For this engineer, additive manufacturing offered a way to apply engineering concepts to practical problem-solving.
A career in medicine or engineering? For women interested in science, this seems to be a frequent choice. For Dr. Seyedeh Elaheh Ghiasian, the choice was a little complicated by the need to take special courses for one or the other before she finished high school.
“I’m Persian, and back in my country, you decide about your major during high school,” she says. “At that time I wanted to be a physician instead of an engineer. But I’m good at the math and knew that math was applicable in an engineering field. I changed my path at that time and took several related courses to engineering while in high school.
“When I started in university, I was first accepted in industrial engineering. After a year and half I found that it was not a field I liked because it was more of a combination of management and engineering, and not as focused on practical engineering as I wanted. I learned that I’m more interested in mechanical engineering, more problem solving.
Layer by layer
Now a research assistant at Open Engineering Systems Lab, Elaheh’s bachelor program taught her general mechanical engineering. In her masters studies, she was able to select an area of expertise and she wanted a field related to mathematics. In her studies for her PhD program at the University of Buffalo, N.Y., she chose to study the stability of structures. It was here that she first encountered additive manufacturing (AM). What intrigued her about AM was that it gave her a practical manufacturing method for her studies at the PhD level and also a tool she could work with in industrial application as opportunities arose during her studies. Her dissertation was on “An Automated System for Feasibility Analysis and Design Adaptation for Additive Manufacturing.”
“I didn’t want to focus on things that were abstract, theoretical, or conceptual,” she says. “I wanted to do practical things. That’s why I got interested in additive manufacturing.”
A recent project was developing software for an additive manufacturing application. This project began in 2017. An aerospace company came to her university to request the project and her advisor assigned it to her.
“They wanted a specific software for additive manufacturing because they wanted to determine which parts in their inventory were suitable for this process. The software will tell them which part is a good candidate from multiple perspectives including technical and business,” notes Elaheh.
The aerospace customer has more than two million parts in inventory. Those parts were previously made using conventional manufacturing. The aerospace company’s engineering and manufacturing teams understood that not all of the parts were good candidates for additive, but not knowing the strengths and weaknesses of additive well enough, they needed help in selecting suitable candidates.
Of course, there were feature changes, additions, and deletions to the software. Elaheh did all of the coding. “I was disappointed sometimes because there was no one that could write code with me, but over time, I continued doing the research and finished the program.
When she was in her Master’s program, she worked for a research institute. The institute took on a project for a plant involving fuel nozzles.
“Their fueling nozzles broke over time and they requested we create a new nozzle. I joined the group, but I was the designer for creating a new type of bellows for the nozzle.”
The challenges here were primarily an incompletely defined job description of the part and a tight deadline. Elaheh had to conduct much research to familiarize herself with industrial fuel nozzles. Collaboration was limited because of the tight budget. So, she often worked 80 hours a week.
“In my country, it is easier to renegotiate contracts when you discover missing information or initial estimates of the work involved are wrong. Unfortunately, this was not the case here, so there was nothing to do but plow through.”
Leading the way
Elaheh has been in several leadership roles, especially those involving additive technology. “During my PhD studies, I was the first of my group to work with additive manufacturing. My professor hired a few other PhD and masters students but left it to me to lead them in using the additive equipment, which was a nice opportunity to develop leadership skills. One of the things I learned is that leadership requires a lot of patience. People have different skills, and learning what those skills are and then delegating appropriately requires time and patience. I would say delegating can be a challenge too, especially when you think you can do it faster and better than the people you work with, a trait I’m still working on.”
The female perspective
Even though Elaheh is originally from another country, she notices the challenges women in engineering regularly face.
“Specifically in engineering fields, men generally think that they know much more than women. It’s gotten a little better nowadays, and maybe when you work in a factory or in an industrial place you see more of these things than if you work in an academic area. In academic areas, things are better, at least I think so because I work in an industrial space. Many of the men I’ve worked with think they are more practical than women. They tend to marginalize women.
“I’ve found that in a given equal situation if a male engineer needs to start from zero, a female engineer has to start from -10. Women must always prove themselves as having the same level of engineering abilities as men. This is very disappointing and sometimes exhausting. However, I won’t give up. It’s important for women to be recognized and work to change the rules that have been written by men in support of men.”
Elaheh grew up with three sisters, which made the male engineering perspective unexpected.
“My father always respected us,” she says. “He never treated us as though there was a difference between men and women. He always gave us great confidence saying, ‘My daughters can do everything any man can do.’ But when I went to university and interacted with some men working in the engineering area, I saw that they think that they are very good at engineering and women maybe not. But I didn’t let their attitude stop me.”
Even so, …“There is a difference in the treatment of women engineers in the US versus my home,” she continues. “In general, I think the US treats women engineers better.” Elaheh points out that many industries have specific opportunities for women engineers because they discovered that having men and women in engineering teams was beneficial to many projects.
“Both perspectives are needed on engineering projects. Women pay attention to the details and men have a good perspective about the future. I think that both of those perspectives should be combined for a project.”
She also notes the programs many universities develop to encourage women into engineering fields.
“Back home, I think that you need to fight more as a woman, because when I left my country, at that time, I’m not sure that they were focused on equality between men and women. In the U.S., I see much more opportunity to express myself as an engineer. There are still some issues and inequalities, but it’s pretty good here.”
If she had to live her life over again, she would advise focusing on doing practical projects to help her understand engineering sooner and better. “Even taking a part and breaking it down and putting it back together will aid your understanding of engineering. Start developing a small aircraft or a small UAV.
For Elaheh, the journey of employing engineering to practical problems never ends.