I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin.  My father was a zoology professor who builds and studies confocal microscopes, and my mother finished her Ph.D when I graduated from high school and is a professor of library and information studies now.  My sister is a professor at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, and my brother is a nurse - the most practical occupation amidst all these academics.

I did not grow up “knowing” that I wanted to be an engineer.  Instead, I liked knowing how the world worked, and how we could make things work better.  I spent most of my summers on the southern coast of British Columbia, and watching my dad cobble solutions to problems that arise when you don’t have much electricity, your water comes from a stream, and you have to travel around by boat because there are no roads.  One of my favourite summer memories was building a raft out of driftwood with my dad, brother and sister - unfortunately, it capsized on its first voyage.  Ah well.

I didn’t really know girls weren’t supposed to like science, and more or less happily worked my way through elementary school and middle school without any hiccoughs.  Until, that is, 8th grade, when my science teacher Mr. Swann wouldn’t recommend me for the accelerated math class in high school even though I passed the placement test.

So, in high school, I meandered along the upper-middle track of science and math, and got behind when in 10th grade I went to live in England for a year with my family.  I learned a lot that year, but math and science were not high on the list; I dropped down further when I came back to the States for 11th grade.  In 12th grade, I tried to pull myself back into a higher math stream which proved really challenging for me, although I ended up doing fairly well.  And to my great surprise, I did very well in advanced chemistry.  While I had decided to go on exchange abroad (to France) for a year after graduation, my success in chemistry made me reconsider my thoughts of studying writing in college, and my mom suggested chemical engineering.  So it’s all her fault. :-)

I write all this not only because I want to give you a sense of who I am, but also one path of becoming an engineer.  I sort of fell into it because my mom suggested it, and it seemed like I could do lots of different things after college with a B.Eng which meant I didn’t have to decide what my life was going to look like at the ripe old age of 18.

As it turned out, I was good at chemical engineering, but didn’t like the career options I saw for myself at McGill -- the petrochemical industry or consulting were the two routes that many of my classmates followed.  Both my parents had gone to graduate school, so I had figured that I would also; I just didn’t want to do it in chemical engineering.  So I looked at places that would let me study engineering education from within engineering; one place turned out to be in my own backyard.  Back to Madison I went, changed disciplines, and sallied forth.

In my second year of graduate school, I took a women’s studies class, and my MIND WAS COMPLETELY BLOWN OPEN.  The course was focused on science epistemology, and suffice it to say that my whole perspective on education, on engineering, and on women’s place in engineering was transformed.  As was my dissertation.

If you look at my engineering path with a scholarly eye, you’ll see lots of critical points that jump out.  Like many people, I chose engineering because a parent suggested it, not because I had a lifelong yearning to tinker.  Like many people, I had some rough spots along the way, sometimes because of my choices, sometimes because of people who helped or didn’t help.  Unlike many people, I had the cultural capital of an academic family to help me navigate the education system I was in, and to help me make good choices.  Unlike many people, I had enough money to go to school and support myself without working, so I finished school without debts.  All of these conspired to put me where I am today.

I am completely aware of the fact that I am an unusual case.  And as your path to become an engineer will likely have different kinks and turns and pressures, I’ll do everything I can to help you along the route.  You’ll get there in the end.  Wherever “there” is.



  1. 1.Prof. Pawley at a conference

  2. 2.Maggie the dog

  3. 3.Husband Steve and kid Simon.