Dr. Eve Riskin is one woman in tech who is actively working to “change the ratio” by increasing the number of women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the University of Washington College of Engineering, Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Director of the ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, she is a leader and a mentor for other women considering academic STEM careers (or second careers, following work in industry).
Eve received her bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT and her graduate degrees in EE from Stanford. She joined the EE Department at the University of Washington (UW) in 1990. As Director of UW ADVANCE, Eve works on mentoring and leadership development programs aimed to increase the participation of women faculty in STEM fields. Her research interests include image compression and image processing, with a focus on developing video compression algorithms to allow for cell-phone transmission of American Sign Language. Eve was awarded a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a Sloan Research Fellowship, the 2006 WEPAN University Change Agent award, the 2006 Hewlett-Packard Harriett B. Rigas Award, and the 2007 University of Washington David B. Thorud Leadership Award. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Read on as Eve discusses her career path, provides advice for young women interested in STEM fields and shares her suggestion that you find a “ventor.”
You are a Professor of Electrical Engineering (EE) and the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the College of Engineering for the University of Washington. How do you spend most of your work time?
It’s kind of sad to say this, but I spend most of my time either in meetings or trying to get through my email queue. But I love helping run the College of Engineering. It’s a way to be creative by solving problems for people instead of being technically creative.
You studied Electrical Engineering as an undergraduate at MIT. How did you choose to study that?
My dad was a very early computer programmer and was working in the field in the 1950s. Eventually, my mom, brother, and sister joined him, so I assumed that Computer Science (CS) must be in my genes. At MIT, the CS and EE departments had cross requirements. As it turned out, I didn’t love the two CS courses I took, but I especially enjoyed an EE course called “Signals and Systems.” So I made the switch from CS to EE. What is funny is that my advisor at the time advised against studying EE, but here I am in EE, nearly 30 years later.
When you did your graduate work in Engineering at Stanford, were there many women in your field?
Not at all. They hired the first woman faculty member in EE, Teresa Meng, my last year of grad school. When I graduated, there was only one other woman getting a Ph.D. out of about 80 people.
At what point did you first think about making engineering your career?
I had my aha moment when I attended a panel at Stanford on being a professor. I was in my third year of graduate school and still really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. But I heard the faculty speak and decided that was what I wanted to do. So I truly believe in the value of one-off exposure — it can change someone’s life.
What advice would you give to young women considering studying engineering or computer science?
I would recommend learning about bias against women and minorities in Engineering so that you can understand why you might not always feel as welcome in the field as you would like. I would seek out a “ventor” which is I name I coined for someone you can vent to, but who also gives you good advice. It’s important to be able to vent so that you can be professional when faced with challenges in public. It’s also helpful if your ventor is someone with whom you share a sense of humor. I work with a wonderful colleague Dr. Joyce Yen on our ADVANCE program for women faculty in STEM at UW and she is a great “ventor.” I would also recommend finding some male allies. Some of my most important mentors and colleagues have been men.
Best career advice anyone ever gave you?
Have you ever considered working in industry?
I think I would really enjoy working at a tech company on diversity efforts and student recruiting.
Biggest mistake you have made in your career?
I waited for people to offer me leadership positions instead of pursuing them actively. We hear from a lot of women leaders that that is the case, so it’s important for everyone to be identifying the next generation of women leaders.
What would you be doing if you were not part of the University of Washington?
It’s really hard to not imagine being part of UW. If I weren’t here, I would want to be doing something to work on diversity in Engineering at large.
Are there some women working in technology or academia who particularly impress you?
Everyone is a big fan of Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College. Our new Provost Ana Mari Cauce is brilliant but also down-to-earth. She has great passion for the UW. I have some wonderful women faculty colleagues in the UW College of Engineering whom I enjoy a great deal. I would say I am most impressed by women who are accomplished but are still approachable and seem to be having fun.