New2UCDavis : A Journey through S.T.E.M

“A blog series for newly admitted University of California students considering the Davis campus”

 

Congratulations on your acceptance to the many University of California campuses! Now that you’ve decided where you want to go (I hope UC Davis!) you might be asking how to start your journey at University.

A lot of new undergraduates like your self, and undergraduates around the country are choosing a S.T.E.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) major to pursue in their educational career. As you might have heard and seen around the job market, S.T.E.M seems to be essential to the future of every industry we see today. In general, many people find it a difficult path, full of studying , exams, and cramming of knowledge. Groups such as minorities in the United States and women find it even a more difficult path as traditionally the S.T.E.M field has been seen as a field dominated by one particular group (and gender).

Take for example UC Davis – in 2015 our University undergraduate population was 41 percent male and 59 percent female. It’s also clear to see that degrees in the S.T.E.M field are growing in popularity, earning a big percentage of degrees conferred to undergraduates (take a look at the stats). You would think that since the college is actually majority female, the jobs earned after college would reflect that stat. However, looking at the percentage of people ending up in the S.T.E.M workforce after graduation, we see only 25 percent of women in the field, even though they make up half of the work force in the U.S.

Being a new undergraduate, no matter what gender or background – this all could seem frightening to you. Luckily we have examples of individuals who faced adversity and overcame it to pursue their passion and career in S.T.E.M

 

Let’s take a journey through S.T.E.M with one such individual –

 

Meet Chancellor Emerita Linda P.B. Katehi, PhD.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Katehi is a distinguished professor and researcher with the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering here at UC Davis. She was also Chancellor of the University of California, Davis from 2009 to 2016.

Professor Katehi on the surface has an impressive resume which details her many contributions towards the advancement of women in science and S.T.E.M education in the U.S, the field of electrical engineering and science education/research access in general. UC Davis has been named the top college for women in S.T.E.M by Forbes in 2016, something she worked very hard on during her time as Chancellor. Among her many achievements, creating UC Davis into a “top public research institution” or “Public Ivy” had been a top priority, which pretty much have worked.

You might be wondering – “how did she get into this?”

 

The Early Years

Well it started like many disadvantaged groups in a S.T.E.M  path start – through struggle. Sitting down with Professor Katehi, I first got a sense of where she began her interest in S.T.E.M and it’s a intriguing story. She was born into a modest setting in a poor community in Greece (an island of Greece specifically). Often in that era (and even now) a girls role was already decided – she would be a support system in the household and marry off early in order to start her duties. The Katehi household however, did not work that way. Professor Katehi’s journey into S.T.E.M started with the most fundamental support system a person can have, her mother. She describes her mother as someone who brought her comfort and “displayed the highest levels of integrity and work ethic” – something which permeated through Professor Katehi as a young child. In her early interactions with her mother, she would notice a radio her mother listened to and she became fascinated with how it produced it’s sound. Professor Katehi asked her mother “where are these noises coming from?” and her mother, not coming from a S.T.E.M background and having only basic education her self, simply replied “there are little people inside it saying things”. This answer made Professor Katehi extremely curious, to the point of her asking her mother constantly how “little people” inside could produce voices. Eventually her mother, realizing this explanation would never satiate Katehi, opened up the radio for her and let her explore what was inside. This early interaction between the parts inside the radio, and the output they produced got Professor Katehi thinking about a path down the S.T.E.M field. Side Note: The whole story reminded me of a brilliant response to a University of California application essay question which asked “What inspired you to choose your major?”. I could have said this to Professor Katehi, but I’m sure she wrote something just a brilliant on her own admission applications. One other thing that her mother noticed was Professor Katehi’s affection and brilliance in math. Her mother, along with her primary school teacher encouraged her to pursue higher levels of math – a key element of support in laying down the path towards a passion in S.T.E.M. At one point she was still middle school aged but attending math lessons designed for high school. Professor Katehi definitely credits her mother and grade school teacher with encouraging her to pursue her brilliance in math.

 

Children in awe of a radio.

 

At this point you might be asking about another figure in Professor Katehi’s life – her father. I was curious about this during our discussion and noted that throughout her childhood, she had many women who were leading figures in her life. Her mother was the guiding figure in her early years, along with her grandmother and community of women in her town. But where was her father in all of this? Was he there to also encourage and guide her? Knowing that this could be a potential painful subject, Professor Katehi simply stated the facts… Her father participated in some of Greece’s military conflicts in his early life which led to PTSD affecting him early in her childhood. While he would “still be there as a figure, he was not much of a father figure”. Many students from underrepresented backgrounds, or who grew up without father figures, may read and relate to this – to those people and as a general life lesson Professor Katehi says “having your foundation rooted in people who support and love you no matter what, like the women in my life, can propel you to becoming the success you were born to be no matter what the cirumstances”. Talking to the Professor, I certainly feel that the women in her life became a powerful support system for her.

 

Uhh.. Why are you even here?

 

Professor Katehi experienced a childhood full of obstacles that even today would discourage many people from pursing their passions in school, S.T.E.M or non S.T.E.M. With the strong support of her mother, early teacher, and her community – she overcame these obstacles and even was on her way to college (a dream her parents never realized nor thought was really possible for themselves and especially for women in the society). It was really in college where the Professor was deeply challenged for a simple fact – being a woman.

 

The Apollo 11 Landing

 

Know it or not (you can check it out in the many interviews of her online if you do not), one of the driving aspects of her choice as an electrical engineering was the Apollo 11 Moon landing event in 1969. It was not the fact that Neil Armstrong achieved the feat that was most interesting to her, but rather the chatter and workings of Mission Control in Houston, TX that was fascinating. She knew from this point that she wanted to pursue higher education in the field of electrical engineering. This led her to being offered a spot at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece. She was one of two women at the institution at that time, and was constantly asked by both other students and instructors why she felt the need to be there. She felt that many of her colleagues held her in contempt for “not allowing a male student that would have had her spot to do something useful with the degree, instead of me getting the degree and then marrying and never using it” (for us today, please reference the “uhh why are you even here” line in several movies to understand the context). This notion of Professor Katehi simply marrying after college and not using her knowledge was permeating throughout all levels at the University. Never in her life (up to that point) had she felt so discouraged, attacked, and demoralized. Her existence at the University was valued on her gender and perceived role in society, and not on her true intellect and ability to innovate and learn. Side Note: I felt that this feeling might have been replicated to events which occurred later in her career, but more on that later. The Professor notes that “this is even prevalent today, with job roles and educational paths not being based on competence but on gender and gender roles”. Her advice to us all, regardless of gender, is that when someone “says no to you, you never accept that at face value if you truly believe in what you are doing”.

 

It really is all about the mentor

 

Throughout University Professor Katehi depended on her strong support group of women to help her get through the stressful and toxic environment of her institution. While her mother was her rock solid foundation, her cousin ended up being a big part of her life and a sort of mentor to her. Talking to her cousin often, who was also going through University, she found someone she could relate to and talk to for support on all areas – from education to harassment. This support and opportunity for mentorship would sustain her years through the University. The Professor did graduate from the University, and at the time had no plans to go to what we consider graduate school or pursue further education. Professor Katehi even acknowledged that “no one really told me about what to do in terms of education after college, and I really never inquired”. She got engaged to her now husband and found her first lab job asking around in the city.

Through her lab job, a lab supervisor (or what we would call P.I) noticed her exemplary work. He introduced Professor Katehi to the concept of earning a PhD and pursuing graduate school. After some convincing, and her parents supporting her with needed funds – she went to UCLA to pursue her PhD with a fellowship under the same supervisor who introduced her to the concept of graduate school. Even now, she credits this advisor as being her “life mentor”. A mentor Professor Katehi says, “is the most important aspect of gaining knowledge in your field and pursing your dreams”. A mentor can be the encouragement you need to perform your best, and will be the person that will bring you down when you go too high and lift you up when you feel low. It is a “life-long partnership that is never one way, but two way.” “It is not simply a relationship based on what you might be researching, but a friendship that entails asking each other about life stories and sharing inspirations along your pathway for life”.

 

Mentorship – its a two way street.

 

I really don’t have to tell you what happens next in Professor Katehi’s life (click to see her work). Starting with her entrance to UCLA to earn her PhD, she has been a pioneering person in the S.T.E.M field at all levels. From her research and many patents, to her work in the education system as a mentor for students and administrator, to her role in the national administration of S.T.E.M and world affairs regarding science research and education. She is also one of the foremost authorities on bringing women into the forefront of S.T.E.M

 

Translation

 

So really the essence of why you chose to read this discussion is “how can I take these experiences and apply them to my own life”? I asked Professor Katehi this question and other than gaining some motivation and knowledge from her early life, she has a clear idea on what steps you as new students can take to achieve more in S.T.E.M (and really in life).

Don’t be shy: Never hesitate to ask for advice. You will be walking the halls of a massive University full of resources and people that are world class thinkers, educators, and students. Don’t be afraid to go up an ask about information you need, an idea you had, or a problem you might be having. Professor Katehi knew that if she was shy during her college and graduate years, she would not have the successful career she has experienced. Engage with other people, even if they oppose you – for your voice will be heard and people will consider you serious – even if they just think you’re a woman.

Do not take NO for an answer: You will encounter a lot of NO’s in your life. “I still encounter NO’s to my ideas and thoughts to this day, but I have developed a shield in which those who seek to undermine me do not bother me”. If someone is opposed to your ideas and simply says “NO”, do not be discouraged. As many of you know Professor Katehi has had a lot of NO’s thrown at her, many very recent. Turning those NO’s into a yes can be crucial in development of your self and your ideas. Seek our your mentors and support group, an most importantly seek our knowledge to back up and encourage your ideas.

Be curious and be engaged: When living in the moment, don’t forget to open up that brain and ponder about what’s next. Keeping your mind tickled about the possibilities of tomorrow can help you create more ideas and innovations. Taking a radio for what is seems like is a simple way to go – opening up that radio to see what is actually is sets you apart from acceptance to engagement. Engage with the world around you. Professor Katehi shares that she knows all to well what happens when you don’t engage with those around you and in the wider community. People do not take you seriously and more than often you never get what you want or need. Be direct and confident about what you want or are expressing – in presentations or administration dealings alike.

Embrace diversity: You are in a community of 30k of the brightest individuals in the world. We come from different backgrounds, ethnicities, economies, learning styles, and perspectives. Embrace it all. Gone are the days where you work and think in isolation. In today’s world of industry and thinking, it is collaboration and interdisciplinary cooperation that advance society. Embrace those around you and help each other to make a better education an society.

 

Moving Forward

The conversation with Professor Katehi can truly be endless – she had done so many things in her life. In the time I had speaking with her, I asked her what her plans were for teaching and researching at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC Davis – and boy it is VERY interesting.

 

Working together.

 

She has the patents, she’s been around the lab research block. In her view “it is time now to revolutionize education”. Professor Katehi will be teaching a circuits class to undergraduates who are pursing an Electrical Engineering degree at UC Davis in the Fall of 2017, and will also be teaching a new course that gives students from all majors a look into Electrical Engineering at UC Davis (much like ECH 1 the Coffee Class gives a look into the Chemical Engineering program at UC Davis). So what’s so revolutionary about these classes you might say? Professor Katehi plans to end isolated single style learning by making each class full-on 100 percent group related. In essence, each class grading will not be analyzed based on an individual performance, but how groups of individuals perform. Assignments, projects, labs, and exams will be full collaborative assignments with grading to reflect the collaboration style of teaching. While you might have been in group projects before, this style of instruction has never been fully implemented in a UC Davis course (even the ECH Coffee Lab class has individual examinations, not group examinations). This style of learning furthers interdisciplinary forms of thinking, and really reflects the way the industry of S.T.E.M and other fields are working in this age. If the industry finds it more productive to work in that way, why shouldn’t teaching follow suit?

My words

Speaking with Chancellor Emerita and Professor Linda Katehi was an eye opening experience. She is an extraordinary individual whose life story gives everyone, regardless of career or age, some experiences to learn from. Of course you will Google her (before or after this) and discover everything else that is attributed to Linda Katehi both good and sometimes bad. She knows very well and recognizes the potential mistakes she has made throughout her career, in and out of UC Davis. I my self will admit that in my years at UC Davis I have been vocally critical of the decisions and practices our Chancellor made. In the same breath, I have also recognized and advocated for the innovative and amazing changes that have taken our campus to new heights under the leadership of Chancellor Emerita Katehi. No story is one-sided, no relationship is black and white, and no person is defined by one story – they are defined by their life. UC Davis has been elevated to a world class University with superior academics, superior research, excellent people, and excellent faculty. If there is one thing you take away from this discussion, please let it be that YOU do not have to walk this path alone. Here at UC Davis you will find world class resources and people to help you, encourage you, and mentor you along the way – and for life.

 

Chancellor Emerita and now Distinguished Professor Linda Katehi

 

Come learn with us, explore with us, and be apart of excellence and passion at the University of California, Davis.

We hope to see you soon new undergraduates!

 

*Please note that in all New2UCDavis blog posts, these informal discussions are paraphrased and never direct quotes.

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