The Emerging Leader Abie Award in Honor of Denice Denton recognizes a junior faculty member for high-quality research and significant positive impact on diversity. This year’s winner is Dr. Debbie G. Senesky, an Assistant Professor at Stanford University in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, with a courtesy appointment to the Electrical Engineering Department. In addition, she is the Principal Investigator of the EXtreme Environment Microsystems Laboratory (XLab). Debbie will accept her award on the main stage at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC 18) in Houston, Texas.
Debbie’s research interests include the development of nanomaterials for extreme harsh environments, high-temperature electronics, and robust instrumentation for Venus exploration. She is currently the co-editor for the journals IEEE Electron Device Letters, Sensors, and Micromachines. Debbie is also a recipient of the NASA Early Faculty Career Award and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship Award.
Read about Debbie’s work and the many ways she gives back to her community.
When did you become interested in tech?
As a young student in elementary school and high school, I was passionate about math. I knew I wanted to go into a field that allowed me to use math, but I wasn’t quite sure which discipline.
When I was an undergraduate student, I participated in a research program where I was introduced to a clean-room facility, where one manufactures integrated circuits, sensors, and electronic devices. I got to go inside the room and look at teeny-tiny electronics under a microscope. It really dawned on me that small things can be designed and engineered to be quite complex and functional. You can use semiconductor processing tools to create these micro-machines that can detect the environment and process electrical signals. That really sparked my interest in micro-, nano-, and semiconductor technology.
What challenges did you face when pursuing a career in tech?
As an undergraduate student, I took a dynamics course, and it was a challenging course for me. I didn’t often go to office hours because I was intimidated by my professors, and because it’s in my nature to figure things out on my own. But I wasn’t getting some of the technical concepts, and so I had to get out of my comfort zone, go to office hours, and meet with my professor to ask for help.
I not only got the help I needed, but that professor also ended up guiding me throughout my undergraduate studies, and is still a mentor in my life today. I think it’s important to be able to ask for help and realize that you have mentors and teachers who want to help you along your journey.
What made you enter the academic field?
At the end of my doctoral studies, I didn’t have an interest in academia. I was pretty burnt out from writing my dissertation and finishing up my research project, so I ended up going into industry.
But after a short time in industry, I quickly realized that I missed being in the lab. I missed working on emerging technology. I missed the research environment. And so I ended up taking a pretty sharp U-turn from industry back into academia. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be a professor, but eventually I found that I enjoyed mentoring students, I enjoyed performing research, and I enjoyed writing proposals.
My experience in industry certainly helps me in my current research because it allows me to think about eventually commercializing some of my research. My research is also often funded by companies in industry, so being able to speak their language and understanding their needs has been beneficial as well.
Tell us about some of the research you and your team do.
My research is centered on micro- and nanotechnology for extreme harsh environments. My research group uses nanotechnology to develop “tiny-but-tough” electronics to advance space exploration. It costs a lot of money to place things in space, so the smaller that we can make our electronics, the more room we have for other experimental payloads.
It’s also important for us to design space systems so that they’re tough and resistant to the space environment. The way we currently engineer systems so that they survive the space environment is by packaging and cooling the systems so that they are resistant to radiation or heavy dust particles.
What has it been like being a mentor and role model for URM women in tech?
Being a mentor is really the best part of my job. I learn so much from my students by interacting with them. In our meetings, they teach me about the outcomes of their research, or the limitations or the potential for some of the technology that we’re developing. Mentorship is very, very important to me because it serves as a template for things that you aspire to do.
I recognize that I am a role model for African American women who are in engineering or who are considering pursuing engineering. It is personally important for me to be a good role model, and I’m happy if people are influenced by my work. If I’m able to show them that they can pursue engineering or pursue a career in academia, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
What other ways have you given back to the community?
I serve as a board member of Scientific Adventures for Girls (SAFG), a nonprofit organization that provides after-school programs for elementary school students in the East Bay. I help SAFG gain resources to conduct after-school programs, and I have talked to the students about my research and my career path. In addition, I have gone and performed after-school mentoring, where I worked closely with students to conduct small experiments that expose them to engineering and, specifically, aerospace technology.
I have also used social media to promote diversity. I’m often posting tidbits about my research on Instagram, which hopefully gives people a sense of what I do and what my job is like as an engineering professor. I’ve also used Twitter to connect with young students. I performed a Twitter Q&A session with elementary students in Washington, DC who tweeted questions about my career, and I tweeted back at them.
You will be accepting your Abie Award at the Grace Hopper Celebration. What does this award and experience mean to you?
I am honored to receive the Emerging Leader Abie Award. I think it’s important to recognize women in tech-related leadership roles and in academia, and to make them more visible. These women are role models for other women who might aspire to have similar careers, or who may not know that it’s possible to pursue such careers.
I’m really excited to attend Grace Hopper Celebration this year. I’m excited to engage with the women from around the world. I’m excited to learn about their work and their career trajectories. And I’m excited to share my own work and career path with them.
Do you have any advice for women considering a career in engineering or aerospace?
It’s a great time to be an engineer. We are trying to put a human on Mars. We are trying to probe Venus, our neighboring planet. We are trying to design cars that are autonomous. We are trying to design electric airplanes. It’s just an exciting time. I encourage you to consider it as a field because it’s so fun, and because you can have a part in impacting the technology of the future.
Meet Debbie at GHC 18 on Thursday, September 27 at 2:15 p.m. during our Abie Award Series, or on Thursday, September 27 at 12 p.m. during Speakers Corner. See our full GHC 18 schedule for more details.
Interested in pre-registering for GHC 18 sessions? Click here to learn more.
Thank you to Medidata, sponsor of the 2018 Emerging Leader Abie Award in Honor of Denice Denton.
Watch Debbie accept her Emerging Leader Abie Award at GHC 18.