four photos of women in electrical and computer engineering on a blue background
Pictured, from left: Top row — Child Family Professor of Engineering Chen-Nee Chuah and undergraduate student Zbynka Kekula. Bottom row — undergraduate student Kavya Khare and Associate Professor Marina Radulaski.

International Women’s Day Spotlight on UC Davis Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the University of California, Davis, College of Engineering recognizes women in engineering, their journey to and in the field, and how they promote a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Meet some remarkable women in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and learn how they inspire inclusion in engineering.

  • Chen-Nee Chuah, Child Family Professor in Engineering
  • Zbynka Kekula, Undergraduate Student
  • Kavya Khare, Undergraduate Student
  • Marina Radulaski, Associate Professor

What inspired you to pursue engineering? Describe your journey to UC Davis.

Chuah: I was born and raised in Penang, Malaysia. Math and Physics were my favorite subjects in high school, and I was attracted to engineering because it is a nice combination of both. I was also inspired by two older siblings who got their degrees in electrical engineering. My older sister sponsored me to continue my education in U.S. That brought me to New Jersey, where I got my B.S. in electrical engineering from Rutgers University. Subsequently, I received my M.S. and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. I have always liked teaching and so I applied for academic positions after graduation. I joined UC Davis as an assistant professor in November 2001.

Kekula: I was inspired to pursue engineering as it combines creativity and problem-solving for real-world applications. In high school, I was fortunate to take a digital electronics course which sparked my interest in engineering. At UC Davis, I started as a biomedical engineering major and switched to electrical engineering, once I took a circuits course.

Khare: My journey in engineering started in middle school, where I was introduced to Arduino and local “Maker Fairs.” In these fairs, I loved seeing “Makers,” engineering and craft hobbyists, that created exciting, interactive DIY projects. I very early on knew that I wanted to pursue engineering in high school, participating in PLTW (Project Lead The Way) classes and Makers Club. I chose electrical engineering, simply because of my initial interest in Arduino and creative robotics, and now I love diving deeper into different fields within my major.

Radulaski: I love the interdisciplinarity of engineering and its impact to real world solutions. I studied physics and computer science as an undergraduate student in Serbia, then applied physics and electrical engineering for my Ph.D. and postdoctoral training at Stanford University. Joining UC Davis half a decade ago allowed me to combine all these fields into a research program that builds and uses quantum information hardware which is the revolutionary technology in computing, communication and sensing.

Describe your current research and its impact.

Chuah: My current research focus on applying smart edge devices/IoTs, data science, and machine learning techniques to advance human health, e.g., AI-assisted disease screening and prognosis, pathology image analysis and behavior screening.

Kekula: My research interests are related to optics and solid-state devices for quantum information processing and related applications. Currently, in INANO Lab with Professor Saif Islam, I am working on characterizing the noise of single photon avalanche detectors. My previous experience was designing photonic devices for quantum information processing with Professor Marina Radulaski. My research interests will impact the field of optics and quantum information science.

Khare: I lead a student-run initiative called the Make Box: DIY kits designed to introduce younger students to creative, hands-on robotics projects. My current research has been focused on the application of modular robotics as an engaging, tangible way to teach students about Arduino and programming. Over the last three years, we have continued engagement with several enthusiastic middle school students through engineering summer programs, and this year, we are developing a new modular robotics kit. Our mission is to ignite a student’s long-term passion for STEM through fun, accessible and multipurpose DIY kits.

Radulaski: My group develops the next generation of quantum information hardware by exploring principles of light and matter interaction at the nanoscale. Our goal is to connect people and services that want to communicate in a secure way, perform advanced computing at multiple locations or correlate ultra-precise sensors. We design nanoscale optical devices that contain light emitters called color centers and harness the quantum nature of their photon emission and correlation with the electronic spin. Using tools uniquely available at UC Davis clean room and techniques developed in my lab, we have developed the first scalable process to making such devices which can propel the experiments from proof of principle to the actual industrial use.

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion. Why is it important to "inspire inclusion" in the engineering field?

Chuah: Women are still underrepresented in engineering field due to complex reasons and there remain non-technical barriers that hinder the retention of women in the engineering field. True inclusion calls for better understanding of the unique challenges faced by women (as well as other under-represented groups) in engineering and a fundamental shift of family/societal support structures.

Kekula: It is important to inspire inclusion since it encourages many individuals from different backgrounds and paths to enter the engineering field. This leads to a better workforce as different perspectives gather to offer varying solutions to pressing issues, and even issues that may not have been noticeable at first glance.

Khare: Last summer, I was a project engineering intern at a controls systems integrator for water, energy, and transportation industries. Instantly, I noticed how few women were in the engineering department and was shocked to find out I was the third woman hired, ever, in the project engineering team.

Overall, while I had a great experience due to my mentor, the environment resembled what could be described as a “boys-club”. It is worth noticing that these industries that serve as the backbone of our infrastructure are often dominated by men, and how if more women and underrepresented gender identities were inspired to contribute with new perspectives, our society could be far more creative and inclusive.

Through #InspireInclusion, my peers may be more drawn to contribute to these engineering fields or industries. While many of my peers may not specifically be drawn to industrial engineering, this also be applied with statistically male dominated engineering disciplines and industries like mechanical & aerospace, civil, CS (while improving), and more niche electrical engineering fields like power, automotive, communications, and other industries.

Lastly, an important thing to note, is that I believe true inclusion occurs when a system actively has measures or leadership in place to foster inclusivity and promote retention within its community. Hiring women as the only reason to boost statistics for publicity is sometimes we often see during IWD. Through proper #InspireInclusion, more women can find their passion and contribute to a more creative, inclusive world.

Radulaski: Engineering solutions serve the whole humanity in our daily activities. Inspiration and perspective from engineers’ lives lived under various circumstances makes this mission more complete and our lives more suitably served.

What people or programs have inspired inclusion throughout your journey in engineering?

Chuah: Society of Women Engineers (while I was in college), Women in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering (while I was at UC Berkeley), informal College of Engineering female faculty lunch group at UC Davis, male/female mentors I met along the way (professors, colleagues, collaborators) and many others.

Kekula: Programs that have inspired inclusion throughout my journey in engineering include Leadership in Engineering Advancement, Diversity and Retention (LEADR) and NSF California Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP). LEADR was an excellent stepping stone to enter engineering in college. NSF CAMP was a valuable resource for applying to graduate programs and offering support as I pursue research as an undergraduate. Additionally, people that have inspired inclusion have been Professor Marina Radulaski and Professor Saif Islam. I am very grateful for the support given.

Khare: Growing up, I’m grateful to always be supported by my peers, mentors, and family. Throughout high school, I led “Makers Club,” a club designed to encourage students of all backgrounds to explore hands-on making in art, science, and technology. In college, I joined the Club of Future Female Electrical Engineers (C.O.F.F.E.E.), where I instantly felt supported by the officers. With programs like our Women’s Altium Designer Workshop, members of the club, including myself, were also given an opportunity to develop their technical skills that will help in any future projects or career prospects.

Radulaski: Formative influences were all the excellent high school programs that provided me with a strong STEM training at a young age, including Mathematical High School in Belgrade, Petnica Science Center in Serbia, XLAB science camp in Germany, and the International Physics Olympiad and the First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics competitions. After these programs set me up for success in science which took me to other centers of excellence, the refining factors have been groups that were designed to promote inclusion such as women in engineering groups and optical professional societies which helped me identify invisible biases that have affected my experience and strategize in navigating my career.

How do you make others feel welcome in engineering and promote diversity and equity in the field?

Chuah: I have served as Program Director, Teaching Director and Research Director for multiple Department of Education GAANN grants that aim at recruiting and retaining Ph.D. students from underrepresented groups (female, social-economically disadvantaged and ethnic/racial) into the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Program. In total, this has benefited ~52 PhD female and minority graduate students by removing financial obstacles for their graduate studies.

I have served on the Mentorship & Networking Initiative Committee for NSF-funded ADVANCE program at UC Davis that aims at providing guidance and networking opportunities for research and career success of women and minority faculty members in STEM. Through ADVANCE,  I mentored five junior STEM faculty members on the main campus in their early professional integration and development.  I also mentored four junior faculty member (three are female) in the School of Medicine, providing technical guidance in applying machine learning techniques to the health domain, as well as assisting in grant writing.

At the professional level, I served on diversity and career panels at conferences and industry Women in Tech summit to share my experience and address concerns/questions from junior researchers/engineers.

At the personal level, I mentor my junior researchers and students from under-represented groups by openly discussing and sharing my own journey in engineering (including my self-doubts, failures, mistakes) and how I learn and grow as a person from my experience.

Kekula: Fostering a community that is supportive and collaborative in spaces where that may not be very prominent is a good step forward in promoting diversity and equity. As President of Quantum Computing at Davis, I aim to increase representation in leadership positions as well as increase outreach to underrepresented groups. For this reason, we have outreached to high school students the field of quantum and offered advice on applying to college. Furthermore, to increase the general audience's knowledge of quantum computing we have gamified quantum concepts which can be found on our GitHub.

Khare: As the co-president of C.O.F.F.E.E., I love to help create events targeted towards promoting academics, retention, and community among women and underrepresented gender identities in the electrical and computer engineering department. We have hosted weekly study-hours, skill-based workshops, industry speaker events, resume-boosters, mentorship programs, and fun socials. Overall, I like to envision our organization as a 'pit-stop' for any woman or underrepresented student in the electrical and computer engineering department. Here, our members can tap into a familiar community, access resources, recharge & destress, and leave feeling empowered to take on any future academic or professional challenge.

Radulaski: Reading scientific literature in social sciences and education has informed my point of view toward issues and potential solutions related to inclusion in engineering. This is reflected in my approach to teaching, research group organization, and science outreach. In teaching, I use evidence based methods to develop courses that encourage interaction with and between students and enable active discussion about individual points of confusion with the material. In my research group, we as a team set values and actions that define the group culture, from ethical scientific practices to quarterly social events. Finally, our scientific outreach efforts are organized to enhance educational exposure of diverse and often underrepresented communities in engineering via partnering with regional schools and programs.

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