Behind the Innovation | Women in STEM
As International Women’s Month comes to a close, we spoke with two women engineers at Whelen. Jackie Khadijah-Hajdu is an electrical engineering supervisor, and Lauren Bradley is a mechanical engineering supervisor. We got the opportunity to learn a little bit about the steps it took to become an engineer, the day-in-the-life of a Whelen engineer, and their experience as a woman in STEM. See the full video below!
What sparked your interest in engineering?
Jackie: Growing up, I was very fortunate to have many teachers that pushed me into more science and math courses. I remember the flight unit in fourth grade, and I was so into understanding how a heavy plane can stay in the air. In college, I found so many STEM fields interesting, that I changed majors around 5 times. When I was a computer science major, we had to take entry-level circuits courses. I loved drawing circuits and doing circuit analysis, so I ended up changing my major to electrical engineering with a minor in computer science.
Lauren: My interest in engineering was sparked by my dad, who did so many different house projects. I spent most of my summers helping him, whether it was demolition or putting something back together. I developed this mentality of “Hey, if you can draw it on a sheet of paper and you can design it, you can make that.” I went to a technical high school where I started to do drafting and design. I remember we got a new 3D scanner, and it started to open my eyes to all the career options out there. Some of the projects would require old designs to be updated, so we’d redraw them in solid works or AutoCAD. It made me wonder what it’s like actually to create the designs.
Engineering is known as a particularly intense major. What was the most challenging part of your college experience?
Jackie: Time management is the hardest part of college. As an engineering major, I had many long labs, which were around three hours long, and went through dinner. Making sure that you’re consistent with a schedule to motivate yourself is tough, especially in the thick of New England winters.
Lauren: I completely agree! Some nights, the engineering majors would be heading back to our dorm from the library at 2 AM after it would close. Those were times where I felt uncertain if this was the right path for me, but I really wanted to do product design and get to engineer solutions.
Tell us about your first job. What did you learn there that you couldn’t have learned in the classroom?
Jackie: My first job out of college did research and development for the Navy. Everything was rapid prototyping with very fast schedules and an unlimited budget. It was very different than college, where you’re working on projects, and you have pennies to get something done. You don’t have a whole semester out in the real world; you have two weeks to build something and get it working. It taught me a lot about sourcing and actually building something.
Lauren: At our technical high school, I had the opportunity to work during my drafting and design shop classes junior or senior year. My first job was at a company that did custom drainage and septic systems requiring AutoCAD. It was the first time I started to learn about some of the manufacturing processes behind the design. I learned about injection molding and the benefit of having a common part design which just continued to solidify my plan to major in engineering.
Describe your job as an engineer here at Whelen. What’s your favorite part of the job or a standout moment for you?
Jackie: As an electrical engineer, my favorite part of the job was doing printed circuit board layouts – the cards that go into your computer. It’s exciting because it’s a mixture of physics and art. In my supervisor role, I enjoy being able to help and coach the team. I like making new processes for the team to make our designs more robust.
Lauren: I started as a mechanical engineer, and then I moved into a supervisor role in the mechanical engineering team. The first product I worked on at Whelen was the Tracer™. Continuously working on it for an extended period, and then getting to see it in the field was a huge moment for me. Hearing first responders rave about how they benefit from it is so rewarding.
Many people imagine engineers just sit at their desks and do calculations all day long. What do you think the biggest misconceptions are about your job?
Jackie: The biggest misconception is that engineering is a lot of math theory. Once you’re out of college, you don’t really worry about integrals or derivatives. Another misconception about electrical engineering is that many people typically think we wire a house or power lines. It really varies; it goes from high-power stuff like that all the way down to what’s inside your phone.
Lauren: There’s also this misconception that engineers don’t have social or communication skills. Whelen engineers thoroughly communicate our ideas to marketing, sales, and product owners. We also effectively explain how a product works on a broad level that our customers care about, not just in tech terms.
“Whelen engineers thoroughly communicate our ideas to marketing, sales, and product owners. We also effectively explain how a product works on a broad level that our customers care about, not just in tech terms.”
What advice do you have for women or girls in school interested in engineering?
Jackie: Practice your soft skills: speaking, writing, and getting used to speaking up. Another essential thing is having a system for note-taking. Whether it’s your notebook or sticky notes, it is super important to keep track of any little thing you do because that makes a difference; people notice when you remember to do the little things.
Lauren: If you’re interested in mechanical engineering, take an interest in how things are made around you. Don’t be afraid if something breaks in your house; YouTube is an infinite resource to learn. Technical skills are less important because you’ll learn as you go, but pick up on the relationship between concepts.
One of the most important things that we can do is support young women looking to go into the STEM field. At Whelen, we’re involved in judging the local invention convention, a competition across the nation where K-12 students come up with the best ideas to solve a problem that they see in their day-to-day lives. It’s so great to see these kids getting really, really excited about their inventions and solving a problem they think is important.
Thank you, Jackie and Lauren, for taking the time to speak with us!
Behind the Innovation is a series of interviews where the people at Whelen find out more about the people they work with – the designers, sales executives, production workers, marketing team members, dog people, writers, inventors, and everyone in between. With 1,200 people working from two different locations, it’s a good way for us to get to know each other.