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dates whose careers involved hands-on engineering over those with largely administrative or teaching experience. As the number of women engineers has steadily increased, and as equal opportunity for women was made law, and then generally accepted, the prestige of the Achievement Award has increased. Irene Peden, Ph.D., observed that the largely male engineering profession of the 1970s was not very impressed with her Achievement Award. But what a difference two decades makes! The 1993 Achievement Award recipient, Elsa Reichmanis, Ph.D., was certain that the award increased her prestige among her peers — both men and women — and paved the way for other opportunities. The SWE Achievement Award almost always receives prominent mention, along with membership in the National Academy of Engineering and other prestigious awards, in the biographies of this extraordinary group of women. The resumes of Achievement Award recipients are peppered with “firsts.” Many of the pioneers — women who entered engineering in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s — took advantage of opportunities created by world events. During WWII, university engineering departments languished because so many young men were in the military, and an unprecedented number of women were accepted. Then in the 1950s, when the U.S. government allocated huge resources to the space program and aerospace research, there were opportunities for women engineers in this new field. Sometimes being barred from an established field directed women to a new field. For example, Barbara Liskov, Ph.D., 1996 Achievement Award recipient, had always excelled at math. After earning her B.A. in math from the University of California, Berkeley, she was rejected from graduate math programs at Princeton and Berkeley. But she was accepted into computer programs at Harvard and Stanford and chose to do graduate work in artificial intelli-
gence at Stanford in the early 1960s. The computer science field was in its infancy then, and Dr. Liskov was the first woman in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. from a computer science department. Many Achievement Award recipients were the first woman to earn an engineering degree from their university, the first to be elected to professional societies, the first to chair their university engineering department, and the first woman to head up divisions of major corporations or branches of the U.S. Karle military. Those who came after in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s continued to break new ground, not only technically and scientifically, but also socially, advocating for women in engineering and encouraging young women to enter the profession.
before they discovered engineering.) Almost all cite someone — a parent, teacher, a mentor — who encouraged them. Finally, Achievement Award recipients are willing to take risks, to try new things, and entertain new ways of looking at the world. This original, even visionary, thinking is essential to the problem solving that all engineers do.
It shows up early
Most Achievement Award recipients showed an early interest in science, technology, and exceptional ability in math. Maria Telkes, Ph.D., born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1900, became interested in the possibilities of solar energy when she was in high school. Joan Berkowitz, Ph.D., 1983 Achievement Award recipient, did such an impressive school science project on weather systems that her teacher announced she was destined to be a scientist. Isabella Karle, Ph.D., a physical chemist and 1968 Achievement Award recipient, was so mathematically and scientifically precocious that she’d earned her Ph.D. by the time she was 23. Bonnie Dunbar, Ph.D., currently President and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle and a veteran of five space flights, including the first space shuttle docking with Mir, was the 2005 Achievement Award recipient. She remembers watching Sputnik pass over her home in eastern Washington State when she was a child. “I had this intense desire to find out about the world around me — especially Clarke space — and to participate in the exploration of space and to really solve the unknowns.” Watching mission control for the U.S. space program launches was also a formative experience for Lisa Klein, 1998 Achievement Award recipient. “I was in first grade when news of Sputnik reached us, she said. “I may have taken it more personally than most, but I wanted to be part of it all.” Elaine Oran, Ph.D., physicist, originator of computational methods for solving complex reactive flow problems, and 2006 Achievement Award recipient, says
Extraordinary women, common traits
The 58 women selected for the Achievement Award from 1952 to 2009 represent a variety of backgrounds, scientific and engineering disciplines, and ages. Some received the award in mid-career, and some were very well established — even renowned — in their field. Achievement Award recipients come from every part of the United States, and some came to the United States from abroad, adding a new language and culture to their list of conquests. Some worked in the same discipline for their entire career, while others applied the problem-solving tools of engineering to a variety of disciplines. Achievement Award recipients have distinguished themselves in every arena: government, business, the armed forces, and academe. Nevertheless, this remarkable group of women has some common characteristics: They are hard working, purposeful, and persistent. Most had interests and abilities in science and math that showed up early and set them apart. (Several of the pioneers, including Yvonne Brill and Edith Clarke, worked as “computers” — that is, people who did mathematical computations —
SWE SUMMER 2010