Women in Remote Sensing
Much has changed since my last post on my undergraduate research with GNSS and UAVs. In Fall of 2018, I applied and was accepted into a PhD program in electrical engineering. I started the program in January and have since become involved in some exciting projects and research. One of those is MOSAiC: the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, which I will soon be writing a separate post for.
But last week I attended a remote sensing summer school near Barcelona. The school was hosted by the Institute of Space Sciences of the Spanish Research Council (ICE-CSIC/IEEC), located at the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB) in Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain, about a 50 minute train ride from Barcelona center. This was the first summer school of the IEEE GRSS Instrumentation and Future Technologies Technical Committee. The week-long course was led by Dr. Estel Cardellach, a remote sensing expert in the field of GNSS-reflectometry. Together with Prof. Adriano Camps, Dr. Lidia Cucurull, Dr. Scott Hensley, Dr. Marwan Younis, Dr. Pau Pratts, Dr. Rashmi Shah, Dr. Serni Ribó, Prof. Adolfo Comerón, Dr. Upendra Singh, and Prof. Alex Papayannis, the instructors covered synthetic aperture radar, GNSS-reflectometry, other signals of opportunity (SoOp), and LIDAR. It was a very fun and informative week and I met many amazing people who are excited about remote sensing and its applications.
There were around 40 of us students and we came from at least 24 countries: Romania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, United Kingdom, Finland, Italy, China, India, Poland, Greece, Germany, Estonia, Japan, Spain, Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, Pakistan, France, Argentina, Guatemala, and the United States. Almost 20 of us were females. We were a diverse lot.
Two of the women I got to know last week have inspired this post (after an interesting conversation on the metro!): Inshu Chauhan and Estefania Ortiz Geist (below). These two remind me that women belong here in science and engineering.
Inshu Chauhan is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at G B Pant Institute of Engineering and Technology in Pauri Gharwal, India. She teaches geomatics, introductory remote sensing, GIS, GNSS, and image processing. She has been in her current position for two years and is one of only two women in her department. She loves remote sensing and wants to stay in this field for the rest of her life. “Remote sensing is multi-disciplinary. There are scientific, societal, and environmental aspects that can be integrated to improve the lives of people. I love that, using technology, we can touch people’s lives.”
Estefania Ortiz Geist is a Navigations Operations Engineer at ESA: European Space Agency. She currently works at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, where she has worked in precise orbit determination for GNSS constellations for the last 2 1/2 years. In school, Estefania majored in math, astronomy, and geodesy, and says she has always wanted to work in space. She was born in Argentina and raised in Madrid. She now has a huge interest in working in remote sensing with applications in Earth science.
Over the years, science, math, and programming have become a safe haven for me, a place where I can find relief from the things in the world that don’t make sense. But I only found my passion for them in my twenties. And it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I finally believed these pursuits could be for me. I look back now and see I had an implicit image in my mind that engineering was for men. Logically, I knew it wasn’t impossible for women to pursue this field. But I had this subconscious image that came up when I thought of ‘engineer’, and I didn’t match it.
Perhaps if I had met more women like Inshu and Estefania earlier in my life, this implicit belief I had would have been challenged and I may have chosen engineering much sooner. Understanding that a career pursuit is not just possible but normal for someone like you makes it much more likely that you will choose it, given interest and ability.
There is this argument going around that women’s underrepresentation in STEM is due to a genuine lack of interest in STEM rather than systemic discrimination. But what this argument overlooks is human beings are wired to want to fit in with their peers. When you’re in school and trying to find your path in life and you look around at the people in a certain profession and do not see others like you, it changes your view of that profession, and of whether or not you belong. You come to a tacit conclusion that that field is not for you. There is no room for you. There are no people like you. And this belief is so insidious that most people have no idea it’s present. Instead, it manifests as an apparent disinterest in a field that was never given genuine consideration.
I have a personal hero whose name is Bertha Lamme. Lamme was the first American woman to graduate in an engineering field other than civil, the first female to graduate from an electrical engineering department, and the first female engineering graduate at my alma mater, The Ohio State University. Unfortunately, she is not well-known by instructors or students, women included. Yet, it is people like Lamme who made this path possible for the rest of us.
To be the first at anything, to do something that you have no evidence is possible for you, takes an enormous amount of courage and inner vision; there is nothing more inspiring. And yet, I only learned who Lamme was from a book I happened upon at the library: “Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers,” by Margaret Lane (highly recommended, by the way).
There are so many women who are nameless in history who have paved the way for us. Just as there continue to be women, right now, all around us, who have the courage and inner vision to be the first in their families, the only at their universities, or the leader of their teams. Women who have some intangible inner drive to pursue their dream no matter the obstacles. There is a loneliness to it. But also the knowledge that our paths have great meaning beyond our immediate sight.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we don’t belong here when we sit in a room that is 95% men, or that our male counterparts have an inherent advantage over us. It certainly has happened to me and that type of thinking kept me from pursuing this path earlier in my life. So I take it as a personal mission to be an echo for women like Lamme, Inshu, Estefania, and all women in this field who are doing amazing things in their lives with the knowledge that they will have to fight for the same respect readily given men, and without the glory.
Lamme and others like her were the first to make a career in engineering possible for women. It is our task to continue the change-maker tradition, widening the path by making ourselves visible to future generations, teaching them the new normal.