Talking with … A wizard in the field of wirelessby abra cohen, j. staff
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Name: Andrea Goldsmith
City: Menlo Park
Position: Professor of electrical engineering at Stanford
Andrea Goldsmith: My dad was a Holocaust survivor and came over from Germany when he was 13 in 1938 or ’39. He worked his way through college and became a professor of mechanical engineering at U.C. Berkeley, where he spent his career. He was very affected growing up an orphan, and in Germany, during a very difficult time. My mom was born in New York City and made her way to California.
J.: Your father was an engineer and your mother was a cartoonist for “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” What type of work did you see yourself doing growing up?
AG: I didn’t have a grand plan. In college I was interested in everything: I traveled extensively in Europe and was interested in languages and political science. But my dad encouraged me to take engineering courses and I figured I should at least try it because it’s a good degree to have. I decided to major in it because I felt like anything I could do with a liberal arts degree, I could do with an engineering degree and it could open more doors. I never expected to end up an engineer, let alone a successful professor.
J.: Were there many women in engineering back in the day?
AG: There were very few women in engineering, math or science when I was in college, and there was a lot of subtle, and not so subtle, bias against women. I certainly was not encouraged in any way to pursue engineering. There was definitely a sense that we didn’t belong and weren’t smart enough or good enough to do it, and that [attitude] continues even today. At every stage of my career I encounter that kind of subtle bias.
J.: Your field is broadband and wireless communications. You have done extensive research, written five books and more than 250 papers, and founded two companies. Plus you were an assistant professor at Caltech before coming to Stanford in 1999. How did you get into the field?
AG: I decided after undergrad that I would work for a while and see what it was like to be an engineer. I was fortunate that I was working at a small company on really interesting topics in the communications area. After ending up back at Berkeley [for grad school], I had a wonderful adviser and was interested in wireless communication, which was just starting to get hot at the time [late ’80s and early ’90s].
J.: Did you have any female mentors along the way?
AG: Because there are so few women in the field, there’s a lack of role models and mentors. One of the turning points for me was after my first year at Berkeley — it didn’t go as well as I had hoped for and I was thinking that maybe I shouldn’t major in engineering. But I decided to give it one more semester. I had a female math teaching assistant, and that made a big difference. Seeing a woman at a higher level proved that women could do this. When you are in a classroom where there’s only one or two of you, it makes it more challenging.
J.: What can be done to shift that dynamic?
AG: Awareness helps. If you shine the spotlight on the lack of women, at least people start paying attention. And it’s not only “are we hiring women?” It’s also “are we promoting them?” and “are they in the senior ranks of companies?” Also, finding role models and mentors helps to create support networks so that women understand the challenges they are facing are not unique to them.
J.: What is your affiliation with Judaism?
AG: I didn’t grow up affiliated at all, and we didn’t practice Judaism at home. I knew I was Jewish, but didn’t know too much about it. In my 20s, I became more curious and wanted to learn more about it by going to services and High Holy Days with friends. Then I married a Mexican Jew who grew up Conservative, and he knew a lot. We are now affiliated with Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, where my kids had their bar and bat mitzvah. We find being part of a Jewish community to be a rewarding aspect of our lives and our kids’ lives.
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