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Priming the Pipeline for Female Engineers

Heath fellowsWhen Carl E. Heath Jr.'s daughter Alison was 11, he gave her a chemistry set for Christmas. He had received a similar set as a child and had fond memories of playing with it. "My mother-in-law was horrified," says Heath '52. "Shethought it was not a very good gift for a girl."
How did his daughter feel about the chemistry set? "She loved it."

Some years later, while Heath was working in Abingdon, England, as an executive for Exxon Chemicals, he realized that many of the smart, talented female engineers he worked with were not advancing in their careers at the same rate as their male colleagues. He formed a task force, discovered that women were concerned about balancing work and family, and helped establish a new maternity leave policy for the company that became a model for the entire country. When he returned to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, Heath continued providing mentors and support to the female scientists and engineers he worked with at Exxon and other companies. He took great satisfaction in watching their careers blossom.

So during a visit to Johns Hopkins in the early 1990s, it was only natural for Heath to inquire how many women faculty members and students there were in the Whiting School. What he learned surprised him. "There were female students, but there were few female faculty members," says Heath. "There was a lot of competition among schools for qualified women faculty, and there weren't very many women in the pipeline."

Heath decided to help. In 1996, with an initial gift and a matching contribution from Exxon, he established the Heath Fellowship for Graduate Women in Engineering at Johns Hopkins. The goal of the fellowship is simple: to provide support for women engineering graduate students in the hopes that more women will choose careers in the field. In 1999, the first Heath Fellow was named.

"I feel women in the sciences have not gotten gotten all of the credit they deserve and I wanted the satisfaction of knowing that I was helping women follow their career goals in science and engineering, or in whatever careers they choose," says Heath, who is a member of the Society of Engineering Alumni (SEA) and Johns Hopkins Alumni Council.

The fellows are nominated based on their academic achievement. Each fellow is provided with a stipend that is unrestricted and can be used for such things as research equipment, travel, or tuition. A total of 17 fellows have been named to date.

Chiara Lo Prete, a second-year PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering, was named a Heath Fellow in 2007 and used part of the stipend to take a summer course in macroeconometrics at the University of Copenhagen. The rest she used to purchase a new laptop and books for her first year at Hopkins. She says she appreciates Heath's devotion to equality. "These are problems that aren't new, but I hope things are changing and opening up for women. I really admire Dr. Heath and appreciate how he's trying to help make change."

After graduating from Hopkins with a degree in chemical engineering and earning a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Heath worked for Exxon for 34 years. In 1990 he retired and founded the management consult-ing firm Corporate Transformations International. Now a full-time volunteer, he works with his church and is committed to ending racism and homophobia. Married 54 years to his wife Pat, Heath is a father of two, grandfather of three, and great-grandfather of three and lives in Summit, New Jersey.

Every October, Heath returns to the Homewood campus for Alumni Leadership Weekend and has the opportunity to meet with current Heath Fellows. He asks them about their research and their experiences at Hopkins and earlier and inquires about what sorts of obstacles they may have faced as women in the field.

"It's nice to be able to share with someone who takes women's issues seriously and wants to improve things," says Stephanie Fraley, a Heath Fellow who is a second-year PhD candidate in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

It was at one of these meetings with Heath that Fraley shared a story about how she walked into her Engineering Physics class the first semester of her freshman year at a small state school and realized she was the only woman out of 30 students. "Before that, I thought the gender gap for women in engineering was an old issue," says Fraley. Now researching focal adhesion proteins at Hopkins, she wants to become a research professor after earning her PhD. The Heath Fellowship stipend, which she used to buy a faster laptop for data analysis for her research, is helping Fraley achieve that goal.

"It's wonderful that he really takes a genuine interest in each one of us and in the research that we are doing," says Kathryn Onesios, a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering who received a Heath Fellowship in 2006. Onesios is researching the use of microorganisms to remove pharmaceuticals and personal care products from water. She used her Heath Fellowship stipend to attend a conference and purchase lab supplies.

Heath's relationship with the Fellows often continues after they graduate from Hopkins. He keeps abreast of their careers and their families, receives news of their new jobs, promotions, weddings, and baby announcements. "It's like they're my daughters," he says.

Currently at the Whiting School of Engineering, women comprise 32 percent of undergraduate students, an increase of 40 percent since 2004. Women graduate students make up 26 percent of the population, a 5 percent increase since 2004. And the percentage of female faculty members has gone from less than 10 percent to almost 20 percent in the last four years.

Heath is pleased by the changes at the Whiting School, but he remains committed to the idea that there needs to be more women in engineering and science worldwide. He wants to continue to help make this happen. "I'd like to think this is just the beginning," he says. "When women regularly start winning Nobel Prizes in the sciences and being promoted in great numbers to very high positions in the field, then I might relax. Until then, I think we've got a ways to go." -Maria Blackburn




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