for me.”

She was chapter president of the American Society of Civil Engineers her senior year, and, along with the other officers, was “roasted” at an end-of-the-year celebration.

“They gave joke presents to us all,” she said. “They presented my gift by saying ‘These tools will prepare Marian for a career in engineering as a woman.’ Then they gave me a steno pad and a dustpan.”

Ms. Ott took the tongue-in-cheek gift happily.

 

Linda Abriola *79 *83, Civil Engineering

When Linda Abriola was a graduate student, there were no female engineer role models for herself and the two women graduate students she shared an office with.

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Linda Abriola

• 1976 graduated Drexel University with highest honors

• 1979 M.S. in civil engineering

• 1980 M.A. in civil engineering

• 1983 Ph.D. in civil engineering

• 1984 Joined faculty at the University of Michigan

• 1996 Director of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering Program

• 2003 Elected to the National Academy of Engineering

• 2003 Dean of Engineering at Tufts University

However, throughout her career in academia, and now as Dean of Engineering at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., she is a mentor for female engineers of the next generation.

Dean Abriola has made an indelible mark on the field of environmental engineering, focusing her research on remediation of contaminated soils and waters. She has studied nonaqueous organic liquid contaminants to better understand their entrapment, mass transfer, and biodegradation.

Because conventional remediation methods have been deemed relatively ineffective as well as costly, she’s studied the use of surfactants—surface-acting substances, like detergents—as a way to enhance the removal of contaminants from aquifers.

She also researches intrinsic bioremediation, which puts to use the contaminant-degrading capabilities of indigenous microbes instead of using engineered substances. She and her team developed and applied a numerical bioremediation simulator.

Dean Abriola was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for her leadership in the field of groundwater contamination and remediation. Yet during her graduate education, she was never sure she’d have such success.

“ One of the issues I had as a woman,” she said, “is that I didn’t know how the game was played. It took me much longer than the men to pick up the rules of academic scholarship.”

Dean Abriola explained that all Ph.D. programs are intense and isolating, but even more so for the female students in a building where the nearest ladies’ restroom is a long hike away.

“We took it upon ourselves to put a sign on the men’s room that we could flip over to read ‘Ladies,’” she said. “The janitors didn’t like that, though.”

Convenient restrooms were an annoyance, but more troubling were the perceived limitations on women’s professional and personal lives.

“Around that time, in the early 80s, the school brought in a woman professor to give a seminar,” Dean Abriola said. “I remember a lot of these women professors standing up and saying ‘You cannot have children and get tenure.’ I got up and walked out. That was not something I wanted to hear at the time.”

Although Dean Abriola herself is divorced and never had children, she feels strongly about providing an environment that allows room for both family and scholarship.

“Even though it hasn’t happened in my life and I don’t have a family, I would never want to be forced to make that choice,” she said. “A career is part of a life, not a whole life.”

Dean Abriola says that this is still a more significant issue in academia than in industry. Tufts now has a “tenure clock-stoppage” policy that allows junior faculty the opportunity to postpone the tenure process until after their child’s infancy.

A career in academia has shown Dean Abriola that being a woman in the sciences brings with it some unexpected responsibilities. When she began her career at Michigan she was pursued by many groups that wanted her “female perspective.”

“I was thrust immediately into a lot of committee work and mentoring,” she said. “I never said no, so I was doing far too much. I advise young women now to learn how to say ‘No.’”

As dean, however, she does not want to help just female students, but all students. She aims to do this by fostering more collaborative research and providing a more interdisciplinary education across the board.

“I’ve worked my whole life on environmental pollution, which relies on public policy,” she said. “But engineers have never had the voice in public policy because they’ve not been taught to communicate that way. Unfortunately, because of this a lot of decisions are not made on sound science. I’d love to create an education for engineers that empowers them to become involved in policy-making.”

Her own career has placed her in the thick of policy-making.

Dean Abriola’s exceptional career as an engineer is even more intriguing because it almost never occurred.

“At one time I wanted to be a classical violinist,” she said. “I got the engineering degree to fall back on.”

As a student, she played violin in the Princeton Chamber Orchestra and in the Trenton Symphony, and continues to play now.

“I found a professor here [at Tufts] who plays piano, and so we’ve played together,” she said. “It keeps me sane.”

 

Alice Gast *84, Chemical Engineering

Alice Gast has received a long list of awards from a variety of prestigious organizations. She has made astounding discoveries by working at the frontier of physical and chemical processes, hopscotching surely throughout the fields of chemistry, physics, and mechanics.

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Alice Gast

• 1980 Valedictorian at University of Southern California

• 1984 Ph.D. in civil engineering

• 1985 joined the faculty at Stanford

• 1992 received the Allan P. Colburn Award for Excellence in Publications by a Young Member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers

• 2001 elected to the National Academy of Engineering

• 2001 joined MIT as associate provost, vice president for research, and professor of chemical engineering

She spent most of her career on the faculty at Stanford University, and is now associate provost, vice president for research, and professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 2001 she received the highest recognition of her forebears and peers by being inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

Yet she still says that the most exciting part of her career was when she was a graduate student at Princeton University.

“Your first-year experience in graduate school is very competitive, challenging, and stressful, but once you dig into your research it’s the best of times,” she said. “Being a Ph.D. student is the greatest opportunity for exploration and learning. It’s just really exciting.”

Professor Gast worked with Chemical Engineering Professor William Russel (now the dean of the Graduate School), and Carol Hall, one of the very first female faculty members at the SEAS.

“I had a wonderful experience,” Professor Gast said. “They were just the right balance of guidance and advice. I learned a tremendous amount about mentoring graduate students from them.”

By the time Professor Gast earned her Ph.D., the ranks of women at the SEAS, while still distinctly fewer than the men, had grown to about a fifth of the student body. She says that she did not feel a gender divide.

“Chemical engineering, at the time was a very collegial department,” she said. “There was a lot of camaraderie amongst the students and the faculty, and I found the faculty to be very receptive and welcoming to women. Having Carol Hall on the faculty may have also been welcoming to the female students.”

After leaving Princeton, Professor Gast spent 16 years at Stanford, and is still advising four Stanford students through their Ph.D. programs. She said her years there were very rewarding, and she learned a great deal from a small, collegial department.

“I came here [to MIT] for the challenge and the opportunity to work in administration,” she said. “The main goals are to foster interdisciplinary work and improve the research environment for those sorts of collaborations.”

She’s currently involved in the design of a new research center for the Bio-X project, a human health research initiative combining the work of scientists, engineers, and medical doctors.

Professor Gast said the new building will be more open than compartmentalized, thus encouraging a more collegial and collaborative environment.

“Breaking down the walls will be scary for some who’ve been in the profession for a long time,” she said. “It’s challenging to change one’s culture but this will be a change for the better.”

Her current research project focuses on complex and supermolecular fluids. Her group recently completed experiments at a National Aeronautics and Space Administration space station, using a zero-gravity environment to study how colloids change structure in the magnetic field.

She explained that the way colloids in suspension change from a syrupy fluid to a gel-like solid in the magnetic field could have applications in the mechanics of brakes and clutches.

Still, despite her high marks in research and administration, there is another part of her career that Professor Gast is prouder of.

“If you ask me what is my biggest achievement, I think I’d have to say the 27 Ph.D. students I’ve had,” she said. “They’re my proudest accomplishment. Yes, I love working in my lab. We do exciting and interesting science, but my primary job is graduate education and training young researchers.”

When she’s got time to beg off her considerable duties on campus, she enjoys outdoorsy activities like cross-country skiing, hiking, and bicycling.

“I’ve also been very fortunate to have had some wonderful experiences on sabbatical in France and Germany,” she said.

In addition, she schedules plenty of playtime with her family. She and her husband, Bradley have a seven- and a nine-year-old.

“They’re a lot of fun,” she said. “We’re having a good time. It’s just so fun to learn with them.”

 

Jocelyn Kaiser ’88 , Chemical Engineering

Professors in the E-Quad often keep weary undergraduates inspired by reminding them they’ll be able to do anything they want with an engineering degree from Princeton.

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Jocelyn Kaiser

• 1988 B.S.E. in chemical engineering

• 1988 Associate staff, Polymer Composites Program GE Corp. Research and Development

• 1992 Associate instructor, Indiana University

• 1994 Intern, Science magazine, Washington, D.C.

• 1995 Writer, Science magazine

Jocelyn Kaiser must have taken this message to heart. She used her degree to thrive in the field of journalism. Ms. Kaiser is a writer for Science magazine, translating complicated research into terms anyone can understand.

Ms. Kaiser always had interests in a broad variety of topics, but did not always have time to explore all of them whilst in the thick of her rigorous Princeton engineering curriculum.

She decided to take a year away from her undergraduate education to travel through Europe. She worked at odd jobs: an au pair in France and a waitress in Switzerland.

“I found the time, then, to read the newspaper more,” she said. “It opened my eyes, and whetted my interest in the news.”

However, when she came back to Princeton, she chose to complete her B.S.E. in chemical engineering. She worked with Professor Robert Prud’homme to complete her senior thesis, and after graduation worked in a polymer composites laboratory for two years.

Yet during this time, she remained intrigued by journalism. She knew she wanted to continue her education, but which way to go: journalism school or medical school? Wondering which direction to go in next, Ms. Kaiser again took to traveling to gain perspective: this time to Central America.

After almost a year traveling, she decided that medical school was too big of a commitment to make without knowing for certain that the siren song of the news would stop beckoning.

Thus she went to Indiana University to earn a master’s degree in journalism, and has been satisfied with her choice.

“It’s fun. It’s interesting. I like the variety,” she said. “I just really enjoy chasing a story, and at Science I get to write in-depth stories about research, which I find very fulfilling.”

Ms. Kaiser says that part of the fulfillment comes from the very challenging, deadline-driven nature of the work.

“One challenge to the job is going beyond the obvious news and digging up the less obvious stories,” she said. “Looking beyond the stack of press releases sitting on my desk.”

When Ms. Kaiser began at the magazine, she was covering environmental science and policy, but has since moved on to covering the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which she describes as the “28 billion dollar behemoth that funds most biomedical research in the United States.”

This new beat has brought with it many days in Congressional hearings, as well as new complications for Ms. Kaiser to conquer.

“Getting people to talk to you is another challenge, and this is especially hard with stories that are political,” she said. “Covering the NIH means that most of my stories deal with politics. People don’t want to talk on the record.”

Although Ms. Kaiser is not a practicing engineer, she avers that her Princeton engineering education has helped her throughout her career.

“Princeton was a very rigorous place to get an undergraduate degree,” she said. “Going through it helps you develop the ability to critically think. In fact, a lot of the ways of thinking I learned in engineering school are important in journalism too. Sometimes when I’m doing a story, I tackle it from a lot of different angles and use the same problem-solving techniques.”

And what of the adventurous spirit that traipsed through Europe and Central America? Is Ms. Kaiser’s career choice satisfying the world-traveler within her?

“Most of the time, I’m tied to my desk, reporting by phone or covering events in Washington,” she admits. “But I’ve also had the chance to take some memorable reporting trips.”

She has been on assignment in Cuba to report about new biotechnology research, in Costa Rica following tropical ecologists studying the responses of the rainforest to a warming climate, and even in Antarctica.

She describes that trip as “two queasy weeks on a British research ship with geologists studying the glacial history of the Antarctic peninsula.”

Back in D.C., Ms. Kaiser is single and lives in a rowhouse that is within bicycling distance from her office.

Other Princeton engineers have also made the decision to explore journalism as a career. Recently, Carrie Lock *03 and Prachi Patel *03 enrolled in journalism school after earning their M.S.Es.

 

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