MIT Society of Women Engineers celebrates 40 years

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Friday, October 11, 2019 - 2:15pm

MIT SWE leaders pose with their faculty advisor, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia (top left), and Dean of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan (top middle). Photo: Stephanie Tran/DSL Communications

Julia Newman | Division of Student Life

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When she was in high school, Haripriya Mehta, now a senior in EECS, attended workshops hosted by Northwestern University’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE, pronounced "swee"). The global organization is dedicated to supporting women interested in, or pursuing careers in, engineering and technology. The impression of those events — and seeing “all of the cool things that you could do with engineering” — had a profound impact on Mehta's life. “That’s why I pursued engineering here at MIT. I wanted to share my love of STEM with young girls and everyone else in the MIT community,” Mehta says. Her experiences may have also influenced her decision to join SWE at MIT and, this year, to serve as its president.

To celebrate its 40th year on campus, SWE hosted an anniversary celebration on Sept. 19. One of the largest student organizations on campus, MIT SWE was, until recently, an undergraduates-only organization, but Mehta helped to open membership to graduate students.

In addition to promoting diversity among women engineers, SWE seeks to introduce students of all ages, from grade school to high school, to STEM fields. Nova Xu, a senior in biological engineering and SWE’s vice president of on-campus outreach, coordinates weekly events for area girls who want to know more about opportunities in science and engineering. In the past, SWE members demonstrated how to extract DNA from strawberries or how to construct a catapult.

Whatever form the outreach takes, SWE programs target under-resourced communities. For example, Xu has teamed with EECS junior Jeana Choi, the chapter's vice president of off-campus outreach, to connect with Boston-area high schoolers who might want to know more about engineering education and opportunities at MIT. Choi feels that SWE provides a “way to encompass people of all genders at MIT, encourage them toward engineering, and also give back to the community around us.” SWE’s mission is to empower women in the field of engineering, but their doors are open to students of any gender who wish to participate.

Julia Pei, a senior in biological engineering, knew she wanted to join SWE when she came to MIT. Back home in Ohio, Pei attended a SWE event that inspired her to learn more about engineering. Now, as MIT SWE’s vice president of career development, Pei creates networking opportunities for members such as “Meet the Professionals,” where women engineers working in many fields meet with students to discuss their disciplines in a low-key environment. Pei shares how "it's exciting to see all of these women get excited about what's to come after MIT,” in terms of their career paths and professional growth.

At the 40th anniversary celebration, MIT SWE faculty advisor Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’97, PhD ’97, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Biochemistry and professor of EECS, reminded attendees that when the chapter started up, only 13 percent of MIT students were women. Today, half of MIT’s students are women, said Bhatia, who is also director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies. Standing next to current MIT SWE President Mehta, Bhatia shared that she, too, had served as SWE chapter president during her undergraduate years at Brown University. “You are your own network and you will carry that forever,” Bhatia said, adding that looked forward to celebrating MIT SWE’s 80th birthday in another 40 years.