Women sensing their work roles in electrical engineering

Jen Gilburg is senior director of strategy for sensor maker TE Connectivity. (Hamblen)

Women make up just 10% to 20% of the engineering workforce, but there are still plenty of industrious female electrical engineers and researchers.

At Sensors Expo ‘19 in San Jose, women in engineering made a strong showing, even if their numbers were dwarfed by the percentage of men on the show floor and in conference sessions.

A group called Women in Sensors Engineering (WISE) presented a wide-ranging panel that included engineers from Shell, Intel and Facebook who encouraged college women to enter and stick with the profession.

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Elsewhere, women engineers and researchers spoke on technical panels and delivered talks on a broad range of topics involving MEMS and even stretchable, wearable fabrics containing tiny sensors. Allison Barto, senior program manager for Ball Aerospace, delivered a keynote attended by thousands of engineers on the building of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

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Berkeley research Hnin Yin Nyein described a “wearable sweat sensor patch” under development to a overly warm conference room crowded with men.

Jen Gilburg, senior director of strategy for sensor solutions at TE Connectivity, made an impassioned plea for choosing the right sensor to meet the needs of industrial IoT. “You don’t just slap a sensor on things,” she said, noting that sensors for temperature, pressure and humidity may themselves be susceptible to temperature and pressure extremes, which could affect their durability and performance.

“You can’t talk about big data without sensors,” Gilberg added. While her point might be understood by engineers, it became obvious at Sensors ’19 that much of the data driving IoT and taking up space in the cloud has been and will be generated by millions of sensors.

At its booth, TE displayed literally hundreds of its embedded and discrete sensors, too many to count. Nearly every other booth also had hundreds of sensors on display, almost like candy in a candy store to the expo engineers. When asked how many sensors TE makes, a booth spokesman blurted out, “in the thousands.”  

A big focus of TE is on sensors for medical, industrial, fitness and auto. Revenues were $14 billion in 2018. Gilburg came to TE after a career at Intel.

In a brief interview, Gilburg said her perspective on IoT of late is that perhaps too much of the focus is on the analytics of data. “There’s not been a broader discussion of what the analytics are running on,” she said. “People tend to think sensors are easy.”

When companies implement IoT, they also need to analyze whether the sensors themselves need to be ruggedized and if they fit the application. Sensors need to be more than JBW, or “just barely works,” she said.

Sensors ’19 also attracted a raft of college students, many of them young women. Allie Hunsinger, an engineering undergrad at University of California, Santa Cruz, visited Sensors Expo for the first time.

Hunsinger is working with a group of students doing research on cell detection using sensors. “I thought I might pick up some ideas,” she said of her visit.

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