The Sitdown: Natacha DePaola, IIT dean of engineering

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Chicago’s lone female engineering dean — one of only 29 in the nation — challenges girls to claim a highly prized engineering career as a responsibility and manages to make Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame look like a slacker. The native of Caracas, Venezuela, who has held her title at the Illinois Institute of Technology without much notice since fall 2009 despite an office filled with her discipline’s highest accolades. DePaola, who earned her PhD in medical engineering and medical physics from Harvard/MIT, says the best decision she ever made was having a second child 13 years after her first, when she was 45 and the new department head of biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. With her first child, she had to raise him mostly by herself while her husband taught at Columbia University in New York. She came to her dream job at Northwestern University with her then 3-month-old. Her husband flew in on weekends. She found much-needed relief from her mother, who flew in and stayed for a month at a time. “We have Lukas, who just turned 9. He and his older brother, George, are very good friends.”

Often women have this career-life balancing act. The women faculty have guilt: You’re not doing enough for your family and your career.

It’s still a challenge — having a family while building your career. We want all women to be very fulfilled. It’s not this or that. I believe we can do it all.

It’s important we communicate and share more that (engineering) is a very profession. We have to give them tools to be active agents of change.

You have to go back to middle school. Studies have shown that girls and women do very well in the classroom. If we don’t get the young women to study engineering, you start with a pipe that’s not full. The first focus is to get girls in middle and high school to get curious about engineering.

My mother was a professor of physics. She was almost never at home (when DePaola was growing up). My father spent more time at home. My mother [when DePaola had her children] said, ‘Well, I’m coming. This is what you’ve always wanted to do.’

That was great. I managed the first year of not enough sleep, all the demands and my husband commuting. After having Lukas, how I manage is so I can get home at a time when I can work with Lukas on his homework. I work sometimes after dinner. I’m up very early.

I cook dinner every night. I have my own recipes; everything is done very quickly. Veal scallopini. It’s one of the boys’ favorites.

We should challenge our young women and say, you should do this. It’s a responsibility for women — we need representation.

“Don’t let the technology go to others,” I say. And as I tell students almost every year, it’s really a privilege to have the tools to change the world. If we put it that way, we’ll get more women believing they are capable.

We give students the opportunity to pick up a problem or a topic they’re passionate about. Women want something they can relate to, to see an immediate impact of their contribution. We let them explore and find it themselves.

One program that’s only a year-and-a-half old, the Armour R&D (named for the original engineering program and focused on research and development) gives undergraduate  students the opportunity to get involved in fundamental research or  to work in the development of products.

Some are projects they do with mentorship from our faculty in research labs here; some are in partnership with corporate partners. The idea is for students to be better prepared when they graduate.

We have students working on new codes for fire safety, developing new standards; working with the Chicago Police department to try to detect crime with smart techniques through image analysis.

It’s getting information from surveillance cameras; determining patterns. The idea is to predict areas with more crime. That can be very controversial.

We have a class in the biomedical department — one with the highest percentage of women as students and faculty — working on tools for the operating room, some specifically to address instruments being left behind after surgery. Others are participating in developing artificial organs.

I swim — that’s the part of water polo I kept [from my youth]. I play tennis and run.

I read whatever I can get my hands on. History and philosophy.

I go back and read things I read 20 years ago. With Lukas, we read Moby Dick.

I try to read things that have nothing to do with technology.

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