"It was really cool because I would go to class and look around and see maybe one or two other women, then go home and my area was all women, so I didn't notice so much," says Bunker, now a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Michigan Tech and the collegiate director for the Society of Women Engineers.
Another key piece: role models.
[Learn how to encourage women to pursue STEM majors.]
While Bunker's father – a mechanical engineer – inspired her to pursue engineering, women she encountered through the Society of Women Engineers also helped guide her path. Reading biographies of award recipients at a SWE conference in 2009 even cemented her decision to work toward her doctorate, she says.
"I realized these women were working on cutting-edge technologies and a lot of them have Ph.D.s. That made me decide to go for one and to one day be one of these women," Bunker says. "I don't necessarily know their names or where they are now, but they were big in helping me."
While experts tout the benefits of female role models for women studying in the field, students should not discount the advice and guidance of male mentors.
Flanigan, the Virginia Tech alumna, credits a former professor – Chris Hall – as one of the biggest influences on her career. Hall recruited her to work in his space simulation lab and tasked her with leading his introductory engineering courses when he was traveling.
Perhaps most importantly, he talked to her about what she wanted to do after college and pushed her to take the steps she needed to get there, she says.
Flanigan now works in what she calls her "dream job," guiding NASA spacecraft as an aerospace engineer for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
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