Women Dominate at This Mechanical Engineering Lab

Robert Siston with two women in graduation apparel

Robert Siston runs a neuromuscular biomechanics lab that is 90 percent women. Image via Ohio State Biomechanics, Facebook

November 20, 2015

At Ohio State University, the population of mechanical engineering graduate students is predominantly male. In most mechanical engineering classrooms, women are the minority (they earn 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in the field, according to research). But in Professor Robert Siston’s neuromuscular biomechanics lab at Ohio State, “It’s the men who look around and say, What’s going on here?” says Siston.

His lab is about 90 percent women. In labs across his department, his colleagues have also assembled teams of women who are developing patent-pending designs for real-world devices, including new tampon receptacles. The teams are engineering devices that could change women’s lives in projects that Siston says the men in the program “didn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole.” If approved, the women on the tampon-receptacle team will be part of a small group of American women who hold commercial patents.

Siston says he thinks that the higher percentage of women in his lab is due partly to the interdisciplinary nature of biomechanics. “It may appeal to women because there is a clear social application,” he says. Students interact with a variety of professionals, from orthopedic doctors, who are predominantly male, to physical therapists, who are predominantly female. But there is surely more to it than that.

What Attracts Women to This Lab?

Underpinning the success of Siston’s lab are programs that exposed women to opportunities in engineering at critical points in their education. At the beginning of every term, Siston invites all of his advisees for a First Friday lunch, where students have an opportunity to discuss their lives outside of school work. Research has shown that when women feel like engineering is a good fit for not just their skills but their interests and lifestyle, they are less likely to drop out.

For students who are interested in being professors, Siston started the Preparing Future Faculty Program, which mentors doctoral students through the transition to full-time faculty positions. Siston says that he has noticed a difference in his students’ level of confidence to pursue academic careers as a result of the Preparing Future Faculty Program. The program addresses a wide gender gap among engineering professors at U.S. colleges and universities, where there are more than 10 men for every woman faculty member.

A Contagious Sense of Persistence

Struggling for much of his life with a speech impediment, Siston says, “I’ve been used to people telling me what I can’t do … and saying ‘I’m going to do it anyway’ because I am passionate about it.”

His passion is mirrored in his students, such as Michelle Kaufman, a recent graduate who says she exudes a no-nonsense approach to her interactions with peers, a confidence sustained, in part, by being surrounded by a network of empowered women engineers.

None of the women students I spoke with said they felt unwelcome or unqualified in Siston’s lab or in the other predominantly male engineering courses they have taken. AAUW research shows that confidence and sense of belonging can at least partly be attributed to strong community, sense of purpose, and early mentorship. Most colleges are only just starting to work toward these kinds of environments.

Sarah Schloemer, a current student and advisee of Siston’s, says that she is unsure why there are so many high-achieving women in his lab, but having “a great role model in our adviser who encourages us to grow and supports us on our journey, personally and professionally” has cultivated an environment that is conducive to the success of all students.

This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Program Assistant Seaira Christian-Daniels.


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