Championing Diversity and the Inclusion of Women in Engineering

Interview with network member Lydia Abreha

Lidya, who comes from Ethiopia, is currently a graduating senior at the University of Notre Dame pursuing a dual-degree program in Mechanical Engineering and Gender Studies. Lidya is a big advocate for diversity in Engineering. Lidya is specifically passionate about increasing the number of girls going into the STEM field. As part of her social justice summer venture under the Hesburgh-Yusko scholarship program, she co-founded the FURA Girls Development Project, an initiative that aims to provide girls from underprivileged backgrounds with free summer tutorials for science classes to help them transition from middle school to high school.

During her time at Notre Dame, Lidya has served in different student leadership positions. For the 2020-2021 school year, she served as a VP for the National Society of Black Engineers Notre Dame Chapter. During the 2018-2019 school year, she also served as the Director of Mentorship for the Society of Women Engineers’ Notre Dame chapter. Lidya is highly inspired by the versatility of engineering education and the multitude of opportunities it provides for solving some of the most pressing problems in the world.

Looking back at your career, what inspired your choice to go into the sciences and what keeps you motivated to stay on your current path?

Since I was a child I’ve always known that I wanted to go into the sciences and that is because I was always a really curious kid and I always liked the complexity and multitude of different problems.  I had a supportive family that allowed my curiosity to blossom by encouraging me to ask questions. My parents also nurtured a love of learning by buying me books about astronomy, physics, and language. Early in school I saw that I had an inclination towards STEM subjects, but it wasn’t until high school that I realized that I also had an aptitude and enjoyment in my STEM classes and I decided to study engineering.

In college I was able to explore different engineering fields, though the only core thing that kept me going was the thrill of diversity of the type of work I could do. With engineering I knew I could work in a plethora of industries, from agriculture to healthcare. Because I knew that there were so many different applications for engineering I felt like I’d always have the flexibility to work on different projects or different industries. I am also deeply motivated by the possibility of opening doors for other people and making sure that in the future, I won’t be the only person in the room who looks like me.

What has been the highlight of your journey as a scientist/ engineer and what projects have you worked on that have solidified your experience?

One highlight of my engineering journey was doing a summer internship in Houston, Texas where I worked on testing recycled/second-hand medical devices for Medical Bridges, a non-profit company that distributes medical donations throughout the world to help improve global access to healthcare. Working with Medical Bridges helped me see that engineering could be used for the common good and that technology had the power to change people’s lives for the better.

A project that I’ve recently worked on that solidified my experience is my senior design capstone project where I and a team of fellow students built an Automated Chemical Synthesis Robot. I gained a lot of confidence by testing the limits of what I could do and what I can achieve as an engineer. I also got an opportunity to use more creativity to make design decisions to meet constraints which helped give me an idea about how engineering problems are solved in real-world projects.

What would you say is the most challenging part of your career?

In my undergrad years, one of the most challenging aspects of my career was routinely being the only black woman in the room and having to fight off imposter syndrome. While the Notre Dame Mechanical Engineering department was 30% woman, it was also only 1-2% black. In fact, I will be the only black woman graduating in the department in the class of 2022. We women don’t see ourselves reflected or represented in the classroom and what I expect to be the case in the workplace. This causes pressure where you feel like you have to constantly prove that you can participate and contribute. On top of that you feel doubt as you question whether you are good enough to be there. Overall this makes for a discouraging experience that makes it difficult to keep going especially during difficult times.

Why do you think it’s important for girls and young women to be encouraged to take up STEM subjects and seek out careers in sciences?

When Father Theodore Hesburgh, the 15th President of University of Notre Dame was asked why his administration decided to admit the first class of women to Notre Dame in 1972, he responded with “why exclude more than 50% of the world’s brightest people?” I think it is important for girls and young women to be encouraged to take up STEM subjects because the field and the world at large would benefit from their contribution.  It behooves them to do so because they can participate in creating a better and more equitable society. By taking up STEM and science, women will have a say in designing the world around them instead of leaving all of those decisions to people who may not share their perspective or have their best interests in mind.

What excites you most about the future of engineering in Africa?

When I think of the future of engineering in Africa, I am most excited about the ramp up of innovation and quality of the  engineering education in the continent. Recently, I saw Mr. Swaniker’s note on the expansion of educational opportunities for young Africans especially in Computer Science (though I think it can also apply to most engineering fields). ALX Africa’s training of computer scientists has grown by 1000x from 50 to 50,000 in just a year.  So I am excited to see more young people getting access to education and resources necessary to make new innovations while utilizing the continent’s untapped resources.

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