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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

Do you know of a great woman in engineering that should be recognized? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add her to the blog. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

Woman of the Week – Esther Conwell

Posted January 16, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Dr. Esther Conwell practiced physics at a time when few women were entering science. Her pioneering semiconductor research earned her a place as one of Discover magazine’s 50 Most Important Women of Science in 2002.

The daughter of eastern European immigrants — her father, a portrait photographer, and her mother, a homemaker for a husband and three daughters — Conwell was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn. She frequently described her home borough as a “frontier” in the 1930s. As a teen she didn’t show significant interest in math and science, Conwell excelled in math and showed an early love for order and discipline and challenge. She loved to dance throughout her life, as well.


“I began dancing in college, first modern dance and then ballet,” says Conwell said in an interview with the University of Rochester. “I think the same things I love about ballet, I love about physics. They’re both exact and require discipline. That sense of order is what really attracted me to physics in college. And the fact that there was no lab work. I always hated lab work.”

She lived her life in New York State, working in many different Empire State cities. She was a pioneer in the field of semiconductor research that revolutionized modern computers. She was also awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2010. Her expertise earned her the rare honor of memberships in both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.


Conwell studied properties of semiconductors and organic conductors, especially electron transport. She is possibly most well-known for her work elucidating how electrons travel through semiconductors, an accomplishment that helped revolutionize modern computing.

She obtained a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1942, an M.S. from the University of Rochester in 1945, and a Ph.D. in 1948 from the University of Chicago, all in physics.

After her first year of graduate school, she got a job with Western Electric as an assistant engineer. At the time, payroll did not have a job title code for female assistant engineers. Her job title was changed – along with her pay being reduced – so she could work under an existing job code.

Conwell spent most of her life in the industry after her completing college. She worked as an industrial scientist for 47 years at Bell Telephone Laboratories (1951-1952), GTE Laboratories (1952-1972), and Xerox Corporation (1972-1998).

Credit: Pool/Getty Images North America

In 1972 she joined the Xerox Wilson Research Center, where she was a Research Fellow from 1981 to 1998. In 1998, Conwell joined the University of Rochester, where she was a professor of chemistry and of physics. She earned four patents and published more than 200 papers.

Conwell was a fellow of the IEEE and the American Physical Society, as well. She was also a member of many societies, including the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She had received the Achievement Award of the Society of Women Engineers and an Honorary D.Sc. from Brooklyn College. She received the 1997 IEEE Edison Medal for "fundamental contributions to transport theory in semiconductor and organic conductors, and their application to the semiconductor, electronic copying and printing industries."

She passed away in 2014 after a car accident at her home.


2 comments; last comment on 01/17/2017
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Woman of the Week – Caroline Haslett

Posted January 09, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Caroline Haslett, an English electrical engineer and electricity industry administrator, was also a strong advocate of women’s rights. She wanted to advance women beyond the stigma of being exclusively housewives and mothers.

She was the eldest daughter of Robert Haslett, a railway signal fitter and activist for the co-operative movement, and his wife, Caroline Sarah. The family lived in West Sussex, England for most of her life.

For her first job, she was employed by the Cochran Boiler Company as a clerk and joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). During World War I, she acquired a basic engineering training in London and in Annan, Dumfriesshire. From here, she became a pioneer for women in the electrical and professional world.

In 1919, Haslett left Cochran's to become the first secretary of the Women's Engineering Society (WES) and first editor of The Woman Engineer magazine, which she continued to edit until 1932. In 1920, she helped to found Atalanta, an engineering firm for women. In November 1924, she co-founded and became the first director of the Electrical Association for Women, of which she remained a director until 1956, when she was obliged to retire because of ill health; from 1924 to 1956 she edited The Electrical Age.

In 1925, WES came to national attention when it organized a special conference. The conference was opened by the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) and was chaired by Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. This event also introduced Caroline Haslett to a wider audience. She remained secretary of WES until 1929, when she became honorary secretary, and she served as the society's president from 1940 to 1941.

Between 1946 and 1954, Haslett was the only woman member of the Council of the British Institute of Management. Later in 1953-1954 Chairman of the British Electrical Development Association, the first time a woman had been appointed to that office. She also was also the only woman member of the British Electricity Authority, where she served from 1947 to 1956.

She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1931 and in 1947 was promoted to Dame Commander. Her activism sparked a great interest among many women’s groups and other groups, including town governing bodies. She was active in many organizations in additional to her scholarly work.

She retired to live at the home of her sister (and biographer) Rosalind Messenger at Bungay, in Suffolk, where she died from a coronary thrombosis in 1957. Many reports say her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.


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Woman of the Week – Elsie MacGill

Posted January 02, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Elsie MacGill, known as “Queen of the Hurricanes” was an aeronautical engineer during World War II and made many strides in the aerospace field. She was the first woman to earn an aeronautical engineering degree – among many other firsts.

Born in Canada, her parents were supportive of learning. They home-schooled all their children in a formal way, modeled after Lord Roberts, a public school that the older boys later attended. Lessons included drawing and swimming lessons, as well as academic work. Later, they attended King George Secondary School, which was affiliated with McGill University. This rigorous education facilitated Elsie entering University of British Columbia when she was only 16. She was admitted to the applied sciences program, but the Dean of the faculty asked her to leave after only one term.

Her mother was appointed Judge of the Juvenile Court of Vancouver when MacGill was 12. After 1911, the racial strife in British Columbia continued to escalate, and her father’s immigration-related legal work was directly impacted. This caused severe financial strain for the family during the war. Her early aptitude for "fixing things" held the family in good stead, and informed discussions of possible careers.

She was admitted to the University of Toronto's Bachelor of Applied Sciences program in 1923. During the summers, she worked in machine shops repairing electric motors to supplement the theory.

During this time, she became exposed to the nascent field of aeronautical engineering. However, sadly she became ill with polio just before graduation. Doctors said she would likely spend her life in a wheelchair, a reality she refused to accept. She powered through the disease and learned to walk by supporting herself with two metal canes.

Following graduation, MacGill took a junior job with a firm in Pontiac, Michigan. There, the company began producing aircrafts, which furthered Elsie's interest in aeronautics. She began part-time graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan, enrolling in the fall of 1927 in the full-time Master of Science in Engineering program to begin aircraft design work and conduct research and development in the University's new aeronautics facilities. In 1929, she became the first woman in North America, and likely the world, to be awarded a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

MacGill was the first woman to do so many things in her field. In addition to being the first to earn various degrees, she was the first woman elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC). She joined the group within a few years of her first engineering job after school, where she worked at Fairchild Aircraft's operations in Longueuil as an Assistant Aeronautical Engineer.

Later in 1938, MacGill was hired as Chief Aeronautical Engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry (CanCar), becoming the first woman in the world to hold such a position.

At CanCar she designed and tested a new training aircraft, the Maple Leaf Trainer II. The Maple Leaf Trainer was designed and first built in CanCar's Fort William (now Thunder Bay) factories, where MacGill had moved. Although the Maple Leaf II did not enter service with any Commonwealth forces, ten were sold to Mexico, where its high-altitude performance was important given the many airfields from which it had to operate.

Her role in the company shifted when the factory was selected to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The factory quickly expanded from about 500 workers to 4,500 by war's end, half of them women.

MacGill was also responsible for designing solutions to allow the aircraft to operate during the winter, introducing de-icing controls and a system for fitting skis for landing on snow.

In 1943, production of this aircraft shut down after producing about 1,400 Hurricanes. It was because of this that she earned her nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes.” She wrote and presented a paper about the experience and was even portrayed in a comic book, as well as numerous media stories.

She later met E. J. (Bill) Soulsby during a time when CanCar was looking for more ways to produce goods, after the Hurricane production had stopped. The company secured with a contract from the U.S. Navy to build Curtiss SB2C Helldivers. This production did not go nearly as smoothly, and a continual stream of minor changes from Curtiss-Wright (demanded by the U.S. Navy) meant that full-scale production took a long time to get started. Soulsby and MacGill were dismissed from the company, and rumors swirled that it was about Soulsby’s behavior with some naval officers, but it was actually because the two were having an affair.

MacGill and Soulsby were married in 1943 and moved to Toronto, where they set up an aeronautical consulting business. In 1946, she became the first woman to serve as Technical Advisor for International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). There, she helped to draft International Air Worthiness regulations for the design and production of commercial aircraft. In 1947, she became the chairman of the United Nations Stress Analysis Committee, the first woman ever to chair a UN committee.

MacGill was a pioneer of the aeronautical world, and the list of “firsts” she accomplished in her life is significant. By overcoming many of life’s obstacles, she was able to prove incredibly successful and innovative.


6 comments; last comment on 01/05/2017
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Woman of the Week – Judith Resnik

Posted December 26, 2016 4:30 PM by lmno24

Judith Resnik was an American engineer and NASA astronaut who was killed when the Challenger space shuttle was destroyed in 1986.

She was only the second American woman astronaut in space, after Sally Ride. In high school, she was a strong student of classical piano, math, and science. She studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. From there, she was hired at RCA as an engineer.

Resnik was recruited into the astronaut program in January 1978. Her first space flight was as a mission specialist on the maiden voyage of Discovery, from August to September 1984. She was also a mission specialist aboard Challenger for STS-51-L. She was the first American Jewish astronaut to go into space, the first Jewish woman, and at the time only the second Jewish person to go to space (after Boris Volynov of the Soviet Union).

Though her life was short, Resnik’s impact has inspired many and her life was notable. Her first trip to space was a successful 7-day voyage, during which the crew deployed three satellites. The crew earned the name "Icebusters" in successfully removing hazardous ice particles from the orbiter using the Remote Manipulator System. STS 41-D completed 96 orbits of the earth before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on September 5, 1984. With the completion of this flight she logged 144 hours and 57 minutes in space.

About two years later, the Challenger crew was prepared to go into space. The crew on board the Orbiter Challenger included the spacecraft commander, Mr. F.R. Scobee, the pilot, Commander M.J. Smith (USN), fellow mission specialists, Dr. R.E. McNair, and Lieutenant Colonel E.S. Onizuka (USAF), as well as two civilian payload specialists, Mr. G.B. Jarvis and Mrs. S. C. McAuliffe.

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight, which lead to the deaths of all seven people on board. The spacecraft disintegrated over the ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. This part was not designed to fly under unusually cold conditions, like this launch. Its failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRB's aft field joint attachment and the structural failure of the external tank.

The shuttle did not have an escape system, it did have ejection seats. However, the impact with the ocean’s surface was likely too violent for anyone to have survived. It is believed some crew members survived the initial breakup of the spacecraft, but the exact times of death are still not known to this day.

The disaster was broadcast live on television from the Kennedy Space Center, and further media coverage following the accident was extensive.

Both of Resnik's flights were marred by technical problems and delays, Deason said. The first was delayed twice; the second, five times.

Resnik’s legacy is strong. She has been awarded several posthumous honors. Landmarks and buildings have been named after her.

In 1986, the IEEE Judith A. Resnik Award was established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Annually, it is presented to people who have made outstanding contributions to space engineering and other fields.


3 comments; last comment on 12/28/2016
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Woman of the Week – Katherine Johnson

Posted December 19, 2016 4:30 PM by lmno24

When honored by People magazine as one of 25 Women Changing the World, Katherine Johnson spoke of her accomplishments as “ordinary.”

I think it’s safe to say they are anything but that.

Born in 1918 in small White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, her intelligence and thirst for learning was apparent at an early age. Her father recognized his daughter’s potential and moved the family over 100 miles so she could attend high school.

In school, Johnson fell in love with numbers and math. She took every math course she could and graduated high school at just 14. She enrolled at just 10, and graduation was seen as a truly amazing feat for her. She grew up in an era when school for African-Americans normally stopped at eighth grade.

“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did,” she said in a NASA interview.

After spending her early adult years as a teacher and later as a stay-at-home mom, she began working for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.

NACA had taken the then-unusual step of hiring women for the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating the results of wind tunnel tests in 1935. In a time before the electronic computers we know today, these women had the job title of “computer,” meaning to compute by hand.

NACA took another unusual step for the time, hiring African-American women. In time, there became even more of a need for people to do computing work, and Johnson fit the bill.

By 1953, the growing demands of early space research meant there were openings for African-American computers at Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department – and she found the perfect place to put her extraordinary mathematical skills to work.

She worked with other women performing math calculations until she was temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team, and ended up staying there. Her specialty was calculating the trajectories for space shots which determined the timing for launches, including the Mercury mission and Apollo 11, the mission to the moon.

It was this work that she is most known for.

As a computer, she calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – that’s the mission where he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Her calculations proved critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program, her work was very important for many “firsts” in the field of space exploration.

Johnson has earned a number of honors for her work, from the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team, to the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack H. Obama. She was the recipient of the 2015 National Medal of Freedom.

Johnson also worked closely with Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, both extraordinary scientists in their own right. Next month, the film “Hidden Figures” will premiere. The movie will document the women’s work on one of the most important space launches in history.

The movie documents the careers of the three women, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. The launch was a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence and turned around the Space Race during the Cold War.


2 comments; last comment on 12/20/2016
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