Polly Piergiovanni
Professor and Air Products/ Ghasemi Chair in Engineering for Interdisciplinary Teaching

Lauren Anderson ’04
Associate Professor and Department Head, Chemical Engineering

LA: So, Polly, we’re celebrating 50 years of coeducation at Lafayette. And a lot of things have changed for women in engineering and women in STEM more broadly. Can you tell us a little bit about how things are different? What was your experience like? And how do you see things changing?

PP: So as an undergraduate in chemical engineering, there has historically been more female students than in the other branches. So there was a group of us in engineering that I hung out with—probably five females in a class of 35 or so. And they were my friends. The girls in the dorm were not engineers, and couldn’t really relate to all the work I was doing and why I would do that, because actually, they were all expecting to get married and just go on from there. So it was a little different. But within the classroom, I was accepted among my peers. There was no differentiation between the male students and the female students. In grad school, it was a little different because I was the only female in the whole class. And so all the professors knew my name. And so anytime they’d have a question, they’d say, okay, and what’s the answer, Miss Robinson. And so it wasn’t mean, they weren’t picking on me, it was just, they knew who I was. And they didn’t know the sea of white males that was there. So that was a little different. But still, I always felt supported. And it was a good experience.

LA: That’s great. I think that’s what happens at Lafayette too, wouldn’t you say that we know our students’ names. And that’s how I felt as a student here. I liked being a student in engineering here and never really felt as different. So I think just like you described, I had a similar experience.

PP: So why did you decide to become an engineer?

LA: It’s funny because my son, who is now six, and I took out a book from Dr. Seuss called, “What about me?,” and I wrote in it—it has prompts and you write in it as a kid and you put pictures and what you want to be, and it said that I wanted to be a pediatric nurse, which I don’t remember saying. But as I look back, I like helping people. I like working with kids.

Then as it evolved, you know, my brother was really into Legos. He was the engineer of the family, for sure. And he became a mechanical engineer. And so I’m playing with him. I always played with Legos, erector sets, connecting things more with my brother. I was more about that than I was about the so-called gender girl toys at the time. And then I visited my grandmother and she was about to have knee replacement surgery. I remember I was in middle school, and I remember having so many questions. And then, at some point, I was debating on going to med school or becoming an engineer. And I decided, you know what, I’m more interested in thinking about how to make that, how do you possibly make something that goes in the body, and I guess that’s what started it.

And then I came on a tour. And biomedical engineering wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t a major back when I was looking at colleges in the late 90s. And so I had a choice between chemical engineering or mechanical engineering. And as you said, chemical engineering had more women. And so I just saw myself in that, and I said, okay, I’ll try out chemical engineering. I like chemistry, I like math. I like designing and building things. And maybe I’ll help someone. So it’s kind of interesting. When you look back on it, you never know where those seeds were planted. But I would say that I’m happy with where it’s gone. It’s good.

PP: Since you were a student here, how do you think things have changed for students in engineering?

LA: As I said, it never felt unusual to be a woman in my engineering classes. What was different is there weren’t many female faculty. So of course, I had you as one of my professors. But in chemical engineering, you were the only female faculty member at the time and Kimmy. There were four female faculty within engineering. And now we have 12. So to triple the amount of female faculty, it changes how you feel as a student, right? You have somebody to, to look up to, to be the role model. And it normalizes that conversation, about work life balance. It really has always influenced me, how you talk about your family and have pictures of your kids and Legos on your desk that your kids made. But, you know, being a student, and especially now at Lafayette, we still have gender parity with our engineering students. And I think women feel very comfortable in our classes and research opportunities are increasing. That’s something that with recent funding and the Clare Boothe Luce research Scholars Program, more women have opportunities to get involved now than when I was here.

I did a research experience at Georgia Tech at the time. And that’s what prompted me to go to graduate school. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know that I would have gone to graduate school. And so now I think we see nationally, more women are going to graduate school in engineering, and getting PhDs. And I think that’s fantastic. And I think here at Lafayette, the way we prioritize faculty interaction and working together and working on research projects with our students, I think that the shift is there, changes are happening, I think we’ll see. It’s so slow, though, right? Growth is so slow. It takes decades to realize, to go from four faculty to 12, from being the only student that the professor knew your name to now we know all of our students. So it takes time, but I think there’s been a lot of positive changes.

So how have things changed for you from the faculty perspective?

PP: It’s been a very slow change. So if you’d asked me, year to year, I’d say it hasn’t changed. But if you look over the 30 years that I’ve been here, there have been some changes. Because, like you said, when I came, I was the only one and even knowing how to dress, I had to look at the secretaries. And I figured I better dress a little bit nicer than the secretaries did, because all the men wore a suit and tie. I mean, that’s what they taught in. And I wasn’t going to wear a suit and tie. So figuring out the dress code was one thing. And then, Becky Rosenbauer turned out to be the second woman who came on campus. I forget what her exact title was. But she and I became very close friends. And that leads to the other thing that’s changed is we now have a maternity leave policy. Because Becky and I happened to have our first child about three months apart, and there was no maternity leave policy, there was disability. And so after I had my son, I had six weeks of disability. And Becky taught my three classes for me for those six weeks. It was really easy for her to step in. But then after six weeks, I had to come back and finish the semester. I was not ready to come back. My son was just 8.5 pounds, so I was just not ready to do that. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of women students in the restroom because I needed them to cry because I wasn’t ready. But what we have now is so much better. I think we have a very good parental leave.

But the friendship Becky and I had because there are only two of us. Then Mary Ross came and then others came. A group of us used to always get together at the faculty dining room. All the women in engineering would get together once a week and eat lunch together in the faculty dining room. And that was very helpful.

LA: So we’re here in Leopard Works. And I know you teach here. So what do you love most about teaching? And has your teaching changed over the years?

PP: Yes, my teaching has really changed. And part of it is because of facilities like this because 30 years ago, I taught Fortran on a chalkboard because there weren’t computers for each student to sit in front of. And right now everything I teach is pretty much hands on. So Leopard Works is a great facility for having the students build things or create things and take data within the classroom. So my teaching has become much more hands on. Always at Lafayette, we have the opportunity for one on one interaction in the classroom. So still doing that. That’s the great part. I enjoy that too.I enjoy working with the students and getting to know them in the research labs and seeing them grow and evolve and seeing when students find their strengths. I enjoy that moment when they realize that they can do something that they didn’t think they can do. When the light bulb goes on, and they finally understand something, yes, that’s very exciting.

So what do you enjoy most about your work?

LA: You know, it’s those small moments and it’s those teachable moments. And I think now it’s having the students teach me. I’m sure you have stories about that too. But I think when you first start, just like you described ways to dress, right, it’s to set a tone in your classroom that you are the professor and to set expectations. But as you become more mature in the classroom, and you teach more classes, you realize that we’re all learners in the same classroom. And although we are the professors, we have a lot to learn from our students. And that’s what I’ve really enjoyed most over the past couple of years. In the post-tenure years, is really kind of diving in, and being a student with my students and learning from them as much as they learned for me. I really enjoy the conversations that we have at Lafayette with our students I believe are unique. And I think that’s why I loved it here so much and one of the reasons why I came back. When students get a job or they get an internship, or they win a fellowship, they come running down the hall with a big hug or a big note on our board, and I love those, those personal relationships that we build with students over time. Then when they go off and they are in their jobs, and they call us to tell us about a promotion they got or they get married and we get invited to their wedding. You know, those are the relationships that are enjoyable and keep the day to day interesting. I really enjoy that.

LA: So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about or looking at I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with students who’ve recently graduated and I’ve taught senior design so I’m kind of in one of those the capstone course where they see me last, and so I think students —at least some of our female students—have called me in the past year or two years, and are describing some scenarios that they’re encountering in the workplace. Having never worked in industry, it’s not something that I can readily relate to. We got our PhDs and came into academia. And so I’ve never really worked in manufacturing or in some of the traditional chemical engineering fields. But for women engineers here at Lafayette, it’s so normal to be a female engineer and in the supportive environment that we have, I think, in some ways, it is a disadvantage, right? When you go to the workplace, when we think about, you know, what opportunities are there to grow in STEM? And how can the field evolve in the next decade, the stories I hear are just the challenges that women have in supervising men that are much older than them on the manufacturing floor, and how to deal with gender bias. So although if you look at statistics, and this is where the danger of looking at data, right, we’re always looking at data, but when you look at statistics, you see that more women are getting bachelor’s degrees than ever before. We’re even getting more PhDs. But yet, when you look at the workforce, we’re still only making up 10%. So that really struck me. So have you had any conversations with students that have gone into industry? Or what do you think could change most about? Or how could we advise our students to see what we might expect?

PP: So I think one of the best things is in this professionalism series that you give to the seniors, just knowing and being aware of what problems previous students have encountered. How do you tell an older man, when you’re his boss. Give them advice on how to handle it. And then some of the students who have called me and I’ve kept in touch with, they’ve been working for the small companies where they aren’t the only women or it’s a younger company, and I think the more opportunities they get in there, the easier it will be for them. But at the big manufacturing companies, they, the people who hire them, want them to succeed. And so they need to find the mentor who will help them learn within their company’s culture.

LA: Yeah, that’s been a great addition that I think we bring back alumni from different industries and the women that go into chemical engineering, added biomolecular engineering and then environmental engineering, we also saw a rise in the number of female engineers in our own major and our own disciplines. So I think even as the majors evolve, I think companies will use alternative energy rather than petroleum, there’s opportunities to grow. So hopefully, the future continues to improve in that way.

I just want to say thank you for being a supportive colleague, being my professor over the years, and just modeling what it’s like to be a professional faculty member, a mom, a wife, and balance all those roles. I think that’s been an inspiration to me personally. And hopefully we can continue and I can pass that down to generations and we can continue to improve what It’s like for women at Lafayette. So thank you.

PP: And thank you, Lauren, for your support as our department head. It’s really been appreciated and you brought on some young women faculty that I hope to see flourish in the next few years. Thank you.