Highlighting Women in Engineering

March 1, 2023 - In honor of Women’s History Month, we are sharing three stories of engineering faculty members: Martha Mecartney, Michelle Digman and Iryna Zenyuk. All three are inspiring examples of women who’ve made an impact in their field and work to encourage the next generation of engineers, helping to break barriers for those who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Editor’s note: These articles were originally published in the 2018-19 Dean’s Report - Perspectives.

Dynamic Trailblazer

Women in Engineering - Martha Mecartney

Martha Mecartney wanted to be an astronaut. As a child, she loved math and science, and remembers being captivated by the 1969 moon landing. Never mind that at the time, only men were astronauts. “I thought that was stupid,” she says, with characteristic candor. “I thought they would certainly figure out that didn’t have to be a requirement, so I didn’t worry about it.”

Luckily for UC Irvine, Mecartney’s nearsightedness derailed dreams of space. Instead, after a foray into classics during her undergraduate years at Case Western Reserve University, she switched to metallurgical engineering and materials science, specializing in the composition and structure of ceramics.

“It had physical chemistry, solid state physics and an entire course on the structure of glass,” she says, her voice still reflecting the wonder she felt more than 40 years ago. “And I thought, how cool is that?”

If she realized at the time that almost all metallurgical engineers were men, she never let that worry her either. She would go on to become a champion for women and underrepresented minorities, working to improve the chance that they, too, could become engineers.

Mecartney, professor (now emerita) of materials science and engineering, has a long history of activism. In the late ’90s, as UCI associate dean of graduate studies, she formed a consortium with other UC schools and successfully wrote the first AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) proposal, bringing millions of NSF dollars to the campus to increase the number of underrepresented doctoral students in STEM. She was faculty director for UCI’s Program for Diversity in Engineering Education, a DECADE graduate diversity mentor and an ADVANCE equity adviser, to name just a few roles.

“I do believe that women and underrepresented minorities bring something special to engineering,” she says. “In how you teach, what kinds of problems you research, how you run your group ... including different perspectives is really important.”

She also advocates for first-generation students and those coming from low-income backgrounds. “There are all these different groups of people who traditionally haven’t been able to go to college, certainly not in engineering and not on to graduate school,” she says. “My whole focus outside of research is finding ways to really push access and to become more inclusive.”

Mecartney was in her third year of studying classics when she decided to change her major to engineering, despite knowing that she would have to start from scratch. It ended up taking her six years to graduate with bachelor’s degrees in both majors but she took the plunge. “I thought, this is worth it. Because I can graduate and have a job that will be interesting.”

After earning her doctorate at Stanford, Mecartney spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, before joining the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. She was the only woman in her department. When she left UM five years later, she was still the only woman in the department. “They did hire another one after I left,” she laughs.

She decided to seek a position in California, where her then-boyfriend was living. She had arranged interviews at Cal Tech, UCLA and USC when she phoned a colleague to tell him of her plans. “He said, ‘You should look at UC Irvine.’” “I said, ‘UC where?’” She laughs again. “I had never even heard of Irvine.”

After visiting the campus, though, the decision became crystal clear. “The vibe of this place – young, growing, energetic – it just appealed to me so much. None of the other places were even considerations anymore.”

In 1990, she joined the UCI Department of Mechanical Engineering, which housed the materials science faculty at the time. Again, she was the department’s sole woman. Mecartney never felt alone though. She joined the Faculty Women’s Association, where women at all levels interacted and discussed issues, including their work. “That was another way of making connections with people across campus, and it was a big source of support for me,” she says.

She recalls her department colleagues extending the welcome mat when she arrived. “There were some wonderful, supportive people,” she says, specifically mechanical engineering Professor J. Michael McCarthy, whom she remembers regularly inviting all the assistant professors to lunch. “We would all sit at a table at the Phoenix Grill: the first Asian American faculty member; the first African American faculty member; me, the first woman in the department. That idea of promoting community inside the department was a really powerful way to get people to feel that they belonged.”

McCarthy recalls those days too. “I vividly remember when Martha came to UCI,” he says. “Her warmth and enthusiasm for her teaching, her research and her colleagues was apparent in everything she did.”

He also notes her influential role as associate graduate dean. “She was always quick with ideas to address the needs of our underrepresented minority students. She was and is an inspiration for her commitment and hard work on behalf of our entire university community.”

In nearly 30 years at the Samueli School, Mecartney has continued to advance diversity. She has secured four GAANN (Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need) grants from the U.S. Department of Education, giving the graduate programs in chemical engineering and materials science the equivalent of 40 years of graduate student funding. “This really helped us expand and support additional students, with the subtheme of ‘Let’s get students who traditionally haven’t gone to graduate school.’”

She has seen progress, but there is more to do. “The question is: how do we make engineering attractive to students in general, which also applies to women and other groups? Are we getting it across to students that they can help solve problems with water, energy, health?”

Key to the effort: creating an inclusive environment so students will feel they belong and can succeed. “How do we capture those students so they don’t spend three years being classics majors before they figure out they could be doing engineering?” she deadpans.

One way, she believes, is mentoring. A strong proponent of undergraduate research – she has mentored more than 70 undergrads, in addition to 30-plus doctoral candidates and nearly 20 master’s students – Mecartney seeks opportunities to pass on her considerable expertise.

Her current research is multipronged. In addition to developing ceramics for energy applications, she has returned to basic research on grain boundaries; she studies how to manipulate defects to promote or hinder heat conduction. She also focuses on flash sintering, an approach to creating ceramic materials by applying an electric field to ceramic powder.

The amazement she felt more than 40 years ago about her chosen field has not waned. “What I find fascinating is how we take these crystal structures and predict what kind of properties we’ll have. But then we can change what happens in this material,” she says. “It’s been a lifelong interest.”

So too, is advancing opportunities for women and other historically underrepresented groups. Her vision involves continuing to create supportive communities that bring together students, faculty and staff in pursuit of diversity and inclusion. “People are human and we have emotions. And if we pay attention to that and create community, then all kinds of diversity can flourish within that,” she says.

Outreach Advocate 

Michelle Digman is passionate about STEM outreach, because that’s how she got hooked on science.

Women in Engineering - Michelle Digman

As a high school student in Illinois, Digman rode a bus on weekends to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, about 40 minutes away, for the Saturday Morning Physics lecture series.

The Fermilab (named after physicist Enrico Fermi) has been the birthplace of significant achievements in particle physics research over five decades. Its free Saturday program features tours and lectures for youth delivered by Fermilab scientists.

“That really spoke to me, seeing this group of scientists and hearing about their work and what they did on a daily basis,” says Digman, associate professor of biomedical engineering and an NSF CAREER award winner.

Originally from Bolivia, Digman’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was very young. After high school graduation, she chose the local community college because she didn’t want to burden her family; her church’s congregation helped with tuition. Digman went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While working on her dissertation about protein interactions, Digman discovered physicist Enrico Gratton at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Gratton ran the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics (LFD), the first national facility dedicated to fluorescence spectroscopy. Working at the LFD, Digman became skilled at fluctuation microscopy and live cell imaging techniques. Gratton offered her a postdoctoral position, and when he moved to UC Irvine in 2006, Digman and the LFD came too.

“Michelle brought a crucial knowledge about culturing and manipulating live cells to our work in the lab,” says Gratton. “I realized at the time that cells and tissues were the next frontier for fluorescence microscopy, and she was instrumental in this transition for the LFD. This expertise is still the hallmark of our lab today.” Coincidentally, Gratton’s father was a student of Fermi’s, and Gratton was named Enrico in honor of the famous physicist.

In her research, Digman looks at quantifying spatial and temporal dynamics of proteins during cell migration, characterizing metabolic alterations in cells and tissues, and developing new imaging technologies using fluorescence dynamics to look at processes in living cells. She became LFD co-principal investigator in 2010, and joined the UCI faculty in 2013. She has developed five novel imaging methods, including the widely used Raster image correlation spectroscopy and the phasor approach to fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy.

Digman investigates cancer – specifically breast cancer – biology, trying to understand the process of invasive cells and tumors to identify underlying mechanisms. With NSF funding, she studies the role of mitochondria in tumor cells, particularly how the mitochondria seem to be transported to cellular edges when grown in 3D. This 3D approach presents a challenge with optics, she says, so there is a need for imaging techniques that can follow cells and obtain information in the 3D space.

She’s also researching metabolic changes in embryos. Her team has developed a noninvasive imaging device that can assess the quality of an embryo for in vitro fertilization. They can study alterations of intrinsic fluorescent biomarkers that provide important information about cellular health, cancer invasiveness, neurodegenerative dysfunctions and embryo development.

“We have been able to determine alterations of metabolism in Huntington’s Disease, recognize glioblastoma cell subpopulations, measure changes in metabolism when breast cancer cells are grown on different collagen densities and even predict the best embryos for implantation,” she explains.

Digman strives to give students some of the same experiences that inspired her. “As a woman and underrepresented minority in engineering, I recognize the barriers,” she says.

In 2011, she initiated the Undergraduate Student Initiative for Biomedical Research, a program for underrepresented community college students and outstanding high school students. To date, nearly 150 students have experienced science through this program.

The Spanish-speaking associate professor also feels strongly about mentoring and engaging undergraduates in research, based on her own history. Through the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, she spent a summer conducting materials science research in the lab of James Ibers, a well-known chemist at Northwestern University. Digman, an undergraduate, worked with graduate students in their investigations of rare earth metals, making crystals and characterizing the structures to see if they held additional properties. Concocting her own mixture of elements, Digman made a variant of the crystal, and her graduate mentor did the characterization to determine that it did indeed have conductive properties. “It was crazy, and a big deal!” Digman recalls. She was one of three authors on the peer-reviewed journal article, her first published research.

Since joining the faculty six years ago, Digman has mentored six doctoral students, five master’s students, 14 undergraduates, 10 high schoolers and 12 visiting scholars or research specialists. Many have gone on to publish their own research or win grants, scholarships or competitions.

“My work with Michelle has been the most productive of my career,” says Gratton. He adds that Digman’s interactions with researchers of all nationalities, genders and colors, and her ability to bring diversity to her field, department and group have benefited everyone. “She is committed to training students of diverse origins, and I believe this diversity has been very important to the success of the LFD and both of our labs.”

Chess Master

Women in Engineering - Iryna Zenyuk

When Iryna Zenyuk started playing chess with her grandfather at the tender age of 4, she enjoyed the camaraderie and loved the challenge. What she didn’t appreciate at the time is how those early chess games would influence her life and add inestimable value to her future career.

Zenyuk, who researches renewable energy, is an assistant (now associate) professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. She is also a former U.S. National Chess Team member and international contender who attained the title of Woman International Master.

For Zenyuk, chess and academia are similar. They’re intellectually stimulating, require careful thinking and spot-on strategizing, and entail hours of preparation. And both allow for high-level problem solving, something Zenyuk relishes.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Zenyuk lived an idyllic life with her parents, brother and grandparents. The straight-A student, who loved math and science, describes herself as a tomboy. Her father was a petroleum engineer – a career the young Zenyuk planned to pursue – and her mother was a musician and music teacher.

A chess prodigy, she began competing with a local club at age 7. “I liked to compete,” Zenyuk says. “The chess club was mostly boys, and having a chance to beat them was a fun aspect of the competitions.”

Everything changed when she was 8. Her father died suddenly, and the following year, her mother, unable to support her family in the recession that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, joined a sister in New York City. Zenyuk and her brother stayed behind in Ukraine, moving in with an aunt’s family until their mother could establish herself and send for them.

In the transition, Zenyuk stopped playing chess. “For my aunt to get me to chess lessons was quite difficult,” she says.

It wasn’t long, though, before a coach from her former club tracked her down and asked her to rejoin the team. She did, beginning a 20-year-plus streak of competitions and an unrelenting quest for improvement.

After joining her mother in New York at age 15, Zenyuk began her ascent in U.S. chess. She debuted in the rankings the very first year, becoming a Woman International Master seven years later, in 2008. She played thousands of tournaments during her high school and college years, including 10 consecutive years of national championships.

She participated in the first World Mind Games in China as an undergraduate at New York University, and it was then that she decided to pursue a career in renewable energy. “When I saw Beijing,” she says, “I thought, we really need some better solutions for the energy crisis. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

She finished her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, then took a year off to play chess full time before returning to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University. With doctorate in hand, she started a postdoctoral fellowship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. It was then that she faced a painful decision.

Zenyuk realized that in order to continue with chess, she would need to devote more time and energy than she had. She decided to prioritize her career instead. The fact that she had recently accomplished her lifelong goal of making the U.S. Olympic team rendered her decision even more difficult. “I just declined,” she says of the Olympic invitation. “I just decided I was going to stop. It was hard but it had to be done.”

Close friend Irina Krush, a seven-time U.S. Women’s Chess champion and Grandmaster, understands Zenyuk’s decision. “Her life had come to a point where playing wasn’t compatible with the requirements of her career. It didn’t seem to be a matter of choice really,” says Krush. “I always admired her fighting spirit and love for chess. I know that she’s passionate about her field and works very hard at it. ... The drive and work ethic she showed in chess was simply transferred to her career.”

After completing her postdoc, Zenyuk joined the faculty at Tufts University, where she stayed for three years before moving to California. “California has these great goals toward clean energy,” she says, “and this is the state to be in if one wants to advance that.”

Her interest in fuel cells and other clean energy technologies led her to UC Irvine and the National Fuel Cell Research Center, where she is now associate director, overseeing fundamental research. “The NFCRC has been doing this work for the last 20 years, pushing the limits of policy and systems design,” Zenyuk says. “I’m very passionate about this.”

Her research interests include electrolyzers, which convert electricity into hydrogen; next-generation lithium metal batteries; and fuel cells and other forms of renewable energy for transportation and the grid. She seeks to improve the efficiency of these technologies, making them less expensive and more accessible.

“Iryna has expertise in battery and proton-exchange membrane fuel cell technologies that are both complementary to our historical areas of expertise and transformational to our future research impact,” says Professor Jack Brouwer, NFCRC director. “Her energy, hard work and expertise ... are greatly broadening the scope and impact of our research.”

Zenyuk has made impressive strides, including an NSF CAREER award, two national fellowships and other recognition. And along the way she has built a diverse lab comprising students in chemical engineering, materials science, electrical engineering and physics.

Lessons learned through chess help Zenyuk mentor her students. “We play the game, we lose the game, we study our mistakes and we learn from them, and then we play another game,” she says. “Translating this feedback loop into mentoring Ph.D. students is really challenging but I feel it’s one of the most important things I got from chess – learning how to improve and teaching this to my students.”

She is also passionate about women in science. Her history in chess, a competitive field dominated by men, has bestowed on her an inability to tolerate bias of any kind, she says. “Just because I’m a relatively young woman doesn’t mean I can’t be an engineering professor or have a good idea. I feel there is an unconscious bias that is still a problem in science, and we really need to be direct about it.”

She lauds UCI and her department in particular, for inclusivity. “We have about 40% women in this department. It changes the way the discussion happens when you have a substantial number of women in the room. The dynamics change completely.”

Zenyuk is determined to keep diversity alive in her lab. “We are here to educate students and we really need to make sure we include everyone,” she says.

– Anna Lynn Spitzer and Lori Brandt
   Illustrations: Sharon Henry