Female engineering student-researchers ‘rule the lab’
A. Sue Weisler
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Satish Kandlikar noticed the difference this summer.
It was subtle, but still noticeable, that for the first time, more young women served as research assistants and co-ops in his laboratory than in the past. And four in particular— Preethi Gopalan, Valentina Mejia, Camila Gomez and Carmen Azzaretti—have connected in such a way that Kandlikar says, “There is nothing outside the bounds with this group. They are ruling the lab.”
Results of determined efforts by the university to increase the number of young women in STEM disciplines are becoming evident in classrooms and labs across the university.
As the 2012 academic year closed, RIT had nearly 18,000 students enrolled in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs. Of that total, 32 percent were female students, and the number is growing. The number of female students in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering has increased as 175 female students will enter as first-year students this fall compared to 66 in 2007.
Kandlikar has guided more than 150 students over the years on projects that have become benchmarks in the field of fuel cell and heat-transfer technologies. Many students seek out opportunities beyond the classroom to work on real-world projects.
“When I started, I didn’t know what a fuel cell was,” says Gopalan, a microsystems doctoral student from Delhi, India. “I worked on small experiments. Over time, we built one design for the gas channel of a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell that General Motors is using for their auto motive fuel cell.” Her work on the water transport and management aspect of those fuel cells—a catalyzing process to increase efficiency—is part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and includes research partners General Motors, Penn State and the University of Tennessee.
“In this lab it is not contained to one discipline. I am working on fluids, physics and material properties,” Gopalan adds. “At the end of the day, when you are out in the marketplace, you have so much fundamental knowledge that industries definitely want to look at you.”
Azzaretti and Gomez, entering their second and third years respectively, are still a few years away from looking for jobs.
“All the skills that I’ve acquired have helped me progress and to be comfortable here at RIT and at the lab, too,” says Gomez, who came to RIT from Bogota, Colombia. “I’m putting them into practice while I am learning them.”
Azzaretti agreed. The Niskayuna, N.Y., native is working on the design of a new pool boiling system, which is part of the heat transfer project. “I am learning to understand the ‘why’ in projects like this, how tiny amounts of water react with surfaces, channels.”
The systems the students are working on are complex.
“We all work well together,”says Mejia, a graduate student from Medellin, Colombia. “Like Dr. Kandlikar says, you don’t know a lot at the beginning, but after a few quarters you really learn. When you understand the fundamentals of how things happen, you can use this for other fields.”
And having one of the top researchers in the field as a mentor, and graduate- level students like Gopalan and Mejia assisting with lab work, underscores the value of combining theory with applications. It also provides an educational pay-it-forward with young women increasingly becoming role models for others.