Wake Forest University announced Tuesday that it has appointed Olga Pierrakos as founding chairwoman of the new Department of Engineering in Wake Downtown.
She is one of only a few women heading departments of engineering at institutions across the United States.
The university also stated that students, faculty and administrators are using formal research, departmental evaluations and innovative outreach to determine why more women and minority students are not declaring a major in science, technology, engineering and math when many universities have developed programs to attract them to the STEM disciplines.
With Pierrakos’ appointment, Michele Gillespie, Dean of the College, said she is excited to see how much more Wake can do to meet the goal of diversity in STEM disciplines as part of its commitment to liberal arts education.
Pierrakos will start her new job this summer and the Department of Engineering’s classes will begin this fall.
A career in engineering
Statistics on the number of women at the head of engineering departments were hard to find.
Counting both women and men, the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty at U.S. engineering colleges stood at 26,839 in 2015, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. For the same period, tenured and tenure-track women increased their representation in engineering faculty ranks to 15.7 percent in 2015, a more than 4 percent gain since 2006.
Pierrakos is currently the program director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, or NSF, in the Directorate of Education and Human Resources. At the NSF, she manages a $100 million portfolio to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — known as STEM — education at two- and four-year colleges and universities.
Pierrakos is also a founding faculty member and associate professor of the Department of Engineering at James Madison University, where she helped establish the department in 2008.
“Starting a new engineering program is typically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and to be honored with doing that twice is a rare opportunity indeed,” Pierrakos said.
Gillespie said that Pierrakos is suited for her new position because of her “expertise in building a successful engineering department from the ground up, her deep appreciation for a blended engineering and liberal arts curriculum, and her passion for strengthening undergraduate STEM programs across higher education.”
Pierrakos’ research expertise is in biomedical engineering, sustainable energy systems and engineering education research. At James Madison University, she has worked with students to characterize the flow past prosthetic heart valves and investigate novel metrics for assessing the performance of cardiac health and prosthetic heart valves.
At the age of 10, Pierrakos moved from Greece to Richmond, Va., in 1988.
Throughout her middle school and high school years, she said, teachers and peers would encourage her to consider going into engineering because she was good at math and science.
“But I had no clue what engineering was,” Pierrakos said.
After graduating from high school, she continued her education at Virginia Tech where she spent 11 years.
She switched from her initial major in biology to engineering because “I wanted to do something that would integrate my interests in math and science,” she said.
Once she made the change, she fell in love with engineering.
She sees engineering as “an integration of fundamental knowledge and skills in the math and sciences being applied in real-world authentic applications.”
At Virginia Tech, she received a bachelor’s degree in engineering of science and mechanics and a master’s degree in engineering mechanics. She also earned a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the Virginia Tech — Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering & Sciences, a joint graduate program.
She is married to John Karabelas and has three sons.
“Without his support, I don’t think I could do half the stuff I’ve done,” Pierrakos said of her husband.
Mentoring, bridging the gap
As an engineering education researcher, Pierrakos has written extensively about diversity and inclusion in engineering. She is passionate about mentoring students, including those frequently underrepresented in engineering fields such as women and ethnic minorities.
“The motivations to diversify the student population in engineering have been at the core of what I’ve experienced as a woman going through this journey as an undergraduate student, graduate student and even as a faculty member,” she said.
Gillespie said that it is important for women and minorities to have the same representation in STEM fields as they do in the general population.
“We have been working since the 1970s to achieve general equity in terms of women and minorities pursuing — and sticking with — STEM careers,” Gillespie said. “We still haven’t made the kinds of gains you would expect with such effort.”
Rebecca Alexander, director of academic programming at Wake Downtown and a chemistry professor, believes one way to close that gap is to show students how the study of STEM fields can improve lives and change the world.
“Our challenge is to introduce world problems like drug delivery, water purification and energy usage, and teach students to care about them and apply their knowledge to solving them,” Alexander said.
Amanda Griffith, associate professor of economics at Wake Forest University, has done studies on why and how women and minorities abandon STEM majors.
“Thinking carefully about the experiences women and underrepresented minorities are having in the classroom is important in terms of keeping them in the STEM major,” she said. “Success leads to persistence.”
Wake stated that among its chemistry undergraduate majors, more than 45.5 percent, or 46 of 101, are female. The national average is 48 percent, according to the NSF. The university also stated that an innovative STEM Incubator class, designed to attract women and underrepresented minorities to STEM majors, has yielded 6 percent growth in the enrollment of women in computer science programs, to 32 percent in 2016 from 26 percent in 2013, while the national average is about 18 percent.
Wake is also part of an NSF funded alliance, along with Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, aimed at helping historically underrepresented minorities work toward careers in the STEM fields.
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