Carnegie Mellon University
November 03, 2014

Tabitha Voytek wins award from the Society of Women Engineers

Tabitha VoytekTabitha Voytek, a PhD student in the Department of Physics and a member of the McWilliams Center for Cosmology, has won the outstanding collegiate member award from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). She was specifically honored "for being a role model for women in science and engineering and inspiring graduate student involvement in SWE through creative new initiatives." The prize was awardedat the annual SWE conference, which took place in Los Angeles this year.

The Society for Women Engineers is a not-for-profit educational and service organization that aims to empower women to succeed and advance in the field of engineering. It also strives to help women getting recognition for their life-changing contributions as engineers and leaders. SWE currently has almost 30,000 members from all over the world, who range in age from undergraduates to retirees. It is also active in advocacy for Title IX and STEM initiatives at the National level.

“I got involved with SWE as an undergraduate student,” says Voytek, who received a B.S. in engineering physics from the University of the Pacific. “There really wasn’t an obvious professional society for me to join at the time, and I connected well with the SWE group because most of my female engineering friends were also in SWE as well as my engineering faculty advisor.”

Voytek joined the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, where she now works with her Ph.D. advisor Prof. Jeffrey Peterson on observational 21-cm cosmology, aiming to unveil the early history of the universe by looking at its large-scale structure. “Tabitha’s research work is really very exciting,” commented Peterson. “She is searching for a weak sky glow that will tell us when the Universe first began to produce stars, just a hundred million years after the Big Bang started.” Besides cutting edge science, there are also other perks involved: “Her work takes her to some of the most remote Islands on the planet,” Peterson adds.

One might think that the transition from engineering physics to cosmology is a huge step, but Voytek does not think so. “The questions are more scientific than what I did as an undergraduate, but much of my day-to-day work isn’t actually that different from what I did as an engineer,” she explains. “My Ph.D. work involves building a radio telescope for picking up the signal of neutral hydrogen in the cosmos, and that also takes some engineering skills. Besides, a lot of the challenges that I face as a female grad student in Physics really aren't that different from the challenges of the female engineering PhDs.”

But there’s also another aspect: “It’s somewhat curious, but there isn’t an equivalent organization for women in science,” adds Voytek. “As a consequence, SWE has emerged as the pre-eminent organization advocating for women in STEM, with nearly 30,000 members and an active presence in Washington. SWE really makes an effort to reach across the STEM disciplines into all areas of technology, which is why it’s so large and active. One example of this is that this year’s SWE conference (WE14) was done in combination with the ‘International Conference of Women in Engineering and Science’ (INWES) that only happens once every four years. In comparison, I’ve connected with the American Astronomical Society’s ‘Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy’, which only has a few hundred participants.”

Voytek’s involvement in SWE and her commitment to a friendly workplace has also made her a much valued colleague. “I would go to Tabitha for most of the questions I had about the department when I came here as a new faculty, and she was not only helpful, but also always upbeat and welcoming. It made my life as a new faculty a lot better,” explains Shirley Ho, an assistant professor at the McWilliams Center for Cosmology. 

“One of my favorite things about SWE, and what I always tell people when they ask, is that I have a huge network of women in STEM across the world thanks to SWE,” explains Voytek, who is also very active in SWE’s regional group, which covers Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “I always love to go to the annual conference for SWE, where I get to hang out with my friends. Even though I am in regular electronic communication with them throughout the year, I really only see them face-to-face at this event. I know if I'm struggling with something, there are people I can go to and get help from because of my SWE connections.”


Story by Markus Deserno and Shirley Ho