Women engineers, separated by 53 years, discuss Cornell experiences

Cornell Engineering’s Class of 2021 is the first in the college’s history to be composed of more women than men, bringing the total undergraduate female population to 47 percent. It’s a stark contrast to the experience of Jill Tarter ’65, who studied engineering physics as the only woman in her entire class.

Tarter would eventually serve as a project scientist for NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program and then co-found the SETI Institute, where she currently serves on the Board of Trustees and holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research. Tarter’s work has brought her wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, a TED Prize and a spot on Time Magazine’s list of the100 most influential people in the world in 2004.

Excited to hear about the college’s growing female population, Tarter jumped on the phone from Berkeley, California, to chat with Leah Forrest ’18, an electrical and computer engineering (ECE) student and senior finance director of the Society of Women Engineers at Cornell. Forrest has been working on a CubeSat mission as a member of Cornell’s Space Systems Design Studio and will be working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) after graduating in May.

Leah Forrest
Leah Forrest

Leah: What was it like to be a female Cornell Engineering student in the 60s?

Jill: Well, I was the only one in my year for any engineering discipline. It was strange and there were some things that were difficult. As a freshman, do you still have to live in the dorm?

Leah: Yeah, all the freshman have to live on north campus.

Jill: Right, so the farthest you can possibly get from the engineering quad. And at the time there was this stupid rule that women had to wear skirts when they crossed the bridge to campus. You couldn’t wear pants. The other thing that was awful for all of the women was that we got locked into the dorms at 10 o’clock at night and the doors didn’t get unlocked until 6 o’clock the next morning.

Leah: Did the same happen for the male dorms?

Jill: Nope. This made it really challenging for me, and the other thing that was a problem for the engineering curriculum back then was that there were no teams, and not very many clubs. I never got to learn how to be part of a team, which is such a really important skill. So the guys, wherever they were, were splitting up the problem sets and I was over in the dorms for women, locked in. It’s a good thing that’s not the case anymore.

Leah: I find myself working in teams on pretty much everything, so I spend a lot of my time in the ECE Lounge, definitely late into the night, working on problem sets with people, working on projects. Also, I’m in the Society of Women Engineers here on campus and we’re a very active group. I think we’re the largest undergraduate group in engineering, so we have a lot of members that come to our general meetings. We do a lot of events out in the community and here at Cornell, so there’s definitely a lot of opportunities to interact with other women engineers.

Jill: And you can be a full member of Tau Beta Pi, right?

Leah: Yes, I’m personally not in Tau Beta Pi but some of my friends are.

Jill: I was only allowed to be an associate member, because I was female. Another thing was I had a Procter & Gamble scholarship until I announced in my junior year that I was going to get married. And when that became known Procter & Gamble wrote me and told me I wasn’t a serious student and they were canceling my scholarship. I went to Dale Corson, who was the dean of engineering at that time, and he said ‘this isn’t fair.’ So he got on the phone and told Procter & Gamble ‘this is ridiculous, you can’t do this.’ He saved my scholarship for me, for which I was most grateful.

Leah: It sounds like you were getting some support, at least from the dean. Where did you go for mentorship? I’m guessing you didn’t have any female professors at the time.

Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter

Jill: No we didn’t. Professor Ed Salpeter’s wife was a neurobiologist, Mika Salpeter, and she had been building some equipment in collaboration with the engineering physics department. Mika was the only female role model I had in terms of trying to do something that was technical. My advisor was quite reasonable and helpful, but not a mentor. There were other engineering professors who didn’t do so well with having women in their courses. How about you?

Leah: Within ECE I know there’s been a push to hire more female professors within the past couple of years so that’s been nice to see that and have them as role models. And there’s also a new group on campus for women in ECE, mechanical engineering, and applied and engineering physics, so kind of the three engineering disciplines that have a lower percentage of women. That’s been nice to collaborate with those groups and get people together. There are talks with professors, specifically the new female professors, and they’ll tell us about their decisions about going to grad school and getting professorships. And a lot of the Ph.D. students are female so it’s nice to have them as TAs to look up to. No shortage of mentors here, I’d say.

Jill: That’s great. I can tell you astronomy has been pretty welcoming to women for a long time. NASA Ames Research Center, in particular, because it’s had a real strong biology-life-sciences component, it’s had a lot of women around. JPL is an exciting place. There’s just so many interesting projects coming up and JPL will be in the midst of it all.

Leah: They haven’t told me what project I’ll be working on, but they said probably either the Mars 2020 Rover or the Europa Clipper, so very cool missions. So you said you did five years here at Cornell and then you decided to go on to graduate school?

Jill: It was a five-year program for a bachelor’s of engineering, but I actually did it in four. It didn’t need to be five years in my opinion. I mean, we did three quarters of linear passive circuit theory. The transistor was a big dark secret, they kept that for graduate students. There was need for reform in the curriculum and it’s obviously happened. Engineering is exciting today.

But what we’re still missing is more visible role models. If you ask young children, both male and female, what an engineer looks like, she’s not going to say that she looks like you. We still haven’t gotten enough of a female face superimposed onto the engineering profession. Or maybe I’m wrong. Leah, you say the Society of Women Engineers is doing work in the Ithaca schools. What do those students think?

Leah: They’re quite involved in mentoring the robotics teams here in Ithaca. I haven’t volunteered on those programs too much but back when I was in high school, I was a member of the FIRST Robotics team and I also mentored the middle school robotics team, which was about half girls. I think keeping girls on track to continue with engineering once they get into high school is really important. Because once I hit high school, I was often the only girl in my engineering classes. A big part of that is if you’re still in engineering in college, going back to your middle schools or high schools and showing them that, yes, they can be an engineer.

Jill: Robots are a wonderful outreach tool.

Leah: Yeah, the FIRST Robotics program really took off. It’s a very big program and definitely a big part of why I decided to become an engineer. And I should also thank you for inspiring that movie that inspired me.

Editor’s note: Tarter is credited with inspiring Jody Foster’s character in the 1997 science-fiction film “Contact,” in which a SETI scientist finds evidence of extraterrestrial life. 

Jill: Well, Warner Bros. had, as one of their desired outcomes, influencing young women to go into engineering or science. To my knowledge, they never implemented any metric that they could track, but they did in fact talk about that when they were making the movie.

Leah: You got at least one!

Jill: Leah, it sounds like the world has really shifted and that’s wonderful news. I wish you great success at JPL and lots of exciting opportunities in the future.