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Mechanical engineering professor Karen May-Newman (right) has been named one of this year’s 50 Top Women of Influence in Engineering by the San Diego Business Journal. (SDSU) Mechanical engineering professor Karen May-Newman (right) has been named one of this year’s 50 Top Women of Influence in Engineering by the San Diego Business Journal. (SDSU)

Q&A With One of SDBJ's Top 50 Women of Influence in Engineering

By Melinda Sevilla

Mechanical engineering professor Karen May-Newman has been named one of this year’s 50 Top Women of Influence in Engineering by the San Diego Business Journal.


As the first female faculty member on staff, the first and only female department chair in Engineering at San Diego State University from 2003-07, and a Distinguished Faculty Award winner, May-Newman is a leader and pioneer in the college for women.


On top of being the founder of the SDSU bioengineering program and executive director for STEM Teaching, Learning and Innovation, she has also previously served as chair of the SDSU Big Ideas Research Initiative (2019-22) and continues her work in cutting-edge bioengineering research contributing to workforce development.


In the historically male-centric area of engineering, May-Newman has served as a role model for generations of San Diego engineers.


SDSU NewsCenter’s Melinda Sevilla spoke with May-Newman about the SDBJ recognition and her advice to the next generation of women in engineering at SDSU.


What sparked your interest in engineering?


My passion is for making medical discoveries, which was inspired by books I read and a Regional Occupational Program (ROP) class I took in high school on “Lab Small Animals.” I started as a biology major in college but wanted to use math and computer programming more. I learned about the bioengineering major and after I took my first class in that subject, I was hooked. It is the perfect combination of science and math for me.


What was the most challenging part of your experience studying engineering? 


Engineering can be a bit cliquey and the hardest part for me switching into that major was making friends that I could study with. Once I found a good group of people, I felt more comfortable and engaged with the learning experience. The professors in the bioengineering department at the University of California San Diego (where May-Newman earned her degrees) were welcoming and supportive and encouraged me to gain research experience and eventually apply to graduate school.


In graduate school, I was definitely not the smartest of my peers but there were many opportunities to distinguish yourself and I developed a solid reputation as a leader and articulate speaker.


As the founder of the SDSU bioengineering program, did any women inspire you to pursue bioengineering?


The ROP class I took was taught by two women who were technicians at the California Institute of Technology and also had a small business raising mice, rats and other rodents for sale to pet stores, and labs. The two women teaching the course were basically hippies from my perspective: long hair, no makeup, bell bottoms and a feminist attitude. They were passionate and knowledgeable, and I was inspired by them.


This hands-on experience seemed very “real world” and gave me confidence in my skills, and confirmed my interest in a medical research career.


What excites you most about the field of bioengineering?


For over 20 years I have worked closely with clinicians, regulatory specialists and device company engineers to evolve the next generation of Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVADs), implantable pumps used to treat heart failure. My investigations of fluid dynamics and thrombus formation during LVAD support has encompassed studies of patients, benchtop systems and computational models and been funded by both government and industry.


My current research uses sophisticated particle tracking methods to measure the 3D velocity field in transparent models of the heart and blood vessels and evaluate the potential for stroke. The findings of this research have impacted clinical practice and engineering design. My research is based on experimental studies, which require a team of students to conduct. I have been privileged to work with over 40 graduate students and hundreds of undergraduates in this research.


You work with female student engineers in your lab. What do you see as the future of women in engineering at SDSU and in San Diego?


Women are valued as engineering colleagues at SDSU by students and faculty, and the numbers have grown with the investment in improving the professional environment at SDSU and in San Diego. However, the true test is whether their voice is represented at all levels of decision-making, in positions that enable their efforts to impact larger communities.


Valuing diversity is the first step towards improving the future of women in engineering, but equity and inclusion of female engineering faculty in executive positions are lagging.


What is it like to be a woman in the historically male-centric area of engineering? 


In my field of bioengineering, there are many accomplished women who I can network with and who hold positions of great influence. This has been encouraging, as they have shared how their efforts have resulted in impactful research and institutional change. Bioengineering and other less traditional subdisciplines of engineering present new opportunities which attract those who do not identify with being a “traditional engineer” which includes many women and underrepresented minorities.


In the classical field of mechanical engineering, which is the department I belong to, the representation of women is much lower. Nationally, 25% of bioengineers are female compared to 9% of mechanical engineers. At SDSU, 53% of bioengineering students are female compared to 19% in mechanical engineering. Unfortunately, the program is only offered at the graduate level which reduces the potential impact of this discipline on our overall diversity.


What advice do you have for women interested in engineering? 


In general, our female students graduate earlier with higher GPAs than their male counterparts so they clearly have mastered the technical content. Thus I would recommend seeking leadership opportunities that nurture skills such as networking, public speaking, fundraising and other nontechnical skills that are aligned with business and industry.



About SDSU College of Engineering

The college delivers a broad-spectrum, world-class engineering education, combined with practical research experience. All departments in the College are in the Top 25 for generating engineering workforce in the US. The College now occupies six buildings across campus with expansion planned in the newly acquired Mission Valley campus. In the last six years, over 60% of the faculty are new hires and research award dollars have tripled. The college has earned 9 NSF CAREER Awards in the last two years. SDSU Engineering is dedicated to innovative education, discovery, and dissemination of knowledge.