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Engineering group is working to get more women in the room

The number of female engineers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has increased over the years but women engineers say they are still often the only one females in the room. Now they are trying to change that. 

Female engineers at PPPL have formed a Women in Engineering group aimed at recruiting more female engineers, supporting outreach efforts to inspire girls and young women to consider STEM careers and perhaps most importantly, providing support to each other. 

Women represent about 10 percent of PPPL’s full-time engineers, a number that reflects national statistics that show only 14 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computer scientists are women. Women were awarded only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a percentage that has not increased since 2010. Only 27 percent of master’s degrees and 23 percent of doctoral degrees were awarded to women in engineering and computer/information science in 2015. 

Valeria Riccardo, PPPL’s first female head of engineering, began PPPL’s Women in Engineering group to provide support and to retain and recruit more women engineers. “I am happy that the Women in Engineering group can play a role in supporting PPPL’s diversity and inclusion efforts to recruit and retain as diverse a staff as possible,” Riccardo said. “The group also serves as a support group – someplace where women can find rapport with others. When we feel lost, we can find somebody like us to talk to.”

The group helped put together brochures and giveaways for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering (IEEE WiE)  North East Conference that some of them attended in White Plains, New York, in the fall. Members plan to attend a larger Society of Women Engineers conference later this year. Riccardo is also preparing to give a talk on diversity and inclusion and to chair a panel on unconscious bias at the 28th IEEE Symposium on Fusion Engineering (SOFE) conference in June in Florida. Engineer Ankita Jariwala is part of the SOFE organizing committee and is helping to find panelists as well as organizing social events for the conference. 

Jariwala, an engineer at PPPL for almost 10 years, recalls that when she came to PPPL, she was one of five engineers, so there has been progress. But she would like to see more. The booth at the conference was a good opportunity to publicize the opportunities at PPPL, she said. “We just want people to know about us. PPPL is such a unique place,” Jariwala said. “Many people came to our table said, ‘Oh you’re from Jersey? We didn’t know you exist.” 

Group members took part in a recent tour by young women attending the College and University Women in Physics conference at the College of New Jersey. They met with Girl Scouts for International Women’s Day on March 8. The members play an active role every year at PPPL’s booth at the Young Women’s Conference each year. This year’s conference is March 22. 

A resource for each other

A major benefit of the group has simply been the bonding between the women. “When we first began meeting, I'm not sure any of us were aware of the camaraderie that would develop,"said Jessica Guttenfelder, “but now we’ve definitely become a resource for each other.” 

“You feel like you’re not alone,” said Carmela Ciummo, one of the early-career women engineers. “We all have the same trials and we go through similar awkward social situations sometimes. It’s nice having someone you can relate to. Sometimes for women engineers it’s hard to ask questions; you feel intimidated asking other people. It’s nice when you ask someone who is pretty low judgment.” 

” It’s definitely brought us closer and feeling more comfortable with each other,” said Jariwala. “If my day is bad, I know I can reach out to them.” 

Jariwala and another engineer attended career sessions at the IEEE WiE conference that were aimed at getting women to see their own unconscious behavior and certain behavior that may affect them at work. They learned, for example, that women are more likely to be apologetic when asking for something. A woman is more likely to say, “I’m sorry but I want to talk to you,” rather than “Do you have a minute, I want to talk to you,” Jariwala said. 

Guttenfelder said she was also the only woman in her engineering class and she’s accustomed to working in a male-dominated field. Learning about the seminar reminded her of her own unconscious behavior. “I realize that I do that all the time and it’s in my subconscious. I will apologize when I don’t need to apologize.” 

Members of the group discuss their career choices and experiences and how PPPL can find more female engineers. With the help of Riccardo and Jordan Vannoy, executive director of  human resources and organizational development, group members and other female staff were able to get the Lab to designate a lactation room for nursing mothers.

A need for mentoring

Group members said they would like to see more mentoring of female engineers and diverse employees generally at PPPL. Female employees and employees of color may be overlooked when supervisors informally choose staff members to mentor because they feel more comfortable with others who look like them. That makes it all the more important to have a formal mentorship program, they say. Human Resources is developing such a program.

Members of the group also say it’s important that Riccardo is serving as a mentor to early-career female staff members. Jariwala said she learned at the conference how important it is for women to mentor each other. “If I don’t help you out, if I don’t show the support for my peer females, I don’t see that others will do that,” Jariwala said.

The engineers say their supervisors are generally supportive and they have not experienced overt discrimination. However, they have experienced unconscious bias. Women are more likely to be asked to take notes at a meeting, for example, or to be given “soft skill” administrative tasks rather than more challenging technical tasks.

Sharing these experiences is just one aspect of the group, said  Ciummo. “I think the main purpose is not only to give us a place where we can talk to each other and a support group but also to do outreach and get younger women into STEM,” she said. “We want to get professional engineers into PPPL to try to grow our group a little more.” 

Carmela Ciummo: An early career engineer likes working on something with a “greater global purpose” 

Carmela Ciummo likes her job as a mechanical engineer on the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U). She enjoys that she gets to do a variety of things, including spending a few months overseeing the production of prototype magnets at Tesla Engineering in England last year.

“It’s been cool,” Ciummo said. “I like to try a lot of different aspects of engineering.” She said she has especially enjoyed working on the design of components for the NSTX-U as it is under repair. “I like working on projects during the design phase when you have all these conceptual designs and doing preliminary analysis and prototyping,” she said. 

Ciummo has been at PPPL for three years. She grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, and attended Rutgers School of Engineering where she received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. She worked at CEC, a heat treatment equipment company in Georgia, for about two years before coming to PPPL. 

Ciummo said she has always enjoyed math and science. She had physics teachers in high school who were retired engineers who encouraged her to pursue a career in engineering. One of four, she has two younger sisters who are also engineers and an older brother who is a pharmacist.

In addition to her stint in  England and overseeing prototype coil production in at Everson Tesla in Pennsylvania, Ciummo has been working on getting PPPL’s coil shop ready for possible coil production at PPPL and might even oversee production if PPPL produces one of the coils. 

Ciummo has also done some work on a project collaborating with DIII-D at General Atomics in San Diego and has visited there.  When she first got to PPPL she worked on the cryo pump upgrade and the magnets for the NSTX-U. 

In addition to her engineering duties, Ciummo is a PPPL tour guide and she volunteers for Science Education events such as a recent Girl Scout tour and the annual Young Women’s Conference.

Ciummo said she has enjoyed having the Women in Engineering group and sharing an office with two other early-career engineers Jessica Ilagan and Richard Burke. “It’s nice to have people whom you can ask questions and have that sense of community and someone to hang out with after work,” she said. 

In June 2018, Ciummo married Christopher Freeman, an electrical engineer at PPPL.  They live in Ringoes with their two pit bull mix rescue dogs, Daisy and Coda. In her spare time, Ciummo enjoys marathon running. She ran in the New York Marathon in 2018 and is registered for the Chicago Marathon in October. 

Ciummo said the best thing about working at PPPL is contributing to its mission to develop fusion energy as a viable source of generating electricity. “It’s really cool working on something that has a greater global purpose,” she said. “It just feels important to be working on that greater goal for humanity.”


Ankita Jariwala: A desire to inspire young women to become engineers 

Ankita Jariwala is a mechanical engineer working on NSTX-U who also worked on designs for ITER components. She grew up and attended college in India where she was just one of a handful of women in the engineering program and the only one of three in her graduating class. 

Jariwala’s parents were very supportive of her career choice despite the fact that it meant leaving home and living in the dormitories, an unusual move for a young woman at the time. 

“My parents were very supportive but there was more pressure on them. Friends and relatives would say, ‘You’re letting your girl go do the engineering and sending her to stay in the dorm?’ In India it was not common,” Jariwala recalled. “At one point my mom did ask me, “Are you sure you want to go? Will you be able to handle it?’ But she also said, “If you’re confident, go,’ and I made it.”

She moved to the United States with her husband, Jitesh, who is also an engineer. But then they got jobs on two different coasts. Her husband moved to New York where he had gotten a job and Jariwala went to Seattle to work at a company called Kenworth Trucks. Jariwala moved to the East Coast after about a year to rejoin her husband and work at UTC Power in Connecticut and Case New Holland, a farming equipment company, in Pennsylvania. 

She applied for a contractor position at PPPL in 2009 and stayed on as a full-time engineer. She worked as a designer for NSTX-U and then moved to the ITER project where she worked on designs for the integration of two upper ports into the tokamak the U.S. was supplying. These are structures for diagnostics to measure plasma performance that came from all over the world. This meant Jariwala and her team were talking to scientists and engineers from China, Korea, Japan and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where US ITER is located. 

The downside of working with international partners was that Jariwala often had to wake up at 3 a.m. for phone calls and then get her children up for school and go to work herself. But she also  traveled to the ITER headquarters in Cadarache, France, twice while working on the project. “It was really exciting,” she said. “I learned a lot at ITER because now you have to deal with people from different countries, different cultures, and different time zones. You meet all these diverse people and experts in their fields and you learn a lot from them.” 

When the project was postponed, Jariwala moved to the project to rebuild components of the NSTX-U and is currently working on passive plates, the interior walls of the vessel beneath the tiles called plasma facing components. Jariwala said she has enjoyed the hands-on nature  of the work. “It’s fun. I’m getting my hands dirty so I’m liking it,” she said. “You always get to tackle different problems.” 

Jariwala and her husband have two children, Aanya, 10, and Vihaan, 6, and live in East Brunswick. Jitesh Shah commutes to New York. That means Jariwala often has to juggle schedules, ferry the children when work is over, and be ready to pick up sick children from school or stay home with children during snow emergencies. Balancing motherhood and work can be challenging, she said.  It helps that her supervisor is supportive and she can work from home if there’s an emergency. Working and being a mother “have their own rewards,” Jariwala says cheerfully. “I would not say it’s easy. It’s definitely challenging but I guess I signed up for it!”

Jariwala enjoys volunteering for events like the Young Women’s Conference and a recent Girl Scout tour at which she and other engineers told the girls all about their jobs and how they became interested in science. She hopes this will inspire young women to enter the STEM fields and that could mean more women engineers in the field and at PPPL. As she puts it, “I would love more women to be here – for the men to think it’s not uncommon to have female engineers and for women to know there’s this opportunity and you can do it!”


Gretchen Zimmer: A long-time staff member appreciates the supportive atmosphere at PPPL

Gretchen Zimmer is a lead software engineer who has played a major role in coding for PPPL’s major experiments from the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) through to the National Spherical Tokamak Experiment (NSTX) and the NSTX-U and is currently working with the Lithium Tokamak Experiment (LTX).

Zimmer joined PPPL in 1984 at the peak of TFTR Operations, at which time the lab boasted more than 2,000 employees. The Computer Division alone had 130 people, many of whom were women. 

The CICADA Computer Center, a collection of Gould SEL mainframes, serviced TFTR Operations.  Back then, disc drives at the time were the size of washing machines, and data was archived on nine-track tape drives.  Zimmer’s duties included application programming for the researchers, and troubleshooting various data acquisition issues during the run

A native of Pampa, Texas, Zimmer attended Lehigh University where she was in the second class of women admitted to the university. She had always been drawn to the sciences when she was young. She had started her college education at Colorado State University where she wanted to major in programming but her advisor was always trying to steer her into the business computing side of programming, such as COBOL. Zimmer was drawn to the more scientific programming, and that is what she pursued. 

The almost all-male computer classes at Lehigh still used punch cards and Fortran computing. At Lehigh, there was no Computer Science Department at the time, and no degree program.  So the school created a program.  Zimmer took a lot of math classes, as well as classes in electrical and industrial engineering which included Fortran programming. Lehigh still used punch cards.  Zimmer graduated with a BA in Interdisciplinary in Math and Information Sciences. 

After graduation, Zimmer secured a job in Center City Philadelphia at the Control Data Corporation (CDC), a manufacturer of super computers. She was contracted out to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory on Princeton’s Forrestal campus, when she became aware of PPPL.  She came to PPPL 1984. Her original badge number was greater than 1300, signifying the number of employees at the time. 

After 13 years at the lab, Zimmer’s career at PPPL became off-and on. The TFTR days had ended, and the lab was facing a lay-off of 240 people in 1997. Zimmer took a buy-out. However, she was rehired as a casual employee in 1999 to support NSTX operations; but laid off four years later when NSTX stopped running. She was re-hired again 2006 as a casual, and became full time again in 2008. 

While she was in and out of PPPL during those years, Zimmer and her husband pursued their own business. They created and ran  the Rocky Top Dog Park for nine years before selling it to the Township of South Brunswick in 2010. 

Zimmer worked on scientific programming for NSTX-U. She  is currently working on a project for the LTX and helping with the Personal Safety System of the NSTX-U Recovery Project. 

Zimmer is well known at PPPL for her performances at staff talent shows. Zimmer has also performed in musicals outside the Laboratory. She recently began singing in an acapella group called, Jersey Harmony Chorus, a local chapter of Sweet Adelines International. Zimmer and her husband, John, have three dogs, and live in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. 

Zimmer said she has enjoyed her decades at PPPL and she appreciates the work atmosphere.  “I’ve been treated very well here,” Zimmer said. “The work is challenging but it’s interesting and everybody’s very supportive.” 

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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