Women Meld Fields for Metallurgy Revival
JENNIFER CLAMPET | February 22, 2012 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Women at The University of Texas at El Paso are doing the math in metallurgy – and the numbers are adding up to a renaissance in heavy metal study.
Sylvia Natividad-Diaz, a second-year master's student in UTEP's metallurgical and materials engineering program, has melded her degree plan with biomedical engineering.
She wants to create a low-cost alternative to the very expensive flow cytometry medical technology.
"It's about making medical technology for low-resource settings," said Natividad-Diaz. "I want to contribute to the decrease (in the) cost of medical care for low-income populations."
Her portable alternative to the bulky medical machine – used in the diagnosis of health disorders by counting and examining individual cells in a biological sample – could open the door to affordable technology for clinics across the country.
The tie-in between metallurgy and medicine came easy for Natividad-Diaz, who often favors a quote from the metallurgical and materials engineering department chair: There is no engineering without materials.
"If the United States wants to be competitive in the global economy, we need to be making stuff," said Stephen Stafford, Ph.D., professor of metallurgical and material engineering at UTEP.
But the University's metallurgical programs are doing more than encouraging the "making of stuff." As schools and industries nationwide wrestle with an underrepresentation of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, Stafford notes that women have a strong hold in the metallurgy field at UTEP.
Currently, the campus metallurgical and materials engineering undergraduate program has 64 students enrolled – 30 percent are women.
According to 2004 statistics from the Society for Women in Engineering, only about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering students nationwide were women.
In 2001, a Current Population Survey for the Department of Labor found that metallurgy was one of only three engineering specialties that had more women representation when compared with the overall percent of women engineers.
Women made up 12 percent of the metallurgical/metal engineers. Other specialties such as aerospace, mining, petroleum, nuclear, civil and electrical engineering, had women representing less than 11 percent of employees in the fields.
"In today's world, everyone is constantly trying to do something to stand out as an individual," said Rene Burks, a 2009 UTEP graduate of the metallurgical and materials engineering bachelor's degree program. "As women in metallurgy, we have that built-in identifier because there are so few of us in the industry."
Burks is a process engineer with V&M Star in Youngstown, Ohio – a company that boasts being the leading producer of seamless tubular products (used mainly in the oil and gas applications) in North America. The company's output, according to the V&M website, is about 500,000 metric tons of finished tubular products a year.
In December, V&M flew 10 students from UTEP's metallurgical and materials engineering program to Youngstown to participate in a steel technology and rolling introductory course. A quick photo-op of students in hardhats gave a clear picture – six women and four men – of the diversity UTEP's metallurgy program brings to the field.
"We saw a lot of things we've learned in the classroom on the plant floor," said Brenda Arellano, a metallurgical and materials engineering undergraduate student who attended the V&M trip.
Even more impressive though, Arellano said, were the prospects of everything she can do with a degree in metallurgy.
"If you like knowing the fundamental reasons behind why we are able to achieve such amazing technological advances, then metallurgy is possibly for you," Burks said. "But if you don't like getting your hands dirty or are afraid to make a difference in your professional environment and accept the responsibility that comes with it, you might want to look somewhere else."
In the Metallurgy Building, in a lab just down the hall from where Natividad-Diaz works on her project, Nayeli Camacho is running failure analyses on knee implant components recently removed from local patients by El Paso-area orthopedic surgeons.
Camacho, a third-year Ph.D. student in materials sciences and engineering, has found that the plastic-like cushion placed between femoral and tibial implants is failing. As a result, the components are displaying premature failure in younger and more active patients.
She plans to enhance the mechanical properties of the cushion in order to expand the life span of the total knee replacement.
For Camacho, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from UTEP in mechanical engineering and metallurgical and materials engineering, the opportunity to use her knowledge in the field of orthopedics is exciting.
"I'm fascinated that I can do something with engineering to help the community," Camacho said.