By Cody Romano
August 30, 2011
Growing up in Santiago, Chile, during the late 1980s, System Design and Management (SDM) student Erika Kutscher watched her father, an engineer, wield a wrench over the parts of broken toasters, microwaves, and refrigerators. "He used to fix everything," Kutscher says. "I loved the way he could pick things apart and experiment until he discovered the problem."
Throughout her adolescence, the young woman became increasingly eager to solve household problems by popping open her father’s toolbox. She was delighted to receive, as a present for her 17th birthday, an instrument that measured voltage. "There was no question about it," says Kutscher. "I knew then that I wanted to study electrical engineering."
In addition to studying the craft at Pontificia Universidad Católica, one of Chile’s premiere universities, Kutscher, who is not only an electrical engineer but an industrial engineer as well, served as a teaching assistant for several classes. Upon graduating in 2007, she joined LAN Airlines as an engineer, attracted to the company by the opportunity to tackle the strategic challenges of one of South America’s largest airline alliances and by her passion for planes and travel.
Kutscher considers her story — that of a young woman becoming a globetrotting engineer — to be somewhat uncommon in Chile, despite significant advances toward equal opportunities for women. Yet cultural barriers, however pervasive they may be, have not affected Kutscher’s family. Taking after their father, four of her six sisters have pursued careers in engineering. One of them builds hydroelectric plants in France; another works as an environmental engineer in Chile.
"A cultural attitude in Chile sometimes discourages women from becoming engineers, but the culture is shifting as more women enter the field," says Kutscher. "Right now, at MIT, I see that female engineers are widely accepted, and I hope that within the next five or ten years, more women in Chile will have an opportunity to enroll in programs like SDM."
Part of what inspired Kutscher to apply to MIT was a business trip she made to the Institute while working as a business strategy analyst for route economics at LAN Airlines — a multinational company that coordinates flights among over 10 South American countries. What amazed the engineer most about her first campus visit (apart from the amount of powdery snow covering the icy Charles River) were MIT’s state-of-the-art labs and the savvy with which its researchers tackled LAN’s logistical issues.
While at LAN Airlines, Kutscher says that each assignment required her to practice systems thinking. For example, in working to optimize the company’s Chilean flight route, she needed to think of airports as units in a complex transportation system. She was part of the team that implemented great changes in the Chilean flight route, like unifying the fleet, opening more night flights with cheaper fares, which attracted new passengers, added more premium cargo and increased aircraft utilization.
The natural-born engineer, who developed strategic management skills through her work as a corporate analyst, chose SDM because its curriculum allowed her to improve upon both talents in engineering and management. Her thesis, a work still in progress, will explore risk and uncertainty in decision-making.
Earlier this month, Kutscher and several of her female classmates convened to brainstorm ways of piquing women’s interest in SDM — specifically the opportunity to study engineering and management. The discussion was hosted by Women in SDM (WiSDM), a group dedicated to recruiting more women into SDM and in supporting matriculated students and SDM alumnae in work-life balance.
Although her parents and some of her sisters are thousands of miles away, she connects with them by phone, Skype, and email several times each week.
When asked what kind of topics a family of engineers discusses around the dinner table, Kutscher describes the conversation between her and her sisters as typical. "Sometimes we talk about guys and clothes," she said, laughing, "…other times, we talk about engineering."
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography