44th Design Automation Conference, June 4-8, 2007

April 20, 2007

Note from the DAC Chair


Cherrice Traver, dean of engineering at Union College, is one of many volunteers who work tirelessly each year to bring the Design Automation Conference to life.  Since 1996, she has administered the P.O. Pistilli Scholarship for the Advancement in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, awarding scholarships to underrepresented groups, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and the disabled.  Cherrice is a remarkable individual and lives the advice she gives to her students:  make a positive impact on the world.


Steven P. Levitan

General Chair

44th Design Automation Conference


The P. O. Pistilli Scholarship Program for Advancement in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering


This scholarship program was originally conceived by Pat Pistilli and the DAC Executive Committee in 1989.  When Pat retired in 2000, the DAC Executive Committee decided to name the award in his honor.  The scholarship is funded by the Design Automation Conference Professional Development Fund as part of DAC’s efforts to give back to the community.


Since 1996, under Cherrice’s guidance, a total of 29 students have received awards of $20,000.00 each for a total of $580,000.00 in scholarships.  An applicant must be a high school senior from an under represented group and demonstrate interest and achievement in math and science courses. They must express a strong desire to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering or Computer Science.  The program has received as many as 600 applications in one year. Awardees receive $4,000.00 per year for up to five years.


For more information visit http://dac.com/44th/resources.html




Cherrice Traver:  Making a Positive Impact on the World

By Geoffrey James


If Cherrice Traver is right, someday she’ll be interviewed without having to answer questions about the role of women in the engineering industry. But not today.  As much as she downplays the importance of gender in computer engineering, the fact remains that, as a woman in this field, Traver is definitely a member of a select minority.  And, as the female Dean of Engineering at a top private college, she is, for all practical purposes, unique.


Union College is not a large school and neither, at some 260 students, is Traver’s department, but its importance to the history of electrical engineering belies its diminutive size.  The department’s founder, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, was (as any good historian could tell you) a seminal figure who a hundred years ago rivaled Edison and Tesla as the putative father of modern electrical science. Since then, the department has racked up an enviable reputation as one of the few places in academia where teaching engineering is as important as conducting research.


The Union College environment, in fact, is a novice engineer’s dream.  Traver’s department focuses on faculty-student interaction, as evidenced by class size, which seldom exceeds 20 students.  In addition, “mentoring is an essential part of our curriculum,” explains Traver, who has herself overseen the development of numerous budding engineers.


One tends to think of highly successful academics (and, by any reasonable definition, Traver falls into this category) as being obsessed with their own achievements.  Traver, by contrast, appears to have been motivated, at least at first, more by curiosity than ambition. “When I entered the field, it wasn’t so much because I wanted to become an engineer, but because of something my father told me: ‘stick with math and science and you can’t go wrong’,” she says.


Serendipity also appears to have played a role in her choice of career. The late-1970s was a particularly exciting time for chip design.  Hand layout was beginning to give way to a wide variety of VLSI tools.  Traver was fascinated at the way the new design paradigms allowed engineers to examine a chip at completely different levels of abstraction.  “The behavior of the physical materials, the functional blocks, the layout of the circuitry… all of these combined to allow an engineer to analyze and solve problems in new and different ways,” she says, “It was like looking into an entire new world.”


Four years after receiving her BS in Physics from the State University of New York at Albany in 1982, Traver became a faculty member at Union College, earning her PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia a couple of years later.  She enjoys her work as Dean of the department, but her main joy seems to come from helping students feel the same excitement she felt when she confronted her first chip design.


In fact, she is so focused on communicating that excitement that she almost seems taken aback when asked the inevitable questions about the role of gender in engineering groups. “I certainly don’t think it’s been an issue in my career,” she says.  Traver does recall a smattering of rude remarks during her early college years, but these were apparently so innocuous that it wasn’t until years later that she thought they might have been “a little out of line,” as she puts it.


For Traver today, engineering is all about solving problems, with gender a side issue at most.  “Really, the question is whether you can get the job done,” she says.  Not that she denies that there isn’t chauvinism inside academia.  After all, it was only a couple of years ago that Lawrence Summers, erstwhile President of Harvard, suggested that the scant representation of women in some scientific disciplines might be the result of a genetic handicap.  While the remark cost Summers his job, he was reflecting of a belief that has undeniable currency among some male academics, even if few are impolitic enough to express the view aloud.


Far from taking umbrage at Summer’s remarks, Traver dismisses the entire incident as essentially ludicrous. “His ideas are so silly and unscientific, that they’re really not worth discussing,” she insists.  Traver does not deny (how could she?) that there are fewer women than men in the engineering disciplines, but attributes this, not to genetics, but to misconceptions that are engendered inside adolescent pop culture in the middle-school grades. “Young women get the message early on that they’re not supposed to be good at math and unfortunately they frequently believe it,” she said.


In Traver’s view, women often enter college predisposed against a career in engineering. “The smaller proportion of women in engineering is a pipeline problem, not a problem with discrimination at the college level,” she insists.  Over time, Traver believes that engineering will achieve the same kind of gender equity found in the life sciences, where women now slightly outnumber men.  “I suspect it’s going to take some changes in early education before that happens,” she predicts.  When asked how middle schools should accomplish this, Traver, like any true engineer, demures.  “To be honest, the sociology of gender politics in middle schools is not something I’ve studied, and I prefer to understand something thoroughly before I attempt to fix it.”


Traver’s experience with college students of both genders has told her that the differences between individuals, regardless of gender, dwarf the generic differences between men and women. “Engineering is all about talent and persistence, and those are human, not gender, attributes,” she says.  In her view, it makes mores sense to focus on helping students to become competent engineers than to fussing about how their gender might negatively impact their career.


Indeed, she believes that engineering schools in the United States have seriously bigger fish to fry.  She recently co-taught international project courses, which combined student engineering teams from Turkey and the United States.  She discovered, somewhat to her dismay, that Turkish engineering students were more dogged in trying to solve knotty problems, sticking with a problem after the young Americans on the team had thrown up their hands in surrender.  “Many American kids have had so much handed to them that they’re not always willing to slog through the difficult challenges,” she says, “That may bode ill for the future of our local engineering talent.”


With this in mind, Traver has the following advice to engineering students: “Your success will be dependent upon your basic talent, your acquired skills, your ability to work on a team, your willingness to help your teammates succeed, and your desire to have a positive impact on the world,” she says.  It’s a point that Traver makes with the mentor’s restrained gusto.  “I enjoy what I do, and plan to continue to encourage students to seriously consider a career in engineering,” she says, adding, almost as an afterthought and with the slightest hint of exasperation: “men and women alike, of course.”

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