Each day, we wake up and interact with innovative designs that we rely on to be dependable and available when needed. From the designs of the buildings we enter, to the cars we drive and the machinery needed to produce our favorite items, we expect each to work efficiently and properly to support our needs daily. This week, we show our appreciation to all engineers that have contributed to our society using their problem solving skills.
GiSTEM had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn (Kate) Shirk and Naomi Jackson for National Engineering Week. As you read about their journeys, you will realize that engineers may choose many paths. Engineering is present in everything that they do. With engineering skills, there are endless possibilities. We hope that their stories inspire you in your journey and positively impacts the next generation of women in engineering.
Kathryn (Kate) Shirk - Doesn’t matter the role, you will ALWAYS be an engineer!
“I would tell girls (or anyone!) who wants to study engineering to stay curious!” says Kate Shirk, an Associate Professor in Physics at Shippensburg University (SU) of Pennsylvania. Shirk’s journey to becoming an Associate Professor started with her entering college as an Applied Physics and Engineering major. After working hard, she completed two degrees, a B.S. in Applied Physics from SU and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Pennsylvania State University.
Shirk was a consultant for a Department of Defense contractor near Washington, DC. As a consultant, her duties consisted mostly of computer programming. After a couple of years in that career, Shirk realized she wanted a change and decided to pursue graduate school. She attended Purdue University in Indiana where she completed her Ph.D. in Materials Engineering. “I like to say that materials engineers make stuff and break stuff. It is a really fun combination of chemistry, physics, and engineering,” said Shirk. After completion of her degree in Materials Engineering, she was invited back to Shippensburg University to be a professor in Physics - Wow, talking about going full circle! Nine years later, she is still part of SU where she also serves on a shared governance committee to keep the university moving forward!
Kathryn (Kate) Shirk , Associate Professor
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Shirk explained that SU is a liberal arts institution that values communication, math and science literacy. “[N]o one is really “bad” at math or “good” at math. Some of us take a little more time to understand things, or need to have it explained in a different way. “ Shirk mentored students that had an opportunity to present their research at national conferences. Some of her students transitioned to graduate school to pursue higher learning. “Even if you think you are “good” at a subject, there might be a topic that just doesn’t click...I thought I was “bad” at programming. Everyone is bad at it when they first start. It is like learning to play a musical instrument, where you get better with practice.” That is awesome advice, practice makes perfect!
It's no surprise that Shirk would utilize her engineering background in her current profession. “One of the things that engineers do is reduce complex problems into simple problems to be solved.” She enjoys being able to interact with her students. Aside from teaching materials physics and intro to electricity and magnetism, she is teaching two freshman classes on curiosity and how nurturing curiosity can help students to be successful in college. “There is joy to be had when a student succeeds in a class that they thought would be difficult..Keep working, reading, and asking for help… that is what successful people do.” There could never be a more true statement.
Naomi Jackson - Once an engineer ALWAYS an engineer!
“Steel toes are for ladies too, and they can be cute… don't ever let anyone discourage you- you belong here and we welcome you.” Such a strong message from Naomi Jackson to girls around the world. From her journey starting at West Virginia University (WVU) to obtaining a degree at Norfolk State University (NSU) in Computer Science, Jackson’s goals were predefined. “My parents told me what I was going to school for (Computer Science) and I was not thrilled... [I] found a crossover between my major and the business world [then] I was hooked.“
Computer Science at times doesn’t get its full recognition as an engineering field but that didn’t deter Jackson from landing an engineering role. Upon graduating from college, she started a position with Swisslog Logistics, where her role began as a System Support Engineer. “I kicked off my career in the software support sector of my company which is essentially the bottom of the barrel. I found myself networking around the office and would ask colleagues 'so what do you do here?' until I found my role on the integration team.” A few years later, she became the Integration Manager for the company. This is a perfect example of the power of networking.
Naomi Jackson, Integration Manager
Jackson’s role makes her responsible for managing the integration and testing of subsystems for warehouse automation. “I split my days between an office and various warehouses.” Although Jackson spends her time in meetings, planning, testing and analyzing systems, she loves that her role is not monotonous. “Of course, there are processes and tasks I typically follow to do my work; however, no two days are really the same.” During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson reached a career achievement by leading the completion of two automated medical supply warehouses - indeed an achievement!
“You belong at the table, as a matter of fact- you bring the table. Keep going.” Jackson owes her experience to Dr. Thorna Humphries at NSU whom she looked to as a role model and was known to have the toughest software engineering course. “I realized that her class was not actually hard... [it was] an introduction to life in the field. If I could pass a Dr. Humphries course in the first shot, I knew I could make it in the field.”
Jackson is considering a change in her career to give her more access to the business side of the company while incorporating her engineering skills to solve problems. Her ultimate goal as a woman in STEM is to become the CEO/president of a company. “Being a woman who is also black making sure my voice [is] heard has definitely been the biggest [challenge] and is something I work on everyday. Representation matters and women are leading the way in the STEM field.”
Happy National Engineering Week! Special thanks to our guests for sharing their amazing stories with us. Please share, comment, and like this blog!
In honor of E-Week, Our GiSTEM Engineering T-shirts are on sale for $15.00 for all of March! Head over to our shop and support us in changing the lives of girls in our community. As always, we appreciate your support!