Find, collect and utilize mentors. There are a lot of amazing mentors in our world. It’s important to find someone you connect with and take advantage of the relationships you build. Don’t be afraid to have a mentor of the opposite sex.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman. Dr. Nelson-Cheeseman is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of Mechanical Engineering and Director of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. She has extensive national and international collaborations and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my undergraduate studies with the intention of becoming a chemical engineer, but that quickly changed when an introductory class opened my eyes to the many different types of engineering. I realized I was fascinated with properties of chemistry — I wanted to understand why things act the way they do and how we can engineer materials. A career in materials science engineering resonated with me, and I changed my course of study.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I wanted to find a way for current students who share my passion for materials science to study in this field. I recognized this as an opportunity to create an interdisciplinary minor, and I worked with my colleagues across the science and engineering departments at the University of St. Thomas to identify, coordinate and rally support for this new program. The hard work has paid off tremendously! I’m the Director of the Materials Science and Engineering Minor Program and provide guidance and support to those in eight major disciplines who decide to pursue the minor.
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’m fortunate to have traveled to more than 45 countries, an experience that’s given me space to grow professionally and personally. Recently, I traveled with a team of students to Peru and went on sabbatical in Colombia. Many years ago, when I was learning Spanish, I lived in Argentina for a summer in high school. I mistakenly said, “estoy embarazada,” which doesn’t mean what many English-speakers think it does. Instead of saying I was embarrassed, I said I was pregnant!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The University of St. Thomas School of Engineering takes a holistic approach and focuses on a combination of technical training and liberal arts education to create whole students. For example, we have Global Summer Experiences where students live in countries like Peru or Jordan and become immersed in the culture, language and their capstone engineering project which relates to their host country. Those engineering students studying abroad take an intensive intercultural learning course.
We’re also redesigning our freshman engineering experience to more clearly emphasize non-technical content. When you think about it, effective engineers need more than their technical skills. They need to be empathetic, great communicators and team players.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m studying magnetic elastomer, a new class of smart materials, and the unique ways it responds to a stimulus. It’s fascinating to think of the many ways it can be used. Magnetic elastomer won’t spill or leak and provides the opportunity to manipulate shapes if we can’t or don’t want to touch an item. For example, you can manipulate something inside a body or even outside a space shuttle by simply using a magnet.
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?
We are making progress; however, we can do more! Currently, 50% of our engineering faculty at the University of St. Thomas is women, but the number of female students enrolling is lagging behind the 50% mark.
Girls and boys start out with an equal interest in the STEM fields, but girls tend to disengage as they get older. We call it the “leaky pipeline.” The first leak in the pipeline is in eighth grade, followed by freshman year of college and then at college graduation. I think it’s important that we focus on exposing young females to toys and experiments that build their STEM skills and introduce them to women role models in STEM fields. We also need to highlight aspects of engineering that girls and young women may not be familiar with, including how engineering helps people and how engineers interact with others. One thing we do at the Society of Women Engineers at the University of St. Thomas is go into the community and classrooms to teach basic engineering skills to young women.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think all leaders — not just women — can work toward being clearer and kinder in their communication. This is something I’m learning from Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Sometimes women can be non-confrontational or talk around things, but I think we can continue to grow by learning to be more direct while also being kind in our delivery.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
There is something to be said about the importance of being vulnerable and asking your team to be the same. Of course, be vulnerable with boundaries. I believe we (women) are more comfortable with empathy and listening and should use this strength when connecting with our teams.
Additionally, we should take time to highlight aspects of highly effective teams, minimize hierarchy to open up communication, and strive to understand cultural differences. When you understand not just what country someone is from, but their background and experiences, that’s when you begin to see how the team can embrace differences, build bridges and work together to be successful.
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?
My undergraduate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chang-beom Eom, provided me great nuggets of wisdom that I still carry with me and share with my undergraduate students. For instance, when you’re picking your advisor, remember you’re selecting an actual person, not just a topic. You’ll be working with this person for the next five years of your life. Many people say next to the person you marry, your advisor will have the most impact on your life moving forward.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Mentoring is the heart and soul of what I love doing — it’s why I became a professor. I enjoy helping students see their opportunities and not only their individual potential, but the potential of what is around us. There’s nothing better than helping someone align his or her interests and passions and then shining a light on the endless possibilities.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Persistence. The materials science and engineering minor at the University of St. Thomas is very important to me and I had to be very persistent to make it possible. I had to communicate with many people across multiple departments and be persuasive to engage my colleagues and keep them engaged.
2. Find, collect and utilize mentors. There are a lot of amazing mentors in our world. It’s important to find someone you connect with and take advantage of the relationships you build. Don’t be afraid to have a mentor of the opposite sex.
3. Be curious and stay curious. So much of what you learn is by simply asking questions. No matter where you are in life, whether you’re a top executive, the new kid in class or a tenured professor, ask questions. Stay curious. Use questions to breathe new life into a project or subject or to highlight things other people maybe haven’t questioned or take for granted.
4. Find your tribe. Having support from mentors, family and friends is important. Seek out people on your level to bounce ideas off of and find groups that have similar, overlapping experiences — such as career, hobbies, gender or ethnicity.
5. Empathy. Be more aware of when you’re trying to be more empathetic. Leading and acting with empathy can be a lifelong process.
You are a person of great 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 believe we should all recognize that we have a culture — even if you’re in the majority — and become more aware of our intercultural differences. As humans, we become comfortable and believe “this is how things are done,” but traveling abroad or putting ourselves in a different setting where we feel out of place goes a long way in helping us empathize and connect with others (e.g., country of origin, race, sex, etc.).
And, stay curious and never stop asking questions. Without asking questions about different engineering disciplines, I might not have become a materials scientist and engineer. Sometimes we get comfortable — at work or in life — and begin to feel like we know everything. When we stop asking questions that’s when we stop growing as a person.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If someone says no, go ask somebody else.” We remind our students that not everything is as it seems. And it’s quite possible you just didn’t ask the right person. If it seems like it’s not possible, keep pushing and trying!
“I have no special talents, I’m just passionately curious.” Hopefully, throughout my responses you’ve seen that I am a curious person who asks a lot of questions. Questions help me grow, understand and learn throughout my career and personal life.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 🙂
It’s so hard to pick just one person! As a fellow academic, I’d be interested in meeting president Barack Obama. If we’re talking about international aid work, then it’s got to be Bill and Melinda Gates and Angelina Jolie! I would love to meet Reese Witherspoon to hear more about her female-forward media company and efforts to get more females lead roles and screenwriter positions. Finally, I would like to learn more from Brené Brown about opening up the door to vulnerability and how to lead with empathy.
Thank you for all of these great insights!