Pursuing a faculty position can be intimidating, even for a top researcher such as Aditi Muralidharan. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics and in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT in 2008 and is now a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley.
“You need a lot of credentials, and you’re never sure if you’re actually good enough,” she said. Industry careers are easier to launch, she added, because “companies recruit you. Universities don’t.”
While there are more jobs in industry than academia, universities do work to attract the most talented faculty — and they want to expand the historically low numbers of women in their science and engineering departments.
That’s how Muralidharan recently wound up at MIT with 40 other top female PhDs and postdocs from around the country for a conference, now in its second year, called “Rising Stars in EECS.” There, she presented her innovative research on text analysis in the humanities and social sciences. And she networked with colleagues, as well as faculty from MIT and elsewhere, who represented a range of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) disciplines.
The annual event, initiated by MIT EECS department head Anantha Chandrakasan, invites top graduate and postdoc women for two days of scientific discussions and informal sessions aimed at navigating the early stages of an academic career. They participate in panel discussions with faculty that cover topics such as interviewing and promotions, as well as balancing research, teaching and life outside work.
“We hope that the participants get to know each other and form connections that will persist through their careers,” said Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, who organized the event with faculty from EECS-connected laboratories: the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL), and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.
‘Diversity is critical’ to EECS
The opportunity to connect with female colleagues can be dispiritingly infrequent because of the dearth of women in EECS. If events like Rising Stars existed when MIT professor and MacArthur Fellow Dina Katabi was embarking on her academic career, she would have jumped at the chance to attend. When she was starting out, she said, “You’d be lucky if you saw a woman in the corridor. I’ve given talks at universities where the audience was all male.”
“The scarcity of women EECS faculty impacts all of us,” added Judy L. Hoyt, an EECS professor and associate director of the MTL. “Diversity is critical to the health of the profession.”
A number of MIT faculty turned out to interact with the presenters during the afternoon poster session on Rising Stars’ first day. Katabi and Hoyt found the attendees’ oral presentations and posters impressive.
MIT School of Engineering Dean Ian Waitz, who launched a program similar to Rising Stars in 2008, when he was head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, shared his colleagues’ admiration in his welcome remarks on the second day of the event. He told the attendees that they are among the best in their schools and future leaders of their fields. “It is an honor to have you visit MIT,” he said. “I hope that in a small way we can help accelerate you even further on the very strong professional trajectories you are on.”
Yemaya Bordain, who uses innovative techniques in atomic force microscopy to evaluate and improve nanoscale electronic devices, said that she was one of only a few women in her PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the first few years. She was also the only African-American woman. “I know what lonely is,” she quipped. That, coupled with the challenges, such as getting tenure, that all junior faculty face, make pursuing an academic path seem daunting, she said.
But during a poster session at which attendees presented research encompassing everything from aircraft control to image processing to medical procedures, Bordain was inspired to think seriously about a career in academia.
“The people who are around me right now are going to lead research and technology in the coming years,” she said. “I think that women and people with diverse backgrounds have a unique perspective. And I think you see that here.”
Creating an ‘esprit de corps’
The conference attendees said they were appreciative of the breadth of research they encountered at Rising Stars. Tamara Broderick of Berkeley embraced the opportunity to venture outside her discipline, machine learning. “What’s so nice about [the conference] is that I get to learn about a huge array of different research that I normally wouldn’t be exposed to,” she said.
Broderick is familiar with MIT, having participated as a high school student in the inaugural year of the Women’s Technology Program in 2002. The program, whose executive director, Cynthia Skier, spoke at the conference, has been effective at channeling women into the science and engineering career pipeline.
One of the goals of Rising Stars is to strengthen that pipeline by helping women in EECS develop an esprit de corps. Gillat Kol, who studies theoretical computer science and mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., found it refreshing to be among a group of researchers with whom she could discuss issues that don’t usually come up in a professional setting, but that are nonetheless significant.
“Sometimes, we have trouble asking for things,” she said of herself and her female colleagues. “I mean, I feel horrible asking for recommendation letters, because I know it’s work. But when you hear that other people experience the same thing, you feel like you are not alone. You see how they manage that problem, and you say, ‘Maybe I can do that.’”
An appealing career path
Several of the women said that the schedule flexibility and intellectual freedom of an academic career appealed to them. Franziska “Franzi” Roesner plans to apply for faculty positions when she completes her PhD work in digital security and privacy at the University of Washington next year.
“It’s good to get some perspectives from different people, and it’s nice to hear and see examples of women who have been successful,” she said.
One of those examples was Christine Ortiz, who gave a lunchtime talk about a career guided by intellectual curiosity. The MIT dean for graduate education and professor of materials science and engineering said that after watching her parents, an electrical engineer and a computer health-care specialist, spend their careers in industry, she decided early on to pursue a career in academia.
“I wanted creative freedom, and I wanted to collaborate with scientists from other countries and cultures,” she explained. She described her research on the biomechanics of ancient fish skeletons and exoskeletons, which informs technology in areas such as tissue repair and military armor. She also related how she parlayed fellowships early in her career to stints at laboratories around the world.
Muralidharan was inspired by Ortiz. “It’s really cool to be a professor,” Muralidharan said. “It’s supposed to be a great lifestyle. Hearing about it and connecting with other [likeminded] people makes me feel like it’s a viable career path for me.”
Physics professor Edmund Bertschinger, who is also MIT’s newly appointed community and equity officer, noted the promise of both the attendees and the program itself. “It’s exciting to see the talent assembled in this room,” he said. “I thank [the organizers] for their encouragement and advancement of women. Efforts like these are a model for the Institute.”
In addition to MIT, Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Washington, and the Institute for Advanced Study, participants came from Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, Cornell University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, New York University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of California at San Diego, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Tyndall National Institute of Ireland.