NCWIT Award in Computing – now accepting applications from high school girls

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) has started accepting applications for its annual “Aspirations in Computing” award.  This is a great opportunity for  high school aged girls who have done computing projects or activities to apply for an award.  The national winners will receive $500, a laptop, and a trip to attend the Bank of America Technology Showcase and awards ceremony in Charlotte, NC.

Please pass the word along and encourage any female high schoolers you know to consider applying if they are interested in computing. The deadline for entries is October 31, 2012.

For more information, see the NCWIT website.

Engineers Making a Difference

When high school girls are asked what they want from a career, one popular response is that they want to be able to make a difference in the world. They want to make a positive impact and help people. Unfortunately, many people don’t necessarily link that goal with engineering and that is a shame.

I know that engineers are out there making a difference.  Last fall I read an article from the LA Times about biomedical engineer Edward Damiano who is working on a new device to help Type 1 diabetics. For him, the project is personal since his son has the disease.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can be caused by the body’s inability to use its insulin and is often linked to obesity, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly kills off the cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar in the blood cannot be processed and used as fuel. When this occurs, sugar builds up the in the blood and life-threatening complications can occur.

Currently there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, although researchers are still searching.  For now, patients must manage the disease by monitoring their blood sugar and injecting insulin several times a day.  Some patients must still rely on shots, but others are lucky enough to benefit from newer technology that has replaced insulin shots with a continuous insulin pump. Blood sugar levels in the tissues can now be detected using a continuous glucose monitor.

Managing Type 1 diabetes is tricky.  If the blood sugar goes too high, it can cause complications and contribute to long-term damage to the nervous system, eyes and kidneys.  If too much insulin is applied and the blood sugar goes too low, a patient can go into convulsions, lose consciousness and go into a potential deadly coma, as the character Shelby did in the movie Steel Magnolias .  Unfortunately, the disease is nicknamed “Juvenile Diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed when patients are children or young adults.

The device Edward Damiano is working on manages the blood sugar by mimicking the pancreas. It senses the sugar level in the blood and releases glucagon or insulin to raise or lower blood sugar as needed. The specific piece that Damiano is developing is the software control algorithm. He is using techniques from a field called Control Theory, also commonly used in robotics.

When I read his story of jumping into this project to help treat his own son’s disease, it hit a chord with me. This could really make a difference in not only his son’t life, but others as well. My nephew was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3. I hated hearing about how he was getting shots several times a day. My sister told me that anytime he gets sick enough to vomit, she has to take him to the emergency room because it can throw his blood sugar into a dangerous state. When he was little she couldn’t leave him with a regular baby sitter since few are qualified to manage his diabetes. And they have to vigilantly count the carbs he eats to ensure he gets the right dose of insulin.

Since I have a background in biomedical engineering, this story had me thinking about jumping out of the telecommuncations industry and finding a job on one of these diabetes projects (there are other groups doing similar work). And I might have done that if I didn’t have personal commitments preventing me from up and moving. There is just something about working on a project like that which really motivates me. The satisfaction from helping others makes me proud to be an engineer.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes and the current research efforts, check out the JDRF website .

To try your hand at managing diabetes, check out the Diabetic Dog Game.

A Day in the Work Life of an Electrical Engineer

When you think of what an engineer does on a daily basis, what comes to mind?  Do you think we sit around and solve math problems all day?  Maybe you think we sit in a cube and work on our projects alone.

Well, I have to confess that I don’t perform calculations all day.  I’m sure that there are some engineers who spend time “doing the math”, but most of the calculations I do are either relatively simple or I rely on software to do it for me.

So, what is life as an engineer like?  What do I do in a typical day?  Considering that engineers aren’t typically known for their communication skills, I spend a considerable amount of time communicating via emails, in meetings and on conference calls.  Oftentimes, I am communicating with colleagues around the world.  (It gets really interesting when you have an engineer in Mexico explaining an issue to an engineer in China speaking all in English when neither of them is a native English-speaker!  I am amazed that they can understand each other, but they manage.)

The engineering work I do includes design, implementation and testing of my part of a given project.  I design both hardware (electronics – think circuit boards) and software for each project.  I review the requirements of the project (what does this need to do?) and come up with a solution.  Many of our projects are related so it is common for me to re-use pieces from old designs and then create new pieces to fulfill the new requirements.  This part of the project requires me to spend time in my office thinking, planning and drawing up my ideas.  If I hit a roadblock, it is common practice for me to go talk to other engineers in my group to see if they can offer some suggestions.  Although we work individually on projects, we often discuss our work with each other and share ideas. (We have a shared lab space and end up talking to each other quite a bit)  Around our office if someone tries out a new concept that works really well, they will be enthusiastically showing it off in the lab.

One of the great things about working with electronics is that I generally get to “play” with my design in the lab and tweak it.  You can’t really do that if you design roadways for a living.  So, when I design a circuit board, someone (a technician or factory) will build the board and send it to me.  Then the fun of troubleshooting starts.  The board gets plugged in and tested.  Then, if something doesn’t work as expected, I get to play detective and try to figure out what is going on.  Although it can be tricky to troubleshoot when the design isn’t working, I usually learn a lot from the effort. Troubleshooting sometimes requires me to be clever and creative to get to the root of the problem.

Once my design works for me and I send it out for it’s intended use, I still have to support it.  This usually results in my trying to troubleshoot problems with it remotely.  This can be challenging and frustrating, but if you can fix a problem that is happening at a factory on the other side of the world you feel like you can fix anything!

Most of my work takes place in my office or lab, with the occasional trip to a factory.  Other types of engineers do their work in other places – factories, oil fields, electrical substations, nuclear plants, to name a few.  Most of us spend at least some time in an office working in front of a computer.  To read a little bit about other engineering fields, you can check out the  Engineer Your Life website.