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ECE Alumni Spotlight: Marilyn Carpenter

Marilyn CarpenterFrom her role as SureService Manager at Emerson Power & Water Solutions, Ohio State Electrical and Computer Engineering alumna Marilyn Carpenter ('79) took time for a Q&A session. She offers some insight into her career, advice to new students and discusses the challenges she faced as a female engineer entering the workforce in the 1970s. 

Are you from the Pittsburgh area? If not, where are you from?

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio about 1.5 miles from West Campus.

Why did you choose to atte­­nd Ohio State? What made you want to enroll in the electrical and computer engineering department?

Initially, I was thinking about studying and teaching mathematics. During my senior year of high school, I took a tour of Bell Labs, which really piqued my interest in engineering. After talking it over with my friends, I decided to move in this direction. I learned I could combine my aptitude for math with engineering by focusing on electrical engineering, which required more math than some of the other engineering departments.

What was the focus of your undergraduate degree? Did you conduct research?

My degree is in electrical engineering with a focus on electrical and electronics and I also took a few software programing classes. While I did not conduct research, I really enjoyed labs, particularly the semiconductor labs where we would build devices.

When did you start working at Emerson Automation Solutions, Power & Water? What made you want to take the offered position?

I accepted a position with my current company – Emerson Automation Solutions, Power & Water, then known as Westinghouse – after graduation in 1979. Initially, I worked one- month assignments in the Westinghouse Education program at several locations in Pennsylvania. This gave me a variety of experiences, as I still wasn’t sure what type of position I wanted. One summer during college I was able to work at Western Electric in Columbus, which exposed me to an engineering position in manufacturing that I found very interesting, however I still wasn’t sure what type of position I wanted. I worked at ISD (Industry Systems Division) in Pittsburgh and then at the Semiconductor Division in Youngwood, Pa. I went back to ISD in a Field Service engineer position, joining several other engineers at a customer site for a short assignment. I accepted the Field Service position and then had some additional training to learn specific skills related to starting up and commissioning computers and hardware for data acquisition systems.

What exactly do you do at Emerson?

At present, I manage a technical support group that provides assistance to customers who use Emerson’s automation and control systems to monitor critical equipment and processes at power generation or wastewater facilities. Because of the nature of these industries, it is critical to support customers quickly and accurately. I also support our marketing team and focus on employee development and training for our Customer Service organization. 

Does your current job relate to your undergraduate studies? If so, how?

In some ways, yes, in some ways, no. My undergraduate degree prepared me well to be an engineer, however there is no substitute for real-world experience. My current job involves technical problem solving for both hardware and software issues, though, of course, I’ve needed to learn other skills along the way.

What is your favorite part about working at Emerson? Or, what is your favorite part about being an engineer?

I get a lot of satisfaction leading a talented group of engineers who are all focused on supporting customers responsible for critical infrastructure in the U.S. and around the world. I also like working with young engineers and providing opportunities to help develop their expertise. I enjoy this so much that I volunteered for this role.

You were studying science in the 1970s as a young woman, what was that like? Are there differences from being a woman in science today than in the 70s or previous decades?

During my undergraduate years there were only a few women in engineering. I enjoyed getting to know them, even though as we progressed through the curriculum we were all in different classes, depending on our specialization. The first-year math and physics requirements were challenging and I felt like we all were all in the same boat … trying to learn, do well on tests and get through the courses so we could advance to the classes that were more engineering-specific. Lab exercises were very helpful to me. In terms of how far technology has changed over the years, I remember learning to use a slide ruler for one class. Later we were permitted to use a calculator. How times have changed in terms of technology!  

Professionally, there are also differences in being a female engineer today versus when I began my career. I did my best to present a professional appearance in a largely male-dominated environment. When going to a customer site on a work assignment, generally at a power plant or other industrial process facility, I wore a hard hat and often steel-toed boots, and I teamed these with somewhat tailored clothes with pockets – an interesting fashion statement to say the least! And because I had to get my hands dirty working with plant equipment like the rest of the team, I wore very little jewelry. Ladies’ restrooms were usually not located at the plant, but in the offices adjacent to the plant. For that reason, I would introduce myself to the women working in the office so they could point me in the right direction.

I would always prepare as best as I could before arriving at the customer’s plant, reviewing system layouts and control logic design, as well as any other issues that the customer was experiencing. When on site, I didn’t hesitate to ask questions of my colleagues to fully understand the project scope and technical details so I could plan my time and contribute to problem resolution. I often kept technical manuals in my car or hotel room and, after the work day, I would study them to prepare for the next day’s assignment. Every assignment I had and every job site I visited was a learning experience that helped prepare me for more challenging assignments.

Today, we take communication for granted – with our cell phones and the Internet, we can immediately connect with people anywhere in the world. Things were much different early on in my career. For example, I was sent to India to investigate some issues at a customer site. It was a five-hour drive from the site to a phone. There was no email access, or course – just a telex for emergencies. Because I couldn’t go back to ask my colleagues for their input, I needed to be sure I was well-prepared in advance to troubleshoot the issues myself.

In one of the most-interesting experiences of my career, I volunteered to lead the commissioning of the first power plant modernization project in Poland –

at Rybnik Power Station – just after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. This was a very exciting time and it was a long assignment – 6-7 months. There was a team of Polish and U.S. colleagues supporting this assignment, and there were severe financial penalties if we did not get the plant online on time. 

I was not only the lead engineer, but the only woman working on the commissioning project, so I had to maintain my professionalism at all times. The assignment was from initial system commissioning through full load operation and we worked together with other contractor teams at site. With our time zone six hours ahead, after supper I sometimes needed to confer by phone about resources, skills, materials needed, and provide schedule updates. We worked overtime to meet our schedule, and schedule permitting had an occasional day or weekend off. The power plant staff introduced me to a couple of women who spoke English working in the offices and we became good friends. There was also an English teacher there at times to teach English at the Power Station and local coal mines. I stayed close to the plant in a guest house and had a Polonez – a Polish motor vehicle – to drive while on the assignment.

I was proud of the work we accomplished and was very pleased to be invited back to the plant last December to celebrate 25 years of operation for the system we installed. After all that time, there had never been a loss of power production due to our control system.

What did you like about Ohio State/What was your favorite part about being a student there?

Ohio State gave me a great opportunity to meet many students with diverse backgrounds and interests. I was a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and my senior year I went on a study tour of Latin America with a group under Eldis Reed. Traveling outside the U.S. for the first time was an eye-opening experience – I saw firsthand different cultural and industrial areas. We visited Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala and Mayan ruins in Honduras. In Columbia and Ecuador, we stayed with different families and a van would pick us up each day for the planned activity. On a humorous note, there was a female mechanical engineering student who kept adjusting the toilets that would not flush during our trip – I was very impressed with her skill!

What advice would you give to current undergraduate students in the ECE department?

While in school, I remember struggling to complete some of the homework assignments. We would review the material in class and repeat the same process. This helped me develop planning and troubleshooting skills. This is important, because in the workplace, there is no answer in the back of the book. We can learn from every interaction.

I was thinking about what I could say to provide readers with a tool for their collegiate/ professional toolbox and this came to mind: We all have challenging times and need to relax and rest. In later years, I found meditation helpful to quiet my mind, improving my focus during the day and preparing me to face any challenges. There are many ways to meditate and one can start by focusing on your breath while resting.

My other piece of advice is related to communication: You must ask for what you want. In your early career, ask for that assignment or more responsibility, and demonstrate by your actions you are capable of doing it. Volunteer and suggest ways you can contribute that would be beneficial, follow through to completion and be willing to do the work needed to develop expertise. Use your voice, your influence as a consumer, and conduct yourself in a respectful manner to express what matters to you, as your sphere of influence is vast. You and your talents are greatly needed in this world, so please show up. 

Do you have any hobbies you like to do independently or with friends/family? 

I like to read books on many subjects – both fiction and non-fiction. I walk these days, rather than run. I enjoy practicing Tai Chi Chuan and have studied Alexander Technique, a movement education methodology. In fact, I am a teaching member of ATI.  I’ve studied Reiki, a Japanese alternative medicine practice and this year I began to study Seimei through the Seimei Foundation. I enjoy traveling to visit relatives and friends, and to see different parts of the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Story by ECE Student Public Relations Writer, Lydia Freudenberg