By Cody Romano
September 14, 2011
Carina Ting, SDM ’11, has improved a variety of systems — from cars to submarines to bulletproof vests — throughout her 20-year career. Yet one of her greatest challenges to date, as a mechanical engineer and as a mother, has been managing the complex system within her own household.
Ting’s daughters, who are 9 and 13 years old, might be considered primary stakeholders. Between their school events, trips to the mall, and play dates at friends’ houses, logistics alone represents a daunting subsystem. Then there are varying levels of risk and uncertainty, from completing homework assignments to catching the school bus on time.
"It was stressful for me at times to stay in the office knowing that I had kids at home," says Ting, who returned to work as a senior scientist for the Cambridge Collaborative, an engineering research and development company, shortly after her first daughter was born. "Sometimes if there was a meeting that was dragging on at the end of the day, I had to excuse myself."
Even before she became a mother, though, Ting knew that engineering — a predominately male field — could present unique challenges for women. Her mother, an aeronautical engineer, had successfully sued the Navy for gender discrimination after it denied her access to parts of a ship that she needed to visit to complete a project. Ting’s mother also joined the Society of Women Engineers, an advocacy group, while she was in college.
Yet, despite her mother’s saga, Ting says that women’s issues remained a peripheral concern to her during the early days of her career. She earned her BS in mechanical engineering from MIT during the late 1980s, and then continued her studies with an MS from the University of Washington before joining Cambridge Acoustical Associates. As a professional engineer and researcher for the firm, Ting focused mainly on creating models that provided insights into objects’ design and structure.
"When some of my friends heard the word ‘Acoustical’ in the name of my company, they asked me for free concert tickets," says Ting, laughing. Actually, she worked in a small office with fellow MIT grads scribbling physics equations across chalkboards. During the final few years of the Cold War, the engineer and her team improved US submarines by examining how the ships responded to noise and vibration, key factors in remaining hidden from enemy sonar.
As Ting’s career progressed, she expanded her focus on modeling and vibration analysis to include various systems, from passenger cars to the US Navy’s advanced surface ships. Although she dealt with a broad range of systems, most of her projects had one thing in common: complexity. She describes some of them as "monster" simulations — that is, tests that involved so many parameters, they depended inevitably on some degree of chance.
Last fall, Ting began searching for graduate schools because she wanted to find better strategies for dealing with the unknown. In addition to learning more about probability and statistics, she wanted to understand how objects — land vehicles, satellites, bulletproof vests — belonged to broader social and economic systems. After considering a handful of top graduate programs, Ting applied to SDM because it was the only one that offered this comprehensive focus, while providing special resources for working mothers.
"In the early stages of my career, I was kind of a lone wolf," Ting says, "but now that I’m a little older and I have kids, I really appreciate the value of women getting together to address the challenges of balancing a family and a career in engineering."
For Ting and many of her female peers in MIT’s System Design and Management program, the Women in SDM (WiSDM) group provides a forum to tackle those challenges. They meet each term to discuss solutions, such as daycare programs or advanced online course material, that may afford working mothers enough flexibility to manage both their families and MIT’s rigorous coursework.
For her part, Ting has volunteered to help host networking and informational events for women interested in systems. "Since systems design is relatively new, compared to other branches of engineering," she says, "there isn’t the same buildup of residual prejudice or biases against women."
Therefore, she adds, women have a unique opportunity to architect the discipline itself, building an all-inclusive culture from the ground up.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography