Women Leading the Way
Female faculty in the College of Engineering find support and success among colleagues.
Three engineering assistant professors earned National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development, or CAREER, Awards in 2023. They are the latest in a string of six faculty to earn the award since 2020, all of whom are women.
The CAREER Award is the NSF's highest honor for junior faculty. Winners are outstanding researchers, but also are expected to be outstanding teachers through research, educational excellence, and the integration of education and research at their home institutions.
Earning a CAREER Award is a significant milestone in a junior faculty member's life, and for many women it also offers an opportunity to mentor and encourage female engineering students as they navigate their studies and begin to pursue research and contemplate careers in industry or academia.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the percentage of women in engineering academia is at its highest level since 2010 for both students at all levels (bachelor's, master's, and doctoral) and faculty. At UTA, women compose 22% of all tenured or tenure-track engineering faculty, above the national average of 19.2%. Overall, 25% of UTA engineering students are women.
Caroline Krejci, an associate professor in the Industrial, Manufacturing, and Systems Engineering Department, earned a CAREER Award in 2021 to design a better way for farmers to move crops and livestock to market through crowdsourced transportation programs, akin to an agricultural Uber. She says that support from strong female mentors greatly affected her career path, and she tries to model that support for her students as well.
'My PhD advisor was a woman, and that made all the difference for me,' Dr. Krejci says. 'She was so positive and encouraging, and having a really positive role model was absolutely critical to my success. Here in the Industrial, Manufacturing, and Systems Engineering Department, we have a lot of female faculty who are very supportive, and their example has made a difference for me and my students.'
She's found that throughout her academic journey, female faculty—from her advisor in college to her current colleagues—have been very supportive of each other and their students.
'Like most PhD students, I had lots of self-doubt. I remember that now, and I try to be a positive force for all my students, but especially the women,' she says. 'There still are not a lot of women in engineering, and it's important for them to be able to talk to someone who has been through the same experiences that they are having. I see improvement, with more women taking leadership roles in professional societies and more female faculty at universities, but it takes people saying, ‘we need to make this better' to really make meaningful changes and make engineering more welcoming to women.'
Narges Shayesteh, one of the three UTA engineering CAREER Award winners in 2023, started the Women in 3D Printing program at UTA to support and encourage female undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields. Like Krejci, she has benefited from strong mentors and strives to provide positive experiences for her students that make them feel empowered to push boundaries, explore their ideas, and expand the possibilities in their field.
'Establishing the Women in 3D Printing program has been a major highlight of my career,' Dr. Shayesteh says. 'This initiative serves both to encourage female undergraduates to pursue STEM and to facilitate the success of female graduate students. It is an environment where they can thrive, learn, and be empowered.'
'To me, mentoring women and providing opportunities in this field is both a responsibility and a privilege,' she continues. 'It is essential because it allows me to pass on my knowledge and experiences, and it helps address the gender imbalance in the engineering sector. Moreover, women bring unique perspectives to the engineering world. Their innovative ideas and distinct approaches often lead to solutions that might not be considered otherwise. By mentoring women in 3D printing, I am helping to broaden the scope of what's possible in this field and, ultimately, driving progress forward. By sharing my own experiences, I hope to prepare my students for the realities of this field while actively working toward a more inclusive and equitable future.'
The 2023 CAREER Award Winners
This year, Shayesteh, Shirin Nilizadeh from the Computer Science and Engineering Department, and Linda Wang from the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department earned the CAREER Award, following Ming Li in 2020, Krejci in 2021, and Erika La Plante in 2022.
Shayesteh, who heads the Innovative Additive Manufacturing Laboratory, earned a five-year, $582,358 CAREER grant. She is pioneering a transformative technique aimed at enhancing the utilization of tungsten in the additive manufacturing processes, specifically by overcoming significant challenges presented by tungsten's high melting point, intrinsic brittleness, and high susceptibility to cracking.
'This is a truly prestigious honor for me,' she says. 'It provides a significant chance to expand and enhance my ongoing research in this crucial area.'
Refractory metals, especially tungsten, are known for their high strength and melting temperatures and hold immense potential for applications in extreme environments. But their inherent brittleness and high susceptibility to cracking present significant hurdles for use in fabrication.
Shayesteh's innovative research focuses on a unique hybrid manufacturing technique that combines in-situ rolling and nanoparticle sealing during the laser powder-bed fusion of tungsten parts. In this intricate process, each layer of tungsten is subjected to rolling during its solidification stage, helping to fine-tune its grain structure and decrease the likelihood of crack formation. Afterward, a layer of tungsten nanoparticles is applied and melted, effectively sealing any potential cracks.
'Addressing the manufacturing complexities of tungsten parts is not straightforward, but my unique hybrid technique holds substantial promise,' Shayesteh says. 'My research could yield wide-ranging benefits, such as improving components for hypersonic aircraft and unique fusion reactors, thereby enhancing national security.'
Dr. Nilizadeh earned a five-year, $567,609 CAREER grant. She is working to increase the security of natural language generation (NLG) systems, such as those used by ChatGPT, to guard against misuse and abuse that could allow the spread of misinformation online.
Understanding the vulnerabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) to online misinformation is 'an important and timely problem to address,' she says. 'These systems have complex architectures and are designed to learn from whatever information is on the internet. An adversary might try to poison these systems with a collection of adversarial or false information. The system will learn the adversarial information in the same way it learns truthful information.'
Nilizadeh's research will include a comprehensive look at the types of attacks that NLG systems are susceptible to and the creation of AI-based optimization methods to examine the systems against different attack models. She also will explore an in-depth analysis and characterization of vulnerabilities that lead to attacks and develop defensive methods to protect NLG systems.
'An adversary can use some system vulnerabilities to generate malicious content,' she says. 'We first need to understand these vulnerabilities to develop detection and prevention techniques that improve the system's resilience to these attacks.'
Her work will focus on two common NLG techniques: summarization and question-answering. In summarization, the AI is given a list of articles and asked to summarize their content; in question-answering, the system is given a document, finds answers to questions in that document, and generates text answers.
Dr. Wang earned a five-year, $503,000 CAREER grant. She is working to optimize supply chain management to allow for flexibility from forces outside the supply chain, such as policy changes that can cause major disruptions.
Current supply chain analysis tools rely on static optimization and are inflexible when policy changes or other outside elements disrupt the chain. When an issue arises, the supply chain must be redone.
Wang hopes to introduce optimal network control concepts that allow dynamic management of the supply chain, enabling agile reaction to changes and effective decision-making. With static optimization, users assume all the variables and try to control them; if the parameters change, they must redo the process.
Wang is testing her dynamic system to see if it will allow users to adjust on the run to save time and money. The dynamic process also helps with sustainability, since it can connect multiple layers of the supply chain that appear separate but may share common segments.
'The main selling point is that the dynamic model bridges two worlds,' Wang says. 'Supply chain management works with business, but it's not engineered to be systematic. Optimal control will save lots of money in determining the correct portfolio and how to manage it. It can connect the producer with the receiver and accomplish both tasks more efficiently.' ₪