The University of Arizona made a number of important engineering hires in 2019, including Betsy Cantwell, senior vice president of research and innovation, and Liesl Folks, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. The two, whose leadership has been especially critical during the pandemic, see big growth potential for the College of Engineering, where they also hold faculty positions.
“If you look at how extraordinary our science enterprise is, it’s an obvious next step for engineering to be amped up to meet the needs of the state and the nation,” said Folks, professor of electrical and computer engineering and previously dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Buffalo.
The women’s careers span decades in academia and industry as researchers, administrators and leaders. A year marked by unprecedented challenges has made the solutions-driven mindsets of engineers especially essential, according to Cantwell.
“Faculty and students in the College of Engineering are critical to reimagining and reworking how we operate on campus and in every aspect of our lives,” said Cantwell, who has directed the campus research response to COVID-19. “That need, and that drive to innovate, will continue beyond the coronavirus.”
Embarking on the STEM Path
Both remember vividly when they chose to pursue STEM. For Folks, who has a PhD in physics from the University of Western Australia and an MBA from Cornell University, the decisive moment came when, at 16, she visited a linear nuclear accelerator during a science camp.
“Something went off in my lizard brain, and I thought, ‘I want one of those,’” she said. “I always advise students to trust their instincts, because one thing I still really love about physics is working with large, steel ‘toys’ in the lab.”
Any time you bring together a workforce of diverse people, it’s amazing the quality of work that comes out, and the pandemic has just highlighted that to an extraordinary degree.”
Cantwell, professor of practice in aerospace and mechanical engineering and former CEO of Arizona State University Research Enterprise, completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology and went on to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, drawn to that field by her interest in the space program.
“I love building and making, as engineers do, but the system that one has to develop to support others’ research being planned, funded, and successful is one of the coolest systems challenges around,” she said.
Cantwell also holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Bringing Out the Best
Their paths weren’t always easy, as they navigated sexist attitudes. However, these experiences only made the women stronger advocates for diverse teams. Folks helped spearhead an initiative through the American Society for Engineering Education to increase diversity and inclusion at engineering colleges across the United States. Likewise, Cantwell has championed racial, ethnic, and gender equity in the workforce, and her office houses Arizona’s Science, Engineering and Math Scholars program, which focuses on promising underrepresented students.
Diversity played a key role during COVID-19, as campus teams came together to plan for safe campus reentry.
“Any time you bring together a workforce of diverse people, it’s amazing the quality of work that comes out, and the pandemic has highlighted that,” Folks said. “People across all different disciplines -- male and female, LGBTQ+, all different races and ethnic backgrounds – are leveraging their expertise to support our Wildcat community through the pandemic.”