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The making of a 'lifetime mentor award' winner

By Cathy Cockrell

One of UC Berkeley’s own, Alice Agogino, will be in Boston Feb. 15 to accept the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The mechanical engineering professor, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1984, is being honored for tireless efforts to significantly increase the number of female, African-American and Hispanic doctorates in her field.

Alice Agogino

Alice Agogino with a cool and “on-the-go” computer-engineer Barbie she helped design. (NewsCenter photo)

Over the course of her career, Agogino has mentored more than 50 graduate students and an estimated 800 undergraduate researchers, many of them underrepresented minorities, as well as launching and supporting numerous collective efforts designed to attract and retain diverse scholars to science and engineering fields.

The NewsCenter caught up with Agogino recently at her office in Sutardja Dai Hall, to talk about personal influences, her thoughts on mentoring and her vision for the future of engineering.

Q.  Who were your own early mentors?

A. My parents were great mentors. They were both college professors: my father in anthropology, my mother in physics. My father ran a graduate program. What I learned from him was appreciating the talent in a diverse set of people. And sharing the passion and driving the passion; he could lecture and everyone would cry. Putting a passion and energy into a subject, and mentoring students to share that passion – I think I learned that from him.

Q.  What about your mom?

A. She was pregnant with me when she was a doctoral student in physics, in the 1950s; the ’50s were a different world. She felt she couldn’t bring me to Physical Society meetings. It was hard enough to be a woman physicist in those years, let alone a woman physicist with a kid.

But in anthropology it was no problem. So my father took me everywhere. I went to all his professional-society meetings; I was at every single archaeological dig he ever worked at – in  New Mexico, Arizona, the Rocky Mountains, the East Coast. He used to tell his graduate students that I had more field experience than any of them.

Q.  At what age did you starting going on digs?

A. My dad talked about me rolling out of the sleeping bag at Sandia Cave near Bernalillo, New Mexico and finding me in the snow, when I was 6 months old. I’m not sure that’s an example of good mentoring, but apparently he started taking me with him that early.

What I learned about mentoring from my mother was an appreciation for diversity in science and engineering. She did a lot of work with the New Mexico Network of Women in Science and Engineering and the Expanding Horizon Workshops, as examples – working to increase the diversity of people who go into science or engineering. And also a sense of social justice and caring about people  –  really appreciating the value in everybody. I learned that from her.

Q.  Growing up, were you conscious that she faced challenges as a female physicist?

A. We had a complicated relationship. For many years she denied that she was ever discriminated against. Yet I remember my mother trying to hold both my hand and my sister’s hand, in the snow, climbing up to the physics building at the University of Wyoming, where both my parents were teaching. She was also carrying some books. I remember her asking a man to open the door for her, and him looking at her and saying “You’re liberated now; you can open your own door.” I was 8 years old maybe. It really struck me.

At one point, after doing a postdoc at MIT, she headed a team at an aerospace company, using finite-element analysis to determine stress and strain in airplanes. Her team of engineers, men, who mostly had bachelor’s degrees, got paid more than she did, and she didn’t think that was discrimination. I would have arguments with her about it, as a teenager. She would say “No, everybody appreciates good work.” At some point in her life, though, she realized she really was discriminated against. But I think that earlier she had to deny it to survive.

Q.  What were your interests in high school?

A. Social justice. I grew up in a very conservative New Mexico town near the Texas border. I had a friend who was African American and I was told not to bring him to the local church; I had people on the street point a shotgun at me and curse me out.

Those experiences gave me an appreciation of social justice, and made me realize how important it was in higher education. As a faculty member, you never know what your students’ experiences have been; they might have had an experience like that when they were younger. Students’ life experiences make them who they are. That has to be part of mentoring, even in a technology field.

Q.  Do you find that early experiences shape your students’ academic interests and what they want to do with their lives?

A. Yes. So, many of my students have not been traditional engineering students. One of my Ph.D. students, for instance, wanted to work on maternal health in Mongolia. He felt that maternal health in Mongolia could be greatly improved with a human-centered design approach.

Q.  Would you elaborate?

A. To design anything for people, not for machines or robots, means understanding where people are coming from, what their needs are and what form of technology is going to be appropriate and work for them in their community. In that instance, he went in thinking he was going to have a high-tech solution, and ended up with a low-tech solution, because that was the appropriate technology for the region.