As part of Women’s History Month, Associated Environmental Systems is honoring women in STEM and manufacturing.
Although more women join the engineering workforce each year, it’s still perceived as an overwhelmingly male profession. The statistics back up that perception. Consider that in 2018, just 21.9 percent of all Bachelor’s Degrees in Engineering awarded from U.S. colleges and universities went to women. When you limit it to Mechanical Engineering (14.8%), Aerospace (14.6%), or Electrical (14.2%), the number grows even smaller.
According to MIT professor Anette Hosoi, the first woman to be named associate department head in Mechanical Engineering at the famed institution, encouraging female students to pursue engineering is less about providing role models and more about providing “existence proofs.”
They want to see themselves in the profession. In support of this movement, AES has profiled three young women who have excelled in STEM education. Meet Rachael Ramos, Alex Sidell, and Sydney Fisher.
Rachael Ramos: Mechanical Engineer at Associated Environmental Systems
HOMETOWN: Billerica, MA
Rachael Ramos recognizes the look. You know the one: the appearance of shattered expectations mixed with genuine respect.
“We’ve had a few customers come in, and I was introduced to them as a mechanical engineer,” Ramos, 27, says. “And they were like, ‘Really?’ I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
Ramos’s qualifications suggest that no one should be surprised by her current title. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. After cutting her teeth at a series of internships, in the medical device field and electronics, she landed at Associated Environmental Systems in 2018.
Today, she’s directly responsible for AES’s standard series of benchtop and floor models 13 cubic feet and smaller.
The interactions with her colleagues and customers have been “mostly positive,” Ramos says. Even the more negative ones often reinforce her place in the field. She describes a sense of satisfaction anytime someone appears visibly impressed by her job title.
“It’s kind of like you may have underestimated me, and here I am,” Ramos says. “It makes me feel like, yep, you got that degree. You’ve earned this.”
Growing up with two sisters, Ramos played with more dolls than LEGO sets. If her toys didn’t hint at a path in mechanical engineering, though, her interests did. She looked forward to helping her father with the lawnmower in the spring and summer, and the snowblower in the winter. It got to the point where he’d request her input on household projects, like making sure the unfolding stairs to the attic closed properly.
In addition to always “tinkering with things,” in her words, Ramos excelled at math in school, her favorite subject. When she also showed promise in physics, the combination added up to mechanical engineering.
That it was a male-dominated field didn’t intimidate her. In fact, it served as inspiration.
“I think it lit a fire beneath me to be like, you know what, I’m going to do this,” Ramos says. “I’m going to be able to say it shouldn’t be male-dominated. We’re all capable of it. Just because I didn’t grow up working on cars or anything like that doesn’t mean I’m any less capable.”
Now, she’s still tinkering with things. They just so happen to be complex environmental test chambers. Workers on the manufacturing floor turn to her for support.
“If anyone needs specific parts made for something, they’ll usually come to me and ask,” Ramos says. “I find it to be very rewarding that people are able to come to me if they need something done. Often they’ll need a part cut on a laser or something reworked. They know if they come to me, I can get it done. I find personal satisfaction in being able to help people out like that.”
She hopes to advance her level of expertise by becoming Lean certified, continuing to learn at AES, and potentially pursue her Master’s. She’s also eager to welcome more females into the profession.
“I think more women should be involved in engineering,” Ramos says. “Anytime I see a resume come in from a female, I’m like ‘Let’s interview her.’”
Alex Sidell: Master’s Degree Candidate at Strathclyde University (Glasgow, Scotland)
HOMETOWN: Wayland, MA
It takes a significant level of ambition to succeed in engineering. The math. The physics. The real-world applications and the inner-machine workings.
Well, Alex Sidell has ambition in spades. After earning a dual Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, she’s nearing the completion of her Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Strathclyde University in Glasgow. As if that level of education isn’t impressive enough, Sidell, a Wayland, Massachusetts native, decided on her own to head across the Atlantic.
“It was quite difficult for the first part of it, but I think it would’ve been just as hard to move to, like, California. I didn’t know anyone in the UK. I just made the decision for myself to come out,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s not that different from going to college anywhere.”
Whether or not that’s true (is moving a few time zones away really the same as setting up in a completely different country?), her college choice reflects Sidell’s personality: She’s incredibly driven. Her introduction to engineering provides evidence of how it’s benefited Sidell in her academic pursuit.
A three-sport athlete—field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse—Sidell took her competitive spirit in another direction when her friend, Sydney Fisher (see below), “dragged” her to the robotics club.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had some friends who were already part of it, so they brought me along,” Sidell says. “I fell in love with it from there.”
In addition to sticking with robotics all four years of high school, she attended a summer program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) dedicated to the subject. What she found was that her internal drive to succeed fit in well with the demands of a unique team setting. Each person’s contributions led them closer to the ultimate goal of delivering an effective solution.
“When I’m doing a task or project I want to have a really good high-quality result. There’s a lot more competitiveness in me,” Sidell says.
“In engineering, you have a lot of group projects and stuff like that. It’s more important that you have that ability to work really well as a team. But you can be competitive within that team to push each other to that next level to really make that outstanding thing.”
It’s what made her fall in love with engineering in the first place. Following an exam-heavy education, Sidell relished opportunities to apply her growing expertise, like a project to build a towboat generator: “It got to the point where I had been doing so much in the classroom learning, that I was just super excited and super pumped. We even got to 3D print our own parts. We got parts machined for us. Finally, everything is coming together and clicking.”
Then there was her job as a Technician at the Edinburgh Dungeon, a high-end haunted house fit with actors and a series of machines.
“Actually going from a classroom where we did ‘here’s a circuit’ to actually being able to see the (logic) racks, it was really interesting,” Sidell, who’s coincidentally a Dungeons & Dragons fanatic, says. “Someone taught me how to change the logic and program it. That was super cool.”
As she rounds out her education in robotics, Sidell hopes to turn her passion into a career. She’s intrigued by self-driving cars and recently grew interested in robotic implementations in the medical field.
Wherever she ends up, you can be sure her ambition will serve her well.
Sydney Fisher: Software Engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space
HOMETOWN: Needham, MA
How many 24-year-olds can confidently say they’re fulfilling their childhood ambitions?
Sydney Fisher can. As a Software Engineer in the intelligence and space department at Raytheon, one of the largest companies of its kind, she’s applying her education in computer science and robotics to contribute to projects that are quite literally out of this world.
“I’m doing work with satellites. I’m exceptionally happy with the work I do,” Fisher says. “Growing up, I wanted to put rovers on Mars, the moon, different planets. I feel like this is pretty close.”
Fisher compares it to the butterfly effect, where one seemingly innocuous occurrence has a major impact elsewhere. Some days, she completes a series of tiny coding checks to confirm her colleagues’ work. Other days, she’s writing pages of code. In both cases, the details add up to a greater whole.
That could also be said for her path to software engineering. It started when Fisher was very young. She remembers her father, a computer scientist, working from home on Fridays. When she returned from school, Fisher would watch him code. The line of work fascinated her, and it was combined with other shared interests: Her dad bought her a robot toy that taught elementary coding. They’d play with it together.
By the time she “dragged” her friend Alex Sidell to the robotics club in high school, Fisher was already well on her way to a career in software engineering. She eventually graduated from WPI with a degree in Robotics and Computer science in 2019, and at no point did the gender ratio, tilted overwhelmingly male, dissuade her.
First, she and Sidell leaned on each other: They shared a friendship and experiences in similar fields of study. Second, she kind of just grew accustomed to it.
“It wasn’t really a big deal at all. Alex and I were two of three girls on our robotics team. I was the only girl in AP Computer Science,” Fisher says. “I really was just like this is normal, I’m used to it. It doesn’t ever bother me too much.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t dealt with sexism. Fisher admits to enduring a “bad experience” at her first job out of college. One male co-worker repeatedly condescended to her by explaining what she should and shouldn’t be expected to know, some of it often company-specific. It gave Fisher a level of imposter syndrome. She’s found a much better working environment at Raytheon but still acknowledges it could improve.
“Being a woman in a man-dominated field, you have to stand up for yourself. You have to keep pushing yourself,” Fisher says. “So it’s really...I’m sure every new hire has the initial imposter syndrome. It’s a little different based on your gender.”
She’s now doing her part to help the next crop of employees and interns at Raytheon.
“I started in January 2020, then in the next group of interns who started in the summer, I immediately reached out: If you have any questions, I’m here. You can always reach out. Here’s my email,” Fisher says. “I had so many questions starting. I fell into the role with another female coworker who was willing to help me out. She was hired in 2019. She helped me so much. If it weren’t for her, I don’t if I would’ve been able to figure things out. I probably would’ve been annoying other people. I wanted to be someone to the new coworkers who were there.”
That speaks to her general belief about encouraging young women to pursue careers in mechanical and electrical engineering, robotics, or computer sciences.
“It’s not about, ‘There should be more women in the STEM field,’” Fisher says. “It’s more about, ‘If you like this, you shouldn’t be afraid to express how much you love it.’”
Associated Environmental Systems proudly supports diversity and inclusion in engineering. AES encourages underrepresented groups—including women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community—to consider joining its team. Click here to see a list of current openings.