How Four Pioneering Women in Technology Got Their Big Break

One Fellow built rescue robots deployed on 9/11 and another was the first African American female computer programmer at NASA

16 June 2017

Innovators have always faced obstacles including landing their first job and getting their work published. In some cases, they’ve broken barriers that traditionally held them back from a successful career. Here are the ways that four famous female engineers got their start.

  • Esther Conwell

    Best known for: Advances in semiconductors with applications in computing and photocopying. In 1967 she wrote what became a seminal textbook, High Field Transport in Semiconductors. She was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1980 “for contributions to semiconductor theory, particularly transport in both low and high electric fields.” In 1997 she received the IEEE Edison Medal “for fundamental contributions to transport theory in semiconductor and organic conductors, and their application to the semiconductor, electronic copying, and printing industries.”

    Why it matters: Her research described how impurities affect the transport of electrons in a semiconductor, thus demonstrating their essential role in the performance of transistors and other semiconductor devices. The phenomenon would later be called impurity scattering.

    Where she started: Conwell received a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1942 from Brooklyn College, in New York City, and a master’s (and later a Ph.D.) from the University of Rochester, in New York. In 1943 her master’s thesis advisor, Victor Weisskopf, was in contact with researchers at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., who were working on semiconductors, and he suggested to Cornwell that she consider impurity scattering as her thesis topic. Another researcher at Purdue, Vivian Johnson, later asked Conwell for a copy of her thesis because Conwell’s data was helpful to the university’s ongoing semiconductor research.

    Breakthrough: When Conwell submitted her thesis to the University of Rochester, Purdue informed the university that the thesis had been classified because it was conducted during World War II and could have military applications. In 1945 Conwell was surprised to find her name in the Bulletin of the American Physical Society, because she hadn’t submitted a paper to the APS. When World War II was over, the thesis she had sent to Purdue was declassified, and the Purdue team submitted an abstract under Conwell’s and Weisskopf’s names. Thus, the Conwell-Weisskopf Theory of Impurity Scattering was finally published.

    Conwell died in 2014 at the age of 92.

  • Ingrid Daubechies

    Best known for: Discovery of what became known as the orthogonal Daubechies wavelet and the biorthogonal Cohen-Daubechies-Feauveau wavelet. Wavelets play an important role in digital signal processing. Daubechies was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1999 “for contributions to the theory of wavelets.” She received the 2011 IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal “for pioneering contributions to the theory and applications of wavelets and filter banks.” In 2012 King Albert of Belgium, her home country, granted her the title of baroness.

    Why it matters: Wavelets are mathematical building blocks that allow complicated things to be decomposed in a multiscale fashion. Wavelets in medical imaging applications, for example, reduce patients’ exposure to radiation. In the United States, the FBI uses them for encoding digitized fingerprints. A wavelet from the Cohen-Daubechies-Feauveau family of wavelets is used in the JPEG 2000 image compression standard. Wavelets also are used in art restoration and forgery detection.

    Where she started: Daubechies received bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Brussels. In 1987 she joined the technical staff at the Mathematics Research Center of AT&T Bell Laboratories, in Murray Hill, N.J.

    Breakthrough: In 1987, while at Bell Labs, she constructed compactly supported continuous wavelets, which require only a finite amount of processing, thus reducing storage needs and data transmission times.

  • Annie Easley

    Best known for: Developed and implemented computer code that has been used in ozone-layer research, energy-conversion systems, vehicle batteries, and alternative energy systems.

    Why it matters: Easley made important technical contributions to cogeneration, which is the use of a heat engine or power station to generate electricity and heat at the same time. She was one of the first African-American women to work at NASA as a computer scientist in the 1950s, helping to break down barriers for women and minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

    Where she started: She began as a pharmacy major at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans, but marriage and a move to Cleveland interrupted her studies.

    Breakthrough: In 1955 she read a newspaper article about twin sisters who worked as computers (then the term used for people who performed intricate mathematical calculations) at NASA—which piqued her interest. She applied for a job as a computer, and began working in the materials and stresses department. When electronic computers arrived, she learned FORTRAN and became a programmer.

    Easley died in 2011 at the age of 78.

  • Robin Murphy

    Best known for: Pioneering the field of rescue robots and founding Roboticists Without Borders, which deploys robots to help in disaster situations worldwide at no cost to first responders or government agencies. She is also director of the TEES Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and the Center for Emergency Informatics, both at Texas A&M University, in College Station.

    Why it matters: Murphy’s ground, air, and sea search-and-rescue robots were deployed after the 9/11 attack on the United States, Hurricanes Charley and Katrina in 2004 and 2005, the 2005 mudslide in La Conchita, Calif. They also were used at the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, in Japan. The bots have rescued refugees from countries in Africa and the Middle East who were shipwrecked while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

    Where she started: Murphy earned a bachelor’s degree in 1980 in mechanical engineering as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science from Georgia Tech in 1989 and 1992, respectively. She was appointed to the faculty of the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden. CSM links to the field of space science meant there was a lot of work being done on small, compact planetary robots.

    Breakthrough: The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and the experiences of one of her graduate students, John Blitch, who participated in the rescue efforts, led Murphy to focus her work on robots that were small and rugged enough to crawl into collapsed buildings. Blitch became a program manager for the U.S. Defense Advance Projects Research Agency and opened the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) on 1 September 2001. Eleven days later—after an all-night drive from Tampa, Fla., to New York City—Murphy’s robots joined other bots from DARPA, iRobot, and Foster-Miller in the search for survivors at the World Trade Center.

    She was named head of CRASAR and directed efforts on accelerating the adoption of robots in rescue missions by developing CSM courses in disaster robotics, identifying technology gaps and new metrics for their performance, and establishing a wider base of trained volunteers. Her analysis of 34 deployments of ground, aerial, and marine robots to disasters worldwide that occurred from 2001 to 2013, and the resulting best practices, became the basis of the award-winning book Disaster Robotics (MIT Press, 2014).

Robert Colburn is a research coordinator at the IEEE History Center, in Hoboken, N.J.

For more articles by History Center staff members, visit its publications page. The History Center is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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