2010 AWM Essay Contest:

Undergraduate Level Winner

### by Corinne Ducey

With a Mechanical Engineer for a
father and three older brothers with Pure Mathematics and other Engineering
degrees, it seemed that some sort of technical field was in Jan de Regt’s
midst. And one day, when she felt relief
arriving to math class after misunderstanding the B grade on her English paper,
she discerned that math or science (not humanities) was her calling. De Regt grew up in Alexandria, Virginia with
her family and attended The School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at
the University of Virginia. Though she
thought she wanted to become a Chemical Engineer, de Regt realized that what
she liked about Chemistry “was the structure of the periodic chart, which is
actually physics. I did not want to
major in any type of physics, so [I] went with electrical engineering, which is
very, very applied physics.” She
graduated as an electrical engineer in 1979 as one of seven women in her
class. This is her diverse story. De Regt’s career teaches young women in the
Mathematics and Engineering fields to seize opportunities with confidence.

The
beauty of Engineering, says de Regt, is its versatility. Once one has acquired the skills to problem
solve creatively, one can be any type of engineer because it is all about
problem solving. De Regt has proved this
through her varied array of work. However,
after graduation, she expected for an employer to offer her a job where the
work was concrete and clear. “Here is a
problem and this is how you solve it,” she wanted to hear. But when she landed a job at the Naval
Aviation Test and Evaluation Center (NATEC), she took problem solving to a more
abstract, real-life level than university problem sets. The team she worked with verified that a new
suite of acoustic processing equipment worked correctly and met the needs and
expectations of the Aviation center. De
Regt later went on to fly in P-3 Orion jets at NATEC to test new electronic
encryption devices. She was part of a
30-person team to design and implement a new electronic key system to
sophisticate information codes to send over the air. Her other jobs have included developing
connectors and changing fibers at the Naval Research Lab, testing and
evaluating acoustic antisubmarine warfare, studying radar and sonar theory, and
now her work as a Systems Engineer.
Because of this extensive résume of experience, de Regt is a very
successful and efficient Systems engineer.

De
Regt says, “I’ve finally found a job that complements the way my mind works,”
which is quite the job to find. Systems
Engineering is defined as overseeing complex engineering projects through team
direction, strategic planning, and equipment management. It is a combination of human interaction and
technical work. At the Department of
Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration, de Regt is the project
manager for ASDE-3 radar. This radar is
housed in the dome on top of the tower at Dulles and BWI airports. It allows runway, taxiway personnel and air
traffic controllers to communicate. To
manage this project as a Systems Engineer, one creates a structured plan to
maximize the probability that implemented solutions will meet the need. De Regt says this job requires people who can
think in an orderly, disciplined, logical manner, and guide others to do the
same. “It’s actually basic problem
solving, performed at a very complex and often abstract level,” she says. De Regt lights up when she talks about her
work.

Advice
to me and to math-interested young women was plentiful in our discussion. My new career mentor told me to be astute,
assertive, and to take full advantage of college math classes. To master the art of mathematics and problem
solving, one must completely understand the reason why the math theories and
conjectures work. Merely memorizing
formulas and postulates does not form a solid basis of understanding for
sophisticated work. De Regt also told me
to decide whether I’m interested in Pure Math or Applied, because the two lead
to very different careers. She states
that a B.A. in engineering is useless and not impressive to engineering
employers. If you want to be an
engineer, “For goodness sake, go to an engineering school!” And as stated earlier, de Regt advises young
women to take advantage of every opportunity that you can after college
graduation. The first few work
experiences after college make up the “trickling through”** **phase of education she says, where everything one has learned is
put into practice. ** **“There is basic inclination, education,
and then experience,” and these three aspects work together to form solid
understanding. Jan de Regt would agree
that if a young woman has a foundation of solid understanding and a wealth of
diverse experience, she will stand out in her work as a mathematician or
engineer.