President Johnson and Dean Howard discuss leadership experiences, priorities

Posted: July 15, 2021

New video celebrates International Women in Engineering Day

In honor of International Women in Engineering Day, The Ohio State University College of Engineering premiered a video on June 23 featuring a conversation between President Kristina M. Johnson and Ayanna Howard, dean of the College of Engineering.

“Women Who Lead” includes a discussion on representation in STEM fields, Johnson and Howard’s own experiences as women engineers and how engineers lead complex organizations. Johnson and Howard are both accomplished academic leaders and entrepreneurs.

Johnson, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, founded and led several successful science and technology companies prior to serving as Ohio State’s 16th president.

Howard joined Ohio State in March. In addition to her academic and professional career, she is the founder of Zyrobotics, a company that develops mobile therapy and educational products for children with special needs.

“I think that the joy of engineering is taking a really big problem and cutting it down into small pieces, optimizing those pieces and then optimizing the whole,” Johnson said. “Bill Wolf, who you know is the former president of the National Academy of Engineering, said, ‘Engineering is design under constraint.’ And we all live our lives under constraint. So why not figure out how to do it artfully?”

Johnson said one of her priorities is to focus on entrepreneurship. In her February State of the University address, she announced an annual competition for students to be selected as Buckeye entrepreneurs and awarded $50,000 to work on their new ventures for a year. 

Howard said she wants to make sure the College of Engineering’s curriculum reflects the education and skills needed in the modern world.

Johnson and Howard were asked how to encourage young women to consider engineering. Both shared similar stories about the power of parental influence.

“My dad gave me a telegraph set when I was about 7. Then we set it up and we talked to each other, tapped out from room to room,” Johnson said. “You can do it at a very early age.”

“My dad bought a soldering set for me in the third grade. So it was the same kind of thing,” Howard said. “I think it’s exposure. It’s about bringing things in and just putting it in front of young kids and just saying, ‘Hey, here it is,’ and working it with them and encouraging them.”

President Kristina M. Johnson, alumna Lisa Burggraf McCauley and Dean Ayanna Howard chat in Thompson Library.
Lisa Burggraf McCauley ’79 (center) moderated the discussion between President Kristina M. Johnson (left) and Dean Ayanna Howard (right).

While discussing how to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM careers, Johnson highlighted the university’s RAISE (race, inclusion and social equity) initiative, which will invest in hiring new tenure-track faculty whose research and creative expression address social equity and racial disparities.

“I'm a really strong believer that it helps to see it to be it,” Johnson said.

Howard agreed, stating that while the trajectory of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering is positive, one of her priorities for the College of Engineering is increasing access for all students.

“A lot of times students don’t realize they want to be engineers until they get here and we do not yet have the structure to ensure that they can enroll and be successful, which I think is unfair,” Howard said. “It’s about access and exposure, and I know we can fix that here.”

The two leaders also emphasized the important role that Ohio State alumni can play in helping students succeed.

“Reach back and talk to the students and talk to the generation behind. Even today we have students and young professionals that are still fairly isolated,” Howard explained. “They may be the only one in their team or their class, so when you come back and say, ‘Look, it’s actually better on the other side,’ it inspires. That’s an easy thing, low-hanging fruit, but we do need a lot more of that.

Johnson agreed, stating that alumni can help students see the connection between their rigorous engineering curriculum and the opportunities they will have after graduation.

“Sometimes it can be as simple as a word of encouragement at the right time or a lot of words reaching in and explaining,” she said.

One important aspect of leadership is self-care. Johnson and Howard explained how they both manage to balance leadership responsibilities with personal well-being.

Johnson said she looks forward to getting back on a golf course and would like to share the course with other women leaders.

“I have this fun idea of getting women out onto the golf course, women leaders,” she said. “I think that that would be a fun thing to do.”

For Howard, exercise and diet are priorities.

“I still exercise, through dance and hiking,” she said. “I’m also thinking about how to eat better because whatever goes in, if it’s not good, it really will ruin your mental state, your sleep state and things like that.”

extended version of article by Chris Booker, Ohio State News

Categories: CollegeAlumni