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Women in Engineering: An Interview With Yan Wan

Written by: The Wiley Network / Kelly Kerridge
Published on: Feb 26, 2020

Yan Wan


It’s no secret: Engineering is not just a man’s world. Perceptions – along with demographics - are shifting, and Wiley are proudly part of the movement to raise the profile of women in engineering, to inspire future generations.

Here, we celebrate engineering researchers in a collection of interviews with authors, editors, editorial board members, and society contacts. In this piece, we meet Yan Wan, Associate Editor for Advanced Control for Applications.

Q. Name, job title & area of research/work?

A. Yan Wan, Associate Professor with Electrical Engineering, University of Texas at Arlington.

My research interests lie in the modeling, evaluation, and control of large-scale dynamical networks, cyber-physical system, stochastic networks, decentralized control, learning control, networking, uncertainty analysis, algebraic graph theory, and their applications to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) networking, UAV traffic management, epidemic spread, complex information networks, and air traffic management.

Q. How or why did you choose Engineering as a career path/area of study?

A. It was a long path that naturally led me to engineering. While I was in elementary school, I was good at math. But I often heard sayings such as “girls will not do good math when they go to middle school”. I doubted about it. Luckily, my dad, an engineer, was very support of me in every dream that I pursue. Watching him doing engineering work was also one of the favorites in my childhood. He also spent a lot of time with me outside work, playing the-go game, running, and discussing fun math problems.

Later when I went to middle school, I was glad to find out that what people said was indeed not true---my math grade did not drop. At that time, when the saying was changed to “girls will not do good math at high school”, I started to laugh about that.

I noticed my interest in Engineering in middle school when we started to learn Physics. I was totally attracted by the succinct math there that beautifully captures the laws of the physical world: how things move, why things float, and what electricity is. Later, at the time to choose the major for college, electrical engineering became naturally the first choice, because of its roots in Physics.

Q. What inspires you about Engineering?

A. Engineering inspires me with its way to think---the abstraction. The physical world is so complicated, but engineering provides theories and approaches that capture the intrinsic core properties and relationships. Building on these abstracted problems, we are then able to analyze, predict, and modify such systems, to make them function better, and in the end to benefit people and society.

Q. What challenges do women face in the Engineering professions/academia?

A. First challenge is that you need to stay strong, trust yourself, and ignore those who label you with something just because you are a female. Second challenge comes to the balance of work and family. Third challenge is to speak up when you are treated unfairly because of your gender. We are not speaking up just for ourselves, but for the future of our next generation girl engineers. 

Q. What is the ratio of female to male in your workplace/faculty?

A. The ratio is about 1/8.

Q. What is the most exciting thing about your job?

A. I get thrilled when the research work leads to new discoveries. A great thing about this job is the freedom to explore any research subject that you are interested in. This job also excites me with the opportunities to work with many great people. I was able to work closely with firefighters in the past five years, thanks to one of my projects on using UAVs to provide on-demand emergency communication. I feel so proud to work with these selfless professionals and contribute with the technology that can make their work more effective.

Q. What does a typical day in your job involve?

A. A day usually starts early. I begin the morning with solving problems that is the most urgent with deadlines. At around 8:00, I come to school to meet with my students. There are then various research projects and service items to address. After lunch, I start to prepare the lectures to give in the afternoon. After kids go to bed, it is the quite time to work on anything that requires deeper thinking. 

Q. What kind of impact would bring you great satisfaction in your work?

A. What keeps me going forward in this work is to grow students to become qualified engineers. Half of my Ph.D. students are girls who are very successful or are becoming successful engineers. Some became professors. I love my job because I can support them and help them get closer to their dreams. This is the impact that brought me the greatest satisfaction in my work.  

Q. What are your hopes for the future of Engineering?

A. I hope that in the future, the Engineering field can be more supportive and encouraging. I noticed the girls who were with me in engineering left the field one by one for various reasons. You do feel lonely when the meeting room has less and less women when you go further. On the other hand, I attended the Grace Hopper conference this year for a panel invitation from my Mathworks colleagues. It was a thrilling experience to see over 20,000 female technology participants there. I was refreshed and reenergized to see that all our efforts are showing impacts. We are role models of our next generation girls, and I hope in the future engineering, our girls can have a lot of fun, instead of worrying about various issues that still bother us, such as gender unfairness, harassment, and academic bully of various sorts.  

Q. What would you say to girls in school/college who may be considering Engineering as  a career choice/study option?

A. I would like to say to them that we are now fortunate enough to have the freedom to choose engineering as a career, thanks to the great efforts of the women pioneers, such as Grace Hopper. If engineering is your love, feel free to choose it and you do not need to listen to others who think girls cannot do engineering. You are smart, strong, with a good heart, and hence you have the power to shape the future of engineering to become a more encouraging and supporting field.