Women innovators honored


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Iowa women in the fields of science, technology, and engineering will converge on Altoona, Iowa, today, abandoning graphing calculators and test tubes to settle in for a day of celebration.

Four UI faculty and four students are finalists for awards at the second Iowa Women of Innovation dinner. The event, sponsored by the Technology Association of Iowa, honors women leaders in academia, nonprofit organizations, as well as large and small businesses.

“This is kind of a bright spot,” said Chris Brus, the UI director of Women in Science and Engineering and a member of the event’s planning committee. “Everyone is struggling with the economy. Our ability to develop new programs, which usually make jobs more inspiring, is no longer there. This is a breath of fresh air.”

UI students were not represented in the pile of nominees during last year’s event; UI molecular physiology and biophysics Professor Sarah England won the award for postsecondary academic innovation.

The award winners for 2009 have not yet been announced, but Brus stressed the event would honor all finalists.

“The way we set the event up, the winner gets something special, but because the women are all highlighted, they all get recognition for their achievements,” she said.

One of the driving motives for the dinner is to promote women’s achievements and provide young women with networking opportunities.

“Women have a much harder time promoting themselves,” Brus said. “We want to make these women visible role models, because young women in the fields of science, engineering and technology find it most compelling to see role models.”

Roughly 30 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering go to women at the UI, around 10 percent higher than the national average, according to the College of Engineering’s website.

As part of the planning committee, Brus was responsible for arranging the keynote speaker. This year, Lilia Abron will fill the position.

Abron, who earned a Ph.D. at the UI in 1972, was the first black woman in the nation to earn a doctorate in chemical and environmental engineering. Now, women earn approximately 18 percent of engineering doctorates nationwide.

Abron is the founder and president of PEER Consultants P.C., an environmental consulting firm, and PEER Africa Ltd., which creates sustainable, affordable housing in South Africa.

Abron said the PEER Africa projects include 2,200 environmentally friendly housing units in Cape Town, and it may expand its development work to Haiti.

“Her background should motivate a lot of people, especially women in science and engineering,” UI College of Engineering Dean Barry Butler said. “She has a very broad perspective of the world and she understands how her position as an engineer can be used to help address problems in the world.”

Abron, who has worked on the UI College of Engineering’s advisory board, gives guest lectures and said she always tries to keep herself open to students.

“We all have a responsibility to the next generation coming in behind us,” she said, and she looked forward to seeing what ideas students will bring to the event.

“They make me think,” she said. “They are so eager, and the excitement keeps me alive.”

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