Judy Lee is co-host of Design Squad Nation, a national PBS television series that fosters the spirit and practice of youth innovation and engineering. When the vivacious industrial designer and mechanical engineer is not on camera, she can be found working on new products and technologies at innovation firm IDEO in Palo Alto, Calif. Judy has designed a wide array of things, from children’s toys and medical devices, to airport security systems and clean water solutions for Kenya. We had the pleasure of meeting her during the filming of Design Squad Nation and invited her to this month’s installment of Five Questions With …
ID: What got you interested in engineering as a career?
JL: My dad, a civil engineer, was my first introduction to engineering. I was the type of kid who built forts in the woods, played in the creek and loved to take an object apart and discover how the insides worked. Sometimes the object would make its way back to working condition, but most of the time it never worked ever again. Luckily my parents supported my curiosity.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what engineering meant through most of high school and college. I was unclear what an engineer did on a day-to-day basis, but I understood that you needed to have a strong foundation in math and science, which I was pretty good at. I decided to go through with engineering since it was the best fit for my personality at the time. I was good at thinking through analytical problems and loved getting my hands dirty.
Engineering turned out to be a great start for my career as a product designer. I later went back to get a masters in industrial design to balance my desire for creativity. As a product designer, I’m lucky to use a combination of skills from mechanical engineering (left side of the brain) and industrial design (right side of the brain).
ID: What was one of your more challenging projects and why was it so tough?
JL: As a product designer it’s my job to make stuff. There’s a lot of stuff out in the world. In fact, too much stuff. What I constantly struggle with is balancing our needs and desires of stuff while keeping in mind an object’s end of life.
Do we really need more cell phones, computers, clothes, etc. in the world? We all have a desire to own the next best thing, but we rarely stop to think about what happens to all this stuff when we throw it out. It’s sad to think that something I may have designed is attributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash vortex in the Pacific Ocean that is the twice size of the continental United States.
(The artist) Chris Jordan does an amazing job of capturing the unconscious behaviors of American consumerism by depicting mass consumption and waste. His work really hits home for me. One great example is called Plastic Bottles. The image looks like white noise you would see on a TV. As you zoom in the photo, you realize the image is actually made up of two million disposable plastic bottles, the amount used every five minutes in the United States. That’s crazy.
I don’t have an answer to this yet, but I think being aware of the bigger problem – the amount of waste we produce – helps me make better choices as I’m designing.
ID: What advice would you have for someone interested in a career in engineering?
JL: 1) Keep up with math and science! These are the building clocks for engineering.
2) Talk to as many different types of engineers as possible. Or better yet, shadow one for a day. There are many different fields of engineering to pursue. Take the time to discover which one suits you best.
3) Get your hands dirty. Get out of the theoretical and get into the tangible. It’s a great way to apply what you’ve learned into real-world practice.
ID: Why do you think more girls and women don’t pursue engineering?
JL: That’s a good question. Some say it’s because of lack of interest in math and science, but when I was in school there were more girls in both classes. Not only that, the girls tended to have better grades than the boys. So I don’t think that’s it.
For my generation, I think it had something to do with the things we liked to do and were encouraged to do growing up. If you look at all the toys that were available, most of them are gender specific.
Toys for boys included fake tools like plastic hammers and drills that encouraged building skills, while toys for girls included kitchen sets and dolls that encouraged nurturing skills. They were typically identified in ‘appropriate’ colors, where pastels and shades of pink were girlie, and primary colors (blue, green and red) were for boys.
While this is a generalization, I think industry had a large role influencing parents subconsciously as to what was appropriate for their kids to play with. This is still true today. Why do toys even need to be gender appropriate? Kids learn best through playing. Playing is the perfect chance for kids to experience first-hand what is happening and to analyze the world around them.
My first job out of college was at a very typical engineering environment where most of the engineers where older white males. I remember how much of a challenge it was to work with a few of them. I called these guys the ‘good ole boys.’ These were the men who thought because you were young and female, you were clearly not a competent engineer.
I’d like to think that in the 21st century these are problems of the past. The reality is that the ignorance is still out there. It’s sad that women have to work twice as hard when working with the ‘good ole boys’ to get their voices heard.
The good news is that the number of ‘good ole boys’ is decreasing with each generation. Part of the reason is due to the rise in number of women with powerful positions, not just in engineering but in politics, media and business. We need more good role models for girls to learn from. I’m ready for the day when all the ‘good ole boys’ are a thing of the past.
ID: What’s your favorite invention?
JL: My favorite invention is the camera. Cameras capture a distinct moment in time. Looking back at old photos can take me back to a specific time or place to remind me of family, friends, memories and feelings all at the same time. That’s a pretty powerful tool.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the January 2011 print edition.
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