In the spring of 2019, Lauren Hummel (SEAS ‘20) and a few friends joined forces to create Women in MEAM (WiM), a group dedicated to fostering a sense of community and engagement among the female members of Penn’s Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics department.
“There’s times when, as a woman in a male–dominated field, you feel looked over or tread on. I’ve had that experience. Almost anybody who’s been in a STEM field has had that experience,” she remarks. The mechanical engineer hopes that through WiM, female engineering students can gain the precious opportunity to commiserate about their struggles to an audience that understands: “We’re just trying to be heard, same as everybody else.”
Lauren feels an abundance of love and appreciation for the other members of WiM. “All of us are super dope,” the Philadelphia resident proclaims. “Avery climbs and goes to national parks all over, Lucy is also an artist, Lauren Glenn goes hiking all the time and she’s going to RISD for design doing amazing things.” Dustyn Roberts, a new MEAM lecturer, also gets a shout–out in the SEAS graduate’s female engineering wall of fame: “She’s one of the few women in the mechanical engineering faculty. … She started her own company, she’s worked for start–ups, she’s worked for big companies, she’s now teaching.”
In the class of 2020, Lauren's graduating class, only 24% of MEAM undergraduates were female. “We couldn’t even get a whole quarter!” she exclaims.
The passionate engineer explains that this massive gender disparity in engineering starts extremely early as “a lot of young girls are pushed out of science and math since those are ‘boy subjects.'" She attributes this 'pushing' in large part to the lack of opportunities to explore the STEM field and disproportionate encouragement by teachers in early schooling.
She points to the origins of her love for mechanical engineering as an example. In her sophomore year of high school, she joined the robotics team where she was one of two girls.
"It was me, my friend Michelle, and this smattering of like fifteen other guys,” she reflects.
Entering this unfamiliar landscape of robotics jargon and tools and machines, she spent the first few days completely lost. With the help of her teammates, she quickly learned how to navigate the world of robotics and even earned the opportunity to be the driver of the team’s robot, much to her surprise and delight. Seeing hours of her work pay off when the robot entered the competition arena to fight its competitors made an enormous impression on Lauren.
“The robot began as a box of wheels and nets and aluminum, and we transformed it into this thing that’s actually competing and doing things. I was like, ‘I love this. This is what I’m going to do in life, I’m going to do this forever!’”
The rest is history. For Christmas, the roboticist’s family gifted her a pair of calipers (a tool used to measure object dimensions), because that’s what she really wanted. On weekdays, she often stayed at school until 9 p.m., just to work on the robot. Engineering was her complete and utter passion—and then she came to Penn.
In college, Lauren struggled to find her place: “My advisor told me, ‘You’re not doing too hot. Maybe engineering isn’t for you, have you considered something else?’ This was my freshman year, my first semester, and I was gutted that he was encouraging me to consider doing something else.”
But Lauren persevered. She found a new advisor and kept working. When sophomore year rolled around, she began to take MEAM classes with hands–on labs and reignited her passion for the field.
The rest of her time at Penn, she describes as the typical engineering student experience: “We tried some things, dabbled in some things, did some random side projects, and CAD like crazy maniacs.” When the senior design project came around, Lauren teamed up with her closest friends to build a roof inspection robot.
After graduating in May, Lauren has spent the last few months with her family in Philadelphia, waiting to start her new job with the U.S. Navy. In the meantime, she’s practiced her hand at the art of baking in quarantine. “I literally have baked five loaves of bread in the past week,” she laughs. “Baking is a very precise art, it’s very specific and measured like mechanical engineering—striving for some type of near perfection. You start with a recipe on a piece of paper and then it’s a loaf of bread or a batch of cookies or a cake.”
The process of creation is captivating. “With mechanical, it’s hands–on like, ‘Build this thing, take it from an idea on a sketchpad to a 3D drawing to a physical object I can touch and hold.’ That follow–through, from idea conception to full realization—that’s what did it for me.”
The avid baker makes a strong case for the creativity and magnificence of mechanical engineering. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that “a lot of people generally leave mechanical engineering after they come to Penn. If it takes a network of people who want to spend time with you and share their stories with you [to get you to stay], that’s incredible and I hope that’s what Women in MEAM can do.”
Lauren wants all women in engineering, regardless of their level of expertise, to know that they have a place to go. “I don’t think I’ve met any woman in STEM that has not wanted to help other women, and I think that shows something. Women in the community want other women to thrive and succeed. They're paving the way, and we are given room to follow them and start our own paths off of theirs.”