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March Luncheon with Dr. Laurie A. Leshin: Inspring Future Innovators

April 4, 2016 11:04 AM
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Photo credit: www.frankmonkiewicz.com

Inspiring Future Innovators

Speaker Laurie A. Leshin, Ph.D., President, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Written By: Laura Canham, McFarland Johnson, Inc.

On March 22, Dr. Laurie A. Leshin, President of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), joined WTS-Boston for a lively lunch. Judy Nitsch, founding principal of Nitsch Engineering and the first alumna member of WPI's Board of Trustees, introduced Dr. Leshin.  Dr. Leshin enthusiastically started her speech making endearing reference to the amount of “nerdy” women in attendance.  Dr. Leshin, who holds the distinction of being the first woman president of WPI, also recognized the WPI Alumni in the audience and mentioned that WPI is currently ranked in the top five percent of colleges for the number of women graduating as engineers.

Dr. Leshin recounted her experience as a young girl when she attended a meeting that focused on the role of women.  She attended the meeting with her mother and other women who were leading the way for change. At the time, she recalls that the meeting did not mean much to her.  She now recognizes how impactful such experiences were, as today she stands as a leader fulfilling the vision of these very women, including her mother.  Dr. Leshin started her position at WPI with 20 years of experience as a leader in academia from Arizona State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, along with experience in government service at NASA.

Her presentation focused on three key areas in becoming a future innovator: Be Inspired, Have Help, and Do Something Impactful.

Be Inspired

Dr. Leshin noted how important it is to dream big and to look for challenges that may seem impossible or improbable. She remembered being inspired at a very early age by what she called the “big questions.”  Through stories and photos, Dr. Leshin related one of her first inspirations as a young girl, when she was fascinated by a Time Magazine article written on Mars exploration.

Have Help

There is a great push for people to obtain mentors to advance their careers. Dr. Leshin noted that she prefers to call them advocates rather than mentors. In her experience, these advocates do not just answer questions, but “kick down the door” to help wherever and whenever they can. She declared that as women leaders, we can fill both roles.  We can ask questions of leaders to ensure continuous improvement and advancement within our field. At the same time, we can be there to help women and young innovators who approach us in our field. We can be advocates for the younger generations and help those with aspirations by encouraging more people to ask the difficult questions.

Do Something Impactful

Dr. Leshin’s experience with an advocate led her to a summer internship working at NASA. This impressive experience allowed her to work on real projects with actual data received in real time. She believes that providing students with the on-the-job experiences helps to fulfill their passions; while at the same time allowing them to make an impact on real projects. This is also what WPI tries to promote and accomplish.  Dr. Leshin believes in the mission and the process of WPI and strives to provide students with the same experiences that were extended to her as a young woman with big dreams.

Dr. Leshin provided some sobering statistics about women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  She noted that the United States used to hold 40% of the STEM jobs worldwide; currently that number is down to 15%. On a diversity front, half of all jobs in the U.S. are held by women, whereas women only hold 28% of engineering positions. Dr. Leshin encourages more people to follow the three key points she highlighted and work towards inspiring more of our future leaders.

Dr. Leshin concluded her presentation with a photograph of the “Curiosity Rover.”  When she is not running a University, she works with NASA on the Mars mission which includes sampling and testing the dirt on Mars.  This exploration has resulted in the discovery of both water and oxygen in the samples taken.  The next mission of the Curiosity Rover will be to explore the mountains and decipher the history of Mars by taking samples of its geological layers.

You can follow her on Twitter @LaurieofMars for continuous updates on her space exploration and educational progress.  WTS-Boston has heard from leaders in many transportation modes, but this was the first leader focused on space!

 

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