Bioengineering's female student majority is one-of-a-kind in UMD's engineering school.

By Rina Torchinsky

Emma Stevens says there’s a difference between her bioengineering and physics courses. In physics, a course that all engineering majors are required to take, classes are dominated by white men. But there’s a different energy — and different demographics — in her bioengineering courses. It’s more “normal,” she said.

Bioengineering is the only major within the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering with a female student majority. Female students make up just 26% of students in the engineering school, but in bioengineering, they make up 57.5%, according to data from the university’s Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment.

Women in this university’s bioengineering program say that there’s a palpable difference between their major courses and other STEM courses. Some say the department is welcoming and the community is supportive. And for many, it’s encouraging to see women professors lead.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” said Priscilla Lee, a senior bioengineering major. “When you see that there’s a lot more females in the major, it might have a cause for prospective students to want to join the major, as well.”

In the past 28 years, the number of female students in the engineering school has increased by just 7 percentage points. But in bioengineering, the proportion of female students has increased by 16.5 percentage points — and that’s just since 2006 when the program was launched.

The demographics of the major follow a national trend. Women earned 21.9% of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2018, but they collected over 40% of bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering, according to data from the American Society of Engineering Education.

Dr. Alisa Clyne, a bioengineering professor and the department’s associate chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion said that some women might be drawn to the field because the major thrives on idea generation and collaboration.

The field also emphasizes direct help to people who need it, she said. Stevens said she is drawn to bioengineering’s capacity to build machinery to rehabilitate motion.

Lee, who chairs the university’s Women in Engineering student advisory board, said the major is also filled with students on the pre-med track. In 2018, women made up the majority of medical school applicants in the U.S., according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Lee said she’s never felt like a minority as a woman in engineering. Her classes haven’t been male-dominated and she’s noticed more women professors in her bioengineering classes, compared to core engineering courses.

But other engineering students might not have the same experience.

Some will be one of only a few women in a class of 50 or 60 men, Lee said. In electrical and computer engineering, for example, less than 16% of students are female and there are only six female faculty members, according to university data. There are no female faculty members in fire protection engineering.

Clyne said she was a part of a male-dominated faculty before she started at this university in 2019. She said she was the first woman to earn tenure in Drexel University’s mechanical engineering department.

Although women are more represented among undergraduates, Clyne said there’s work to be done, especially when it comes to faculty recruitment. There are 18 female faculty members in the bioengineering department, according to university data.

But even if there aren’t many, Tima Mikdashi, a senior bioengineering major, said that learning from women engineering professors has been impactful. One of her first bioengineering courses at this university was taught by a woman, she said, and it left a mark — even if she didn’t realize it then.

“On a subconscious level, it must have been kind of affirming … to feel like, ‘okay, we have a place here,’” she said.

Dr. Katharina Maisel, who teaches a junior-level bioengineering course, said she understands the importance of role models. Growing up, she looked up to both of her parents — her father had a PhD and her mother was on her way to one.

And students can look up to professors like Maisel, Lee said.

“When you look at our department website and see all of the female professors, female principal investigators really spearheading our research … it’s very encouraging to a lot of prospective students,” Lee said.