Louise Bordelon, PhD, pedals through the mountains while researching cultural landscapes. Angela Morrison not only crushes her PhD but also acts as the president of the CU Denver chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics. And let us not forget Julee Herdt, who is using her knowledge of environmentalism and architecture to create an awe-inspiring sustainable home.
What do all these women have in common? As part of CU Denver’s community, these powerhouse women are pushing boundaries, breaking down barriers, and showing the world that nothing is impossible. And they are lighting the way for future generations.
While 54% of CU Denver’s undergraduate population identifies as female, women are still underrepresented in certain majors. Ayah Baydoun, a senior mechanical engineering major, knows this all too well. In her major-specific courses, she is often the only woman in the room. But she refuses to let gender hold her back and is leading the charge for a more inclusive and equitable future. We sat down with eight women at CU Denver, including Baydoun, to uncover the secrets of their success.
Ayah Baydoun, Senior, Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering, Design, & Computing (CEDC): Baydoun is gearing up to graduate this spring after a journey that started in community college. She transferred to CU Denver to pursue her passion for engineering. Although she has been interested in the car industry since she was a young girl, Baydoun will be pursuing a career in aerospace doing satellite work.
- Why engineering?: Growing up in Detroit, where her dad worked at Ford Motor Company, Baydoun said it was likely that she’d pursue mechanical engineering. But it was another person who inspired her to do so. “My mom is the reason I knew more about engineering. She always pushed me to do what I love.”
- On being a woman in engineering: It is no secret that women are still underrepresented in the mechanical engineering field, something Baydoun knows all too well. Thankfully, Baydoun said, CU Denver has programs for women in engineering, including a variety of clubs that bring like-minded students together. In fact, it is through these clubs—the Society of Women Engineers and the Muslim Student Association—that she met some of her closest friends.
- Her advice to women entering the field of engineering: “For young girls to keep doing what they love and to get into their robotics projects, keep drawing, and do what you can with LEGOs. Build and design things by yourself and follow your dreams.”
Louise Bordelon, PhD, Assistant Professor and Department Chair, College of Architecture & Planning (CAP): Growing up in South Africa, Bordelon was no stranger to the great outdoors. She spent her childhood outdoors, mostly barefoot, interacting with nature. As she got older, her passion only grew stronger. During her graduate program at Louisiana State University, she became a collegiate athlete and even started racing bikes. She went on to earn a PhD in geography and anthropology and traded her street bike for a mountain bike. That is when things really started to click. She realized she could combine her love for mountain biking with her expertise in studying landscapes.
- Why landscape architecture?: For Bordelon, it all came down to designing spaces for people. She wanted to create spaces that would enhance people’s experience of place, the way the outdoors can. As she puts it, “everyone gets to experience outside but not that many people get to experience buildings.”
- On being a woman in landscape architecture: “I started an eight-by-eight series last year. And we invited eight women leaders in the field of landscape architecture to come and talk about their experiences and their journeys, to help our majority female student body see that it is possible to be a leader in the field.”
- Her advice to women entering the field of landscape architecture: “Seek out and accept and seek out all the help you can get.”
Julee Herdt, Professor, CAP: Herdt grew up in the South, and, like Bordelon, spent a lot of time outdoors developing a deep respect for the environment. At CU Denver, she teaches courses in environmental design. Students in her courses develop environmental building materials and find ways to advance that work. They design buildings and furniture made from recycled materials and salvaged resources. She shows them how to help the environment and nurture the planet by bringing those goals into the work they do. In addition to her job as a professor, Herdt is the founder and CEO of BioSIPs Inc., a company that produces insulated panels from waste materials, which she started with two patents generated from her work while at CU Denver.
- Why architecture?: The magic of construction and bringing materials together drove Herdt toward a career in architecture. She always had a curiosity about buildings and, especially, building materials. As a child, she would find the perfect tree or place, drag her tools and materials out to the spot, and design a secret hideaway.
- On being a woman in architecture: With drive, resilience, and the ability to push through obstacles, Herdt has been able to succeed in a male-
- Her advice to women entering the field of architecture: “Learn what your passion is, because your passion is what will drive you forward. Knowing who you are is critical. Bring that into your professional career development, and it will guide you and it will open doors.”
Chelsea Magin, Assistant Professor, Department of Bioengineering, CEDC: Magin earned her doctorate degree from the University of Florida. Today, her laboratory engineers 3D models of lung tissue by inventing biomaterials that can mimic the softness of lung tissue and then growing human cells inside those 3D models.
- Why engineering?: “I spent nearly 40 years of my life struggling with undiagnosed asthma. I had no idea that stopping at the top of a hike and wheezing to catch my breath was not normal. Last year, I was diagnosed with asthma and realized I was suffering from a chronic lung condition. When people have chronic lung diseases, they notice every single breath they take, and that’s about eight million breaths every year. That’s why I’m passionate about using engineered models to try to study and come up with new treatments for chronic lung diseases.”
- On being a woman in engineering: Magin thinks women are still underrepresented in engineering, but she can see progress being made. Last year’s CU Denver biomedical engineering graduating class broke a record with 52% of graduates identifying as female, so she is optimistic about the continued growth of women in engineering.
- Her advice to women entering the field of engineering: “Follow your passion. When you’re really passionate about something it’s easy to wake up the next day and do it over again, even if your experiment failed the night before. You can be more resilient when it’s something that you really, really care about.”
Angela Morrison, PhD student, Department of Math & Statistical Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS): After getting her master’s in industrial math at Michigan State University, Morrison landed a job as a software developer at an insurance company. A year or so into that job, she realized she missed learning and decided to apply to several PhD programs, six of which were in Colorado. She picked CU Denver because it created opportunities to form a community with other students at the height of the COVID pandemic.
- Why mathematics?: During her time as an undergraduate student, Morrison took a coding course that she thought she would do terribly in. Instead, she loved it and ended up minoring in computer science. She knew she did not want to specialize in computer science, though, and after a math modeling class, she realized she could bring those two educational paths together. Now, she uses mathematical models and algorithms to solve real-world problems.
- On being a woman in STEM: Morrison says some days it is challenging and other days it is fun and exciting. She was the only woman in her master’s cohort, where her advisor deterred her from academia. However, since coming to CU Denver, Morrison has found a supportive community that cares about each other and works to help everyone in the program succeed.
- Her advice to women entering STEM: “Have confidence in yourself, send out the application, and do not be afraid. It might feel like someone else is more qualified or deserving than you but know you can do it.”
Sage Sigler, Master’s student, The Department of Math & Statistics, CLAS: Sigler got a Bachelor of Science in pure math and a minor in art. She knew she liked the applied side of math more and decided to get a master’s in statistics after her undergraduate degree, which brought her to CU Denver. She is in her fourth semester of the program and will graduate this spring. Sigler is doing research with Audrey Hendricks, Associate Professor, Biomedical Informatics, SOM and Math and Statistical Sciences, CLAS.
- Why mathematics?: Math always stood out to Sigler as being practiced and applicable. It can be used in any field and allows her to explore these options. “At CU Denver, I have been inspired by Dr. Hendrick’s research team,” Sigler said. “There are a lot of women, which is encouraging. It is great seeing so many women work on amazing, interesting projects. They are so confident in themselves, and I like seeing how far they have come. I hope to put that same example forward to other people that come into the research group.”
- On being a woman in STEM: Throughout her life, Sigler has noticed a prominent lack of female math professors, even in middle and high school. Because of this, she wants to be a mentor for other women who are pursuing math, so they can have support and guidance from someone who looks like them.
- Her advice to women entering STEM: “Do not give up and do not be afraid to speak up and ask questions. A lot of times people will have the same question you ask, so put yourself out there and speak up for yourself. You deserve the same chance everyone else has.”
Kayley Smiley, PhD student, The Department of Math & Statistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Smiley has a bachelor’s in both mathematics and statistics from California Baptist University (CBU), where she was the president of the Mathematics Club and worked as a Teaching Assistant. In addition to working toward a PhD in Applied Mathematics at CU Denver, Smiley is pursuing a master’s in statistics and teaches an introductory statistics course.
- Why mathematics?: Smiley has loved math since childhood but did not know what that meant for her future career. Even after completing her undergraduate degree at CBU, she still was not sure what she was going to do. Then she landed an internship at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Camp Pendleton Naval Base in Fallbrook, Calif., and saw how mathematics could be used to help other people. Being able to combine her passions for math and helping others pushed her towards applied math.
- Being a woman in STEM: Smiley said it can be difficult when you are outnumbered. “It can feel discouraging but can be exciting. We are in a time where it is important to encourage women to pursue their dreams in STEM.”
- Her advice to women entering STEM: “Look for a community that is supportive.”
Brisa Peña, PhD, Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Bioengineering, CEDC: Dr. Peña, who also works as a bioengineer in CU Anschutz’s School of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, is a chemical engineer and a polymer and material scientist with specific training in cardiovascular and bioengineering research. She also has vast experience in the biophysical and biomechanical analysis of tissues and living cells using atomic force microscopy (AFM). Peña’s current and future research goals are committed to focus on sex as a biological variable to dissect mechanobiological mechanisms governing sex-related differences in heart failure. She is particularly interested to study the effect of mechanical stresses on sex-specific cardiac cells using engineered mechanical devices designed in her lab (provisional patent granted) and its application to further engineer precise sex-specific therapeutics for heart failure.
- Why engineering: When Peña was a young girl, a family friend told her she had the hands of a scientist and in that moment, she decided that is what she wanted to be. Her idea of a scientist was someone saving lives. After completing high school, she went to medical school, which is common in Mexico where you will go into a specialty program rather than attending a four-year institution. She soon realized medical school wasn’t a good fit for her passion for research. At that point, she enrolled in a chemical engineering program, which she loved.
- On being a woman in engineering: The field of bioengineering, from Peña’s perspective, is balanced when it comes to men and women. She loves what she does and has found support from the strong women around her. All her mentors are women and they have supported her not only through her education by helping her get into research programs in France and Spain, and through her personal struggles as well.
- Her advice to women entering the field of engineering: “Just keep doing what you want to do. [It] doesn’t matter if other people are not supporting you. That’s your dream.”