The Catholic University of America

March 25, 2015

Female Students Find Encouragement in School of Engineering


Senior Reagan McCloskey, originally from Philadelphia, has long had an interest in engineering. Growing up, she attended an all-girls school, St. Basil’s in Jenkintown, Pa., where her favorite subjects were math and science.

When it came time to choose a college, she chose Catholic University because she liked the small classes and the welcoming atmosphere. She entered the biomedical engineering program because the curriculum combined her favorite subjects to provide a meaningful impact within the health field.

Since enrolling at Catholic, McCloskey has had multiple internships: she worked for two summers at Drexel University doing research with orthopedics and she currently has an internship in the biomedical department at Children’s National Medical Center in D.C. As part of her senior design class, she studied how motion tracking can be used for rehabilitation purposes.

As one of the female students enrolled in Catholic University’s School of Engineering, McCloskey is representative of a shift in the world of engineering. For decades, the field has been widely regarded as male dominated, but gradually that is beginning to change. According to data from the Society of Women Engineers, only 5.8% of all employed engineers in 1983 were female, but by 2004, that number had risen to 10.2%.

The number of female engineering students nationwide has also risen over the years. Data from the National Science Foundation shows only 3.2% of those who earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 1976 were female. By 2010, that percentage had risen to 18.2. At Catholic University, 26.6% of the new students who enrolled in engineering this academic year were women.

Peggy Bruce is director of student services and academic support. She has been working in the engineering school for 14 years and has noticed an increase in the number of female students, especially in biomedical engineering. In that discipline, female students make up approximately 50% of the population.

Bruce believes the increase in women interested in engineering has to do with the prevalence of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in middle and high schools. She’s also seen an increase in the number of teenage girls attending the University’s engineering camp for high school students.


“Years ago, I just don’t think girls were encouraged as much to go into science and mathematical fields,” she said. “The younger you can get girls involved in science and math areas in a fun way, just like we do in the STEM areas, I think it definitely makes a big difference in how they think about math and science in the future.”

“Biomedical engineering is a relatively new field and it attracts a lot of students who would otherwise be in the life sciences, like biology,” said Peter Lum, the director of the biomedical engineering program. “A lot of people interested in biology see biomedical engineering as a bridge to a more technical background, but you still get to take biology, chemistry, and physiology.”

Since coming from an all-girls school to CUA, McCloskey said she has never really thought of engineering as a man’s field. In 2011, her freshman year, only 14 of the 80 new engineering undergraduates were female. Still, McCloskey said she has never felt out of place in CUA’s program. She even lives with other young women who are studying engineering.

“I think I was almost blind to the fact that it was considered a man’s field,” she said. “Maybe because I wasn’t going into it in that respect, I wasn’t seeing challenges I was facing.

“All the teachers respect us in the same sense,” she said. “We’re all earning the same degree.”

Junior Cristina Butrico, of South Plainfield, N.J., is also a biomedical engineering major, with a minor in chemistry. She decided to be an engineer during her senior year of high school and said she has never felt out of place as a female. She’s following in a long line of family engineers, including her mother, a former genetic engineer.

“Having her help me kind of led me to having a love for math and science, plus she portrayed her love for it to me,” Butrico said. “I would say my mother is my personal role model.”


She has really enjoyed many of her courses at CUA, but especially Introduction to Engineering, one of the first courses she took, in which students used Lego schematics to build robots. For her junior design project, Butrico spent a semester coming up with a device that would help the elderly take the correct dosages of pills at the right time.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “You came into class, talked about the project you wanted to do and how to work it out, and got to create a design on the computer and send it to the 3-D printer. It was cool to see how all that works.”

Watching driven students like McCloskey and Butrico is one of the things Sahana Kukke, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, says she enjoys most about her job. As one of three female professors in the School of Engineering, Kukke said she’s been impressed equally by both her male and female students.

“I feel to some extent that the female students I’ve had the chance to teach have been very self-motivated,” she said. “I can’t say I’ve been doing anything deliberately to encourage them, but I hope that my presence as a woman does have some effect.”

When she was a student in high school and at Northwestern University in the 1990s, Kukke said she was surrounded by male classmates and professors. As she progressed in education to Case Western Reserve University and Stanford University, most of her mentors and role models were men.

Though she said she feels very welcome at CUA, Kukke can remember feeling disadvantaged at certain points in her career because of her gender and her small stature. Sometimes, she said, she’s felt like she had to explain herself more than her male peers in order to earn respect.

Kukke believes it’s important for female engineers to have other women to look up to in the field so they can see what is possible for them in terms of jobs and even salaries. The mother of three, Kukke had her first child when she was in her doctoral program. She said the advice she received from other women in academia helped her understand how to balance motherhood and career.

“I think it’s so important to see the possibilities of what you can do,” she said. “It’s very difficult to succeed as a young person without any kind of support from someone who has been there. When it comes to negotiating career transitions and moving forward in a clear, productive path, those moments of transition could really be easier with good guidance from female mentors.”

Both McCloskey and Butrico said that during their time at CUA they have been introduced to numerous male and female engineers they can look up to. Butrico mentioned Otto Wilson. McCloskey said associate professor Binh Tran pushed her to succeed and she named Kukke as one of her biggest role models.

“Although I have only had the opportunity to have her during my senior year, she is one of the most intelligent and best teachers I’ve ever had, hands down,” McCloskey said. “It’s really great that she can show these girls coming in, especially freshmen and sophomores, that women are also in this field and appreciated. You’re not just going to see men.”




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