2010 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Winner
By: Corinne Ducey, Smith College, Silver Spring, MD
With a Mechanical Engineer for a father and three older brothers with Pure Mathematics and other Engineering degrees, it seemed that some sort of technical field was in Jan de Regt’s midst. And one day, when she felt relief arriving to math class after misunderstanding the B grade on her English paper, she discerned that math or science (not humanities) was her calling. De Regt grew up in Alexandria, Virginia with her family and attended The School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at the University of Virginia. Though she thought she wanted to become a Chemical Engineer, de Regt realized that what she liked about Chemistry “was the structure of the periodic chart, which is actually physics. I did not want to major in any type of physics, so [I] went with electrical engineering, which is very, very applied physics.” She graduated as an electrical engineer in 1979 as one of seven women in her class. This is her diverse story. De Regt’s career teaches young women in the Mathematics and Engineering fields to seize opportunities with confidence.
The beauty of Engineering, says de Regt, is its versatility. Once one has acquired the skills to problem solve creatively, one can be any type of engineer because it is all about problem solving. De Regt has proved this through her varied array of work. However, after graduation, she expected for an employer to offer her a job where the work was concrete and clear. “Here is a problem and this is how you solve it,” she wanted to hear. But when she landed a job at the Naval Aviation Test and Evaluation Center (NATEC), she took problem solving to a more abstract, real-life level than university problem sets. The team she worked with verified that a new suite of acoustic processing equipment worked correctly and met the needs and expectations of the Aviation center. De Regt later went on to fly in P-3 Orion jets at NATEC to test new electronic encryption devices. She was part of a 30-person team to design and implement a new electronic key system to sophisticate information codes to send over the air. Her other jobs have included developing connectors and changing fibers at the Naval Research Lab, testing and evaluating acoustic antisubmarine warfare, studying radar and sonar theory, and now her work as a Systems Engineer. Because of this extensive résume of experience, de Regt is a very successful and efficient Systems engineer.
De Regt says, “I’ve finally found a job that complements the way my mind works,” which is quite the job to find. Systems Engineering is defined as overseeing complex engineering projects through team direction, strategic planning, and equipment management. It is a combination of human interaction and technical work. At the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration, de Regt is the project manager for ASDE-3 radar. This radar is housed in the dome on top of the tower at Dulles and BWI airports. It allows runway, taxiway personnel and air traffic controllers to communicate. To manage this project as a Systems Engineer, one creates a structured plan to maximize the probability that implemented solutions will meet the need. De Regt says this job requires people who can think in an orderly, disciplined, logical manner, and guide others to do the same. “It’s actually basic problem solving, performed at a very complex and often abstract level,” she says. De Regt lights up when she talks about her work.
Advice to me and to math-interested young women was plentiful in our discussion. My new career mentor told me to be astute, assertive, and to take full advantage of college math classes. To master the art of mathematics and problem solving, one must completely understand the reason why the math theories and conjectures work. Merely memorizing formulas and postulates does not form a solid basis of understanding for sophisticated work. De Regt also told me to decide whether I’m interested in Pure Math or Applied, because the two lead to very different careers. She states that a B.A. in engineering is useless and not impressive to engineering employers. If you want to be an engineer, “For goodness sake, go to an engineering school!” And as stated earlier, de Regt advises young women to take advantage of every opportunity that you can after college graduation. The first few work experiences after college make up the “trickling through” phase of education she says, where everything one has learned is put into practice. “There is basic inclination, education, and then experience,” and these three aspects work together to form solid understanding. Jan de Regt would agree that if a young woman has a foundation of solid understanding and a wealth of diverse experience, she will stand out in her work as a mathematician or engineer.