Q+A with Kathy Harper

In December of 2015, International Women and Girls Day in Science was to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. To celebrate, the Case School of Engineering is sharing stories of remarkable women across the quad from students to faculty. Learn about their research, their journey to engineering and the advice they have for other women. 

Kathy Harper

Associate Professor
Roger E. Susi First-year Engineering Experience
Division of Engineering Leadership & Professional Practice
Secondary appointment in Physics

Provide a short description of your research area.

My focus is in STEM education research, typically in physics and engineering. I started out exploring differences in how experts and novices solve physics problems, and I frequently find ways to apply findings from the expert-novice literature to the courses I teach. Most of my research work recently has focused on implementing research-based curricular innovations and assessing their impact.

Why did you pursue engineering as a career?

I really enjoyed physics in high school and early college, particularly electricity and magnetism. (This was a lovely surprise - I had heard so many scary things about physics before I took it that turned out not to be true!) It came down to a choice between electrical engineering or physics, and I'm not sure I had a compelling reason at the time, but I think I had a slightly clearer picture of how I would be applying my love of E&M to solving problems as an engineer.

What is your favorite or the most meaningful thing about being an engineer?

I love working with a group to solve challenging and meaningful problems. The best part of my job is watching that joy grow in my students.

Were there women in STEM who came before you who helped influence you to pursue this field? If so, who were they and how did they impact you?

At the time I was getting my degrees, there were very few women in electrical engineering or in physics. I actually never took a class in either discipline that was taught by a woman. There might have been one female professor in EE when I was an undergraduate, and the first female physics professor was hired while I was working on my masters. At my PhD institution, there were 2 female faculty members. While I can't point to any of them as having an influence on my choosing or sticking with my field, I can remember a couple of important lessons that I learned from two of them.

Kathy Kash, a CWRU physics professor, told me that I should not be embarrassed if I felt like I should ask for resources or support. The worst that could happen was that I'd be told no, and I realized that often people didn't know what I needed unless I started the conversation - sometimes they didn't even know what I had been working on that was worth sharing!

Bunny Clark, an Ohio State physics professor, was a shining example of "if you can help someone who's underrepresented in your field, do it." She invested quite a bit of time and effort into developing a supporting community for female graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, and used her stature in the department to advocate for students on multiple occasions.

The women that have most influenced and supported me are my peers, starting with those in my graduate program as we worked together, to learn the material in our fundamental courses, to grow into independent researchers, and to simultaneously navigate the transition to adulthood. Two friends from my research field, Jennifer Blue at Miami University, and Kim Shaw at Columbus State University (Georgia), and I have a mentoring group, where we regularly share updates on our work and life, give advice, celebrate each other's successes, and just offer support when it's needed. At CWRU, we are fortunate to have a fantastic group of female faculty in the Case School of Engineering who meet regularly and want to help each other succeed.

What is your best advice for your women pursuing a career in engineering?

Engineers solve problems. Solving meaningful problems takes time, and the path to a solution will rarely be clear at the onset. There will be mistakes, missteps, and moments where things are confusing, and this is part of the process. The reason the "Eureka" moment is so wonderful is because of the hard work that led to it. It can be tempting to think that when you are struggling with something that you are the only one - this is almost never the case! And, in my years of teaching, when a student comes in and tells me they are "completely lost," it usually turns out that we can get their confusion straightened out with a short conversation, so if you feel lost, again, remember that you're probably not nearly as lost as you think you are.

A second piece of advice: to paraphrase one of those influential women in my past, "if you can help someone else learn and succeed, do it." Succeeding together is much more fun than struggling in isolation.