Hutchison Alumnae Share Tips for Success in STEM Careers With Aspiring Student Engineers

Three alumnae, along with three NASA engineers, encouraged students interested in engineering to not let gender disparity dissuade them from the excitement of a STEM career.
The student-moderated virtual panel included two engineers and an architect who shared how Hutchison helped prepare them for careers where they are often the only women in the room.

The Society of Women Engineers Next Club (SWENext Club) connected our girls interested in engineering careers with the three Hutchison alumnae and three NASA engineers through a virtual panel. Zoe Zerwig Ford ’23 moderated the discussion with the following six women:
  • Phoebe Norcross ’13: Architectural Designer at Ennead Architects in New York
  • Katherine Threlkeld ’06: Test Engineer at Google in California
  • Anita Vasu ’02: Biomedical Engineer and R&D Strategy at AstraZeneca in London
  • Malene McElroy: Environmental Engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Dr. Precious Mitchell: Systems Engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Lisa Bates: Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center Test Laboratory

The panelists talked to the girls about their career fields and their experience working in male-dominated industries. They also gave examples of ways the girls could begin to prepare for an engineering career while in high school such as joining STEM groups, participating in hands-on STEM experiences, and seeking out a mentor.

Phoebe Norcross ’13 said she felt invincible upon graduating from Hutchison and that she would not be impacted as a woman entering a male-dominated field. Since entering the workforce, though, she has had to fight to be heard. Katherine Threlkeld ’06 also knows what it feels like to be the only woman in the room. There were no other female engineers at the first company where she worked, and she has been the only woman on her immediate team at Google several times. She said it can be a culture shock, but you have to work through it.

“You have a voice, and you can step into the room and raise it even if it’s scary,” Threlkeld said.

As Norcross studies to obtain her architectural license, she has reflected on how her time at Hutchison prepared her. Being involved in a variety of activities as a student helped her learn how to balance her time. She also values the soft skills Hutchison taught her.

“Being able to learn how to sense each other’s emotions and be able to read someone is a valuable soft skill that I’ve been able to bring into my job,” Norcross said.

One reason Anita Vasu ’02 is thankful for her time at Hutchison is that it helped her get an internship while she was in college. She got her foot in the door at Medtronic through a Hutchison alumna. All of the women encouraged the girls to get as much experience as possible to figure out what they do and do not like. Dr. Precious Mitchell said she did not understand the importance of internships until she was in graduate school. She advised the girls to take advantage of interview preparation resources and practice these skills.

“Learning how to communicate with others and how others see you during the interview process is important,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Remember nobody knows your journey the way that you do, so don’t be modest when talking about yourself during interviews.”

Coding is another skill that Threlkeld emphasized. She said despite the rise in online coding tutorials, they are no match for experience. Threlkeld gave several examples of how girls could hone their coding: joining open-source communities, writing a modification for a video game, or writing a tool for a hobby. 

The panelists also highlighted the importance of mentorship. Lisa Bates encouraged our girls to get past the first step of reaching out: “Don’t feel weird sending that email to say, ‘Hey, could I have a few minutes of your time for a mentoring session?’ You'll be surprised because most people will say, ‘Absolutely!’ ”

Vasu advised the girls to speak to as many people as they can. She said it can help them understand whether they want to pursue different options the same way an internship can. Mentors “just kind of happen,” according to Threlkeld. She said the girls can nurture a bond with a mentor in a variety of ways, and she has benefited from being challenged.

“You can benefit through the relationships you cultivate and then also by serving as a mentor for other people below once you step up a few rungs in the ladder,” Threlkeld said.

Malene McElroy added that if she could go back in time, she would force herself to step out of her comfort zone more. Of course, the girls asked what it’s like working for NASA, which McElroy highly recommended.

“NASA is one of the few federal agencies that really promotes and supports employees being innovative and thinking outside the box,” McElroy said. “Our mission is to go and do things that literally have never been done before. How cool is that?” 

Dr. Mitchell said it is an exciting time at NASA because the organization is investing time to develop young engineers into the leaders they want.

What you end up doing in the long run will likely be different from where you begin, Vasu said. She advised the girls to focus on developing their thought process: how to think, problem-solve, and take action. By participating in SWENext and STEM-based classes and activities at Hutchison, our girls are getting a jump start on learning about and actively working in engineering fields.

Here is additional background on the women who participated in the panel:

Phoebe Norcross ’13
is an architectural designer at Ennead Architects in New York City. She graduated from Hutchison in 2013 and received her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Arkansas in 2018. Since starting at Ennead in 2018, she has been on the design teams for Princeton University's ES/SEAS Campus, NYU Langone Health, and most recently she was on a winning team for a Tech Headquarters in Shanghai, China. She is pursuing her architecture license and practices art in her free time. 

Katherine Threlkeld ’06 received a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering with a Computer Engineering specialization from Rice University. After graduation, she worked in firmware development before transitioning to software engineering through a role at Google. She currently works on Chrome OS as a senior test engineer on the automation framework and tools team.

Anita Vasu ’02 graduated from Brown University in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering. During college, she interned at Medtronic, focusing on the research and development of spinal implants, and she used this experience for the basis of her honors thesis at Brown on the knee joint. After graduating, Vasu went to England and received her Master of Philosophy in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge. She currently works for the strategy department at AstraZeneca for its cancer research division and lives in London.

Lisa Bates is a mechanical engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. She left her position as the Space Launch System Stages Deputy Manager when she was selected for the Senior Executive Service and now serves as the Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center Test Laboratory. 

Malene McElroy has been an Environmental Engineer with NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center’s Environmental Engineering and Occupational Health Office for nine years. Before working for NASA, she worked as an environmental engineering consultant for CH2M HILL (now a part of Jacobs). She earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Alabama in 2000 and a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from Rice University in 2002. She became a licensed professional engineer in 2007.

Dr. Precious Mitchell received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she majored in materials science and engineering. Currently, Dr. Mitchell works for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center located in Huntsville, Alabama. She serves as the Launch Abort System Abort Motor Lead, Europa De-Orbit Stage In-House Test Lead, as well as systems engineer and overall support for the following space programs: Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), LOFTID Gas Generator, and Hybrid Suitcase Demonstration Motor.
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