sealPurdue Science & Health Briefs

October 1997

Women engineers celebrate 100-year history at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When Martha Stevens earned a degree in civil engineering in 1897, she became the first woman to graduate from Purdue University with an engineering degree.

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One hundred years later, nearly 300 women received undergraduate engineering degrees during Purdue's 1997 spring commencement ceremonies.

At Purdue and nationwide, less than 1 percent of engineering students were women before 1972, and less than 25 percent of the few who chose engineering actually graduated.

Today the picture has changed dramatically, due in part to Purdue's pioneering efforts to attract and retain female engineering students -- efforts that are now used as a model for other universities.

"In the past 10 years, Purdue has graduated more undergraduate women engineers than any other university in the country, averaging about 250 bachelor's degrees a year," says Jane Z. Daniels, director of Purdue's Women in Engineering Programs. "Women make up about 23 percent of the graduating engineers at Purdue, while nationally it's about 18 percent. Also, about 22 percent of undergraduate engineers enrolled at Purdue are women, compared to about 19 percent nationwide.

"But our strength and success over the years has been in increasing the number of women who start in engineering and graduate in engineering. That figure is now equal to that of men -- between 55 and 60 percent."

Little is known about what Stevens did with her engineering degree a century ago, but today Purdue's engineering alumnae are astronauts, corporate executives, researchers and engineers -- including Diane Windler, a 1985 civil engineering graduate who works in Purdue's Department of Facilities Planning. She is part of a team that plans, designs and oversees construction projects on campus. Windler is in charge of the renovation and redesign of Purdue's $7 million golf complex.

"My experience as a student at Purdue was a very positive one, and though I may have stood out as one of the few women in some of my classes, I don't think I was treated any differently than male students," Windler says. "In my experience as a professional engineer, I've never run into any problems as a woman in a typically male-dominated field."

Purdue's Women in Engineering Programs were established in 1969 to increase the participation of women in engineering by encouraging young women to study engineering and supporting them through their college careers.

In 1969, one of the first things the first director of the programs did for female students was to make a map of where the women's restrooms were located in each of the engineering buildings, Daniels says. "In most cases there was only one in a building," she says.

While women have made great strides in the engineering profession in the past 25 years, Daniels says it will be many years before the number of women engineering graduates approaches parity with men, and she says the hard work is still ahead -- making changes in society and education.

CONTACTS: Daniels, (765) 494-3889; e-mail,

Windler, (765) 494-6936; e-mail,

Experts: Public will accept irradiation in wake of meat recall

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The Hudson Foods hamburger recall may be just what it takes to convince Americans that it's time to accept irradiation as another technique to safeguard their food supply, two Purdue experts say.

Irradiation is little used and a lot misunderstood, but it can destroy the microorganisms responsible for food-borne illnesses and extend the shelf life of perishable foods. It is an FDA-regulated food preservation method using gamma radiation. It's currently used on foods such as spices, pork, poultry, and some fruits and vegetables. The FDA is considering approval for red meats.

Research shows irradiation poses no concern to consumers. "Decades of research on the safety of food irradiation show no changes to the food that are different from any other type of heat processing," says April Mason, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service assistant director and a foods and nutrition specialist.

"It's really hard to process raw meat without getting some contamination on it, but if it's irradiated, the bacteria are killed," she says. "Irradiation is one more safety precaution. It's not in lieu of other safety precautions, such as proper cooking, but irradiation destroys the organism before it reaches the consumer."

Richard Linton, Purdue Extension specialist in food safety, says, "Cooking and irradiation are perhaps the only existing ways today to get rid of microorganisms on food."

An instance where irradiation would have been particularly helpful, Mason explains, was last spring when microbial organisms on strawberries and raspberries -- foods that often aren't cooked -- caused an outbreak of food-borne illness.

It also might have avoided the Hudson Foods recall of 25 million pounds of red meat, including hamburger patties, that may have been contaminated with E. coli , a microorganism that can cause illness and even death in those who consume it.

Linton says, "If I had a crystal ball that could predict the future, I'd say the Hudson hamburger incident may lead to consumer acceptance of irradiation in the next four or five years."

Mason agrees and adds: "Data show that consumers will accept food irradiation when they learn about it and taste irradiated food."

CONTACTS: Mason, (765) 494-8252; e-mail,

Linton, (765) 494-6481; e-mail,

Career options multiply for math majors

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- College graduates with a gift for numbers and a degree in mathematics are finding employment in some very high-profile fields.

"The largest single employer of mathematicians in the United States is the National Security Agency, where many work in the field of cryptology," says Mary Ann Penney, an academic adviser who works with junior and senior math students at Purdue University. "They are the people who design and analyze numerical codes used to transmit classified or sensitive information. It's a very exciting area of work."

But it's not the job most students are thinking about when deciding on a college major.

"The mathematics career most obvious to the general public is teaching," Penney says. "But we have many students who wind up working for large companies. Employers like math majors because they know the students can think and will approach problems and challenges in a logical manner. There is also a growing demand for mathematicians in the area of finance."

Among the major companies that recruited future math graduates on Purdue's West Lafayette campus last year were 3-M Co., Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, Microsoft Corp., Price Waterhouse IIP and Texas Instruments Systems Group. They were seeking operations research analysts, statisticians and inventory strategists. All branches of the armed forces also regularly look for job candidates with strong math skills for data analysis, submarine tracking and high-energy astrophysics programming.

Starting salaries for math graduates vary widely depending on the career they choose. For instance, those earning actuarial science degrees, which are granted jointly by the Purdue departments of mathematics and statistics, can expect starting salaries ranging from $29,000 to $45,000 a year.

"We had 100 percent placement of our actuarial science majors this past spring," Penney says. "Their initial compensation packages were comparable to the starting salaries for engineers."

Math majors who want to continue their education beyond an undergraduate degree find they have many choices, as well.

"A math degree is excellent preparation for graduate school in other disciplines such as computer science, physics, management, law or medicine," Penney says. "Purdue's program features lots of electives, so students frequently find they are able to add a second major or minor to their course of study. They end up with highly specialized skills, but they are also well-rounded. It makes them a good fit for the demands of the workplace."

CONTACT: Penney, (765) 494-1771; e-mail,

Compiled by Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Photo caption
Diane Windler, a 1985 graduate of Purdue's School of Civil Engineering, manages construction projects on campus and is in charge of the renovation of the university's $7 million golf complex. (Purdue News Service Photo by David Umberger)
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