Focus on the goal — Opportunities don’t come knocking on your door when you are an immigrant brown woman in STEM. You have to pursue it and work doubly hard to succeed. When I started my career after receiving my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering. I was turned down for so many positions but ultimately an opportunity opened up in Norway at a prestigious institute in my field of expertise. I moved despite my partner being in the US and the uncertainty around our work visa. I believe that opportunity I took opened many doors for me eventually and it was a risk worth taking. I had kept my focus on obtaining an academic or research position and took a calculated risk to achieve that goal.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beena Sukumaran.
Beena Sukumaran is Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at Miami University in Ohio since August 1, 2020. Previous to that she was on the faculty in the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department at Rowan University. She also taught at Prairie View A&M University in 1996. She worked at Amoco and the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute on offshore foundations for deepwater applications before joining Rowan University. She obtained her Ph.D. degree in Civil Engineering from Purdue University in 1996.
Her previous leadership positions at Rowan include Vice President for Research from 2018 to 2020. She also served as the President’s Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion from 2017 to 2018, during which she examined strategies to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion. She served as Department Head of CEE for seven years from 2010 to 2017.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My childhood days were spent in Sarawak, Malaysia where my father worked for the Public works department as an engineering assistant. I used to follow him on the job when I was a child. This led me to pursue civil engineering as an undergraduate and eventually geotechnical engineering as a graduate student. I loved understanding how soil behaved during extreme events and how that impacted design and construction.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I started at Miami University only recently (in August 2020), when I assumed the role of the Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing amidst a pandemic. Starting a new role in leadership is hard enough but doing it when you cannot meet your students, faculty or staff in person is extremely challenging. I remember the first official day of the start of classes. The whole building was empty when it should have been teeming with students and staff. My first thought was how would I navigate this unique set of circumstances and get to know the people I work for.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think it was the first day I had ventured into our building. I still didn’t have the access card nor keys to the various doors, which were still locked due to the pandemic shutdown. I went to the restroom and forgot that the door locked behind me. I couldn’t get back to my office and was shut in this area for a while. It seemed to be a metaphor of my life and follows that common saying that when one door closes behind you another door opens, but in my case being a woman of color in an engineering field, I had to strive doubly hard to get those doors open. Sometimes it takes longer than it should but it will eventually open.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are so many aspects of Miami University that makes it stand out. I will speak about two — one from my perspective as being a leader in this organization and another about my students, whom I serve. Miami University’s code of love and honor was something I came across the first week I was on campus. The code of love and honor is inspirational and speaks about servant leadership to the community as a whole. Every leader I have met on campus exemplifies this code, which is truly inspirational. Miami University also prides itself as a public ivy with a liberal arts grounding. The College of Engineering and Computing graduates therefore obtain technical degrees with a liberal arts core and most of our students major or minor in a discipline outside the college in addition to their major in engineering or computing. Some of the first students I met with in person were students from our Grand Challenge Scholars Program and our Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute. Listening to the projects they were working on including engineering better medicines, addressing climate change, building an assistive device etc., spoke to what makes these graduates special — they were passionate about Socially Engaged Engineering and Computing, and they were articulate and well-rounded.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am always working on several new projects. One of the degree programs that we are working on is a Masters program in Clinical Engineering, the development of which was accelerated due to the pandemic. It is to train engineers to serve in a hospital setting and to graduate engineers who can get medical devices through the regulatory approval process. As a nation, we are becoming less competitive due to a dearth of engineers and computer scientists. We have also seen a need for engineers in the hospital settings especially in light of the pandemic when you have to scale up the operation or even restructure hospitals to meet emergency situations.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, I am definitely not satisfied with the status quo. I have made it my life’s mission to change the status quo and I get frustrated when the change is slow. To change the status quo, we definitely need to start early and change some of the cultural norms around gendered play, toys, etc. Stereotype threat is significant and real and when I hear young women questioning their confidence in science and math, it breaks my heart. We also have to bolster their confidence and it takes a whole village to do that. Colleges and universities also should do their part and move away from standardized tests as a means of assessing a students’ abilities, change the climate in the classroom and in the profession, and revise our curriculum to be more inclusive.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The biggest challenge I see is that we are not seeing enough women coming into the profession due to the cultural perception around what is required to succeed in the profession. From birth to the time to get through college, they face stereotype threats that convey the impression that they cannot succeed in engineering or computing. Their confidence in math and science skills are also undermined due to the stereotype threats that they face. This can be remedied if we as a society made conscious choices around the language that we use and the actions that we take. Women students are usually more successful in the classroom but if you assess their confidence, it will be much lower than their male counterparts. This is also exacerbated by peer microaggressions or even unconscious bias.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
You do not have to be a nerd or a geek to be successful in STEM or Tech. You also do not have to dress a certain way and you can be your own person and still be successful. TV shows and social media have created this image that a person who succeeds in STEM or Tech looks a certain way and acts a certain way. That is completely untrue. I have seen people of various backgrounds, mannerisms and attire succeeding in STEM. You will be successful in STEM or tech if you are well-rounded, articulate and passionate just like in any other profession. People who come into the STEM fields enjoy the profession because of their ability to make a difference in improving society on a rather large scale.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Focus on the goal — Opportunities don’t come knocking on your door when you are an immigrant brown woman in STEM. You have to pursue it and work doubly hard to succeed. When I started my career after receiving my Ph.D. in Civil Engineering. I was turned down for so many positions but ultimately an opportunity opened up in Norway at a prestigious institute in my field of expertise. I moved despite my partner being in the US and the uncertainty around our work visa. I believe that opportunity I took opened many doors for me eventually and it was a risk worth taking. I had kept my focus on obtaining an academic or research position and took a calculated risk to achieve that goal.
- Don’t be scared to pursue opportunities that are outside your comfort zone — When I was offered the position of President’s Fellow for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Rowan University, I was hesitant to give up my Department Head responsibilities and venture into an area that was rather new. I am glad I took it. The position allowed me to see how academic leadership at the cabinet level functions in higher education.
- You can be your authentic self and still succeed — I have always believed in speaking my mind and following the principles I stand by. I have also firmly believed that I have a responsibility to future generations of students in STEM and that their path should be easier than mine.
- Follow your passion — I have always been passionate about engineering education and diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness in STEM. I feel like I am blessed because I have been able to pursue this passion. It has never been a job but a calling.
- Ask for what you deserve — This is especially true of any of the diverse groups in STEM, including women. I have coached women to ask for what they deserve and, in some cases, interceded on their behalf.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Get to know each person in your organization as an individual and value them for the passion they bring to the table. Listen to them carefully. Also, allow for an open exchange of ideas.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Stay focused on your message and what you are trying to achieve. You will have to repeat it but do it with patience. When a woman is in charge, there is some expectation of nurturing. I don’t adopt male leadership styles but I am also careful not to be perceived as the mother figure who is there to solve all their problems, whether personal or professional. That is a careful balance women have to strike. You will also have to stand up for yourself more and therefore do that especially when you feel you are being taken advantage of. Another very important piece of advice is to not get bogged down by the small tasks but instead concentrate on activities that are more meaningful to you and the goals of the organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I had so many people that helped me along the way but two people who stand out are Professor Leonards and Professor Vincent Drnevich. Professor Leonards was one of my Ph.D. advisors and someone I looked up to. He was Professor Emeritus by the time I started working with him. When I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation, he would stay in the office late and work on the corrections with me and drive me home after that. He knew I only had a bicycle to get around and he didn’t want me riding home in the cold, dark Indiana winters. Professor Vince Drnevich was the Department Head of the Civil Engineering program at Purdue when I graduated. He had not supervised me but knew me in passing along with many of the other students. He is the one who recommended me for positions in industry soon after I graduated and was instrumental in getting me my temporary position at Amoco. He has been a part of my success ever since, helping me get promoted at every step of the way in my academic career.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope I am bringing goodness to the world through my success. I always use my position to give voice to the voiceless, especially my students who come from diverse backgrounds. I am a first-generation college student, a first-generation immigrant, and a person of color. I try to use my experiences to advocate for change. I also see myself as a role model for students — hence my desire to be the Dean of an engineering and computing school.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I had started an organization called “Engineering Innovators without Borders” as an offshoot of Engineers without Borders. The primary goal of the organization was to generate entrepreneurial opportunities in the developing world by using engineering skills to redesign a device that would not only enhance the quality of life in the area but also provide employment opportunities through designing and building the devices. The designs are also open source and therefore can be improved upon. We designed a bike-powered grain crusher, a tree climber and a peanut shell briquette maker through the organization. I would love to revive the entity and get engineering students to give back through engineering design.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Alexander Graham Bell’s saying: “When one door closes, another one opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” I have tried to make sure I don’t look too long at the closed door but instead concentrate on the one which is open. Sometimes my trajectory has taken some circuitous paths but every experience along the way has helped me get to my current position.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to meet Mackenzie Scott, who recently made donations to institutions of higher education. One of the universities she donated to was Prairie View A&M University, the place where I started my first teaching position soon after graduating with a Ph.D. I was so impressed with the students I met at Prairie View A&M university because of their resilience, passion and desire to make the world a better place. There were so many students with a significant financial need and the donation made by Ms. Scott will help these very deserving students obtain a great education.