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Engineering dean reflects on female leadership

In the past nine years, three women have become the first female deans of their respective colleges. Patricia Culligan, dean of the College of Engineering, said she feels very proud to hold that position.

“I think it’s important for there to be role models,” Culligan said. “If you don’t see people like you at the top, you can have the impression that you’re not really welcomed or included in the organization.”

Culligan originally studied civil engineering at the University of Leeds, motivated by her love of STEM and her desire to apply knowledge to build a better world.

“I actually selected the University of Leeds because they were known for having a high fraction of women in their undergraduate engineering programs, which for me, was like five out of 120,” Culligan said. “Anywhere else I would have been the only female.”

After graduating, Culligan went into practice as an engineering consultant before returning to the University of Cambridge to get her master’s and her doctorate in soil mechanics. 

“I went into engineering at a time when there weren’t that many women choosing to study engineering at the undergraduate level, and there’s sort of a naive thought that it’s just because women don’t know how cool engineering is,” Culligan said. “You don’t assume that there’s going to be any barriers to your success.”

Down the line, though, Culligan said that she was viewed differently and her work was undervalued because of her gender.

“For some people, that can be the point at which they exit engineering, and for people like myself, who are often stubborn, it can be a reason to push through and demonstrate that that unconscious bias is not valid.”

After holding a faculty position at MIT, Culligan moved to Columbia University, where she was the first female chair of the civil engineering department. At Columbia, Culligan became “obsessed” with green infrastructure, specifically from the perspective of urban heat island mitigation and climate adaptation.

Her research on green infrastructure and stormwater management also demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary scholarship for engineering projects. Culligan expanded her research group to include an ecologist and an environmental scientist, but it quickly became apparent that the problem went even deeper.

“A lot of the measurements we were doing were in the field, in the streets of New York,” Culligan explained. “And we found that when you’re working in the streets, the public would come up and start to ask you questions.”

Culligan was surprised by how many people were unhappy about the development of green infrastructure in their city. She became curious about the role of green infrastructure in promoting human health and wellbeing and recruited an anthropologist to help answer this question.

“If we’re going to be designing green infrastructure for urban environments from the perspective of climate adaptation and sustainability, we should be coming up with designs that do promote human health and wellbeing,” Culligan said. “Some of the designs that have been promoted by engineers right now are not doing that.”

For Culligan, engineering is about “enabling people to live better lives.” In fact, she originally chose civil engineering because she thought it meant engineering for civilization.

“You can trace back the history of engineering to the ability of communities to stay in place — to find ways to grow food in place, to find ways to protect themselves from the elements in place, to sort of find ways even to protect themselves from aggressors in place,” Culligan said. 

That sort of problem-solving requires what she calls “master integrators” — people who combine interdisciplinary knowledge from disparate areas.

“The solution to the challenges that we face as a society today don’t rely on an individual person’s research lab,” Culligan added. “They lie at the intersection of discipline. And I’m very keen to promote that type of work at Notre Dame.”

Another of Culligan’s passions within academia is closing the “knowledge to action gap.” 

“We need to take more responsibility for ensuring that that knowledge actually makes it off our campuses and benefits people in positive ways,” she said. The intersection of that value and Notre Dame’s mission is part of what drew her to the position of dean in the first place. “Where else would you be able to move the needle like this?”

Culligan has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of women at Notre Dame this year by both speaking with female alums and meeting young talent. Thirty-nine percent of the first-year engineering students are women.

“I think it’s important that the engineering profession at any level reflects the diversity of the society you live in,” Culligan said. “If you only have one set of voices at the engineering table, the world is going to be built . . . to only reflect the needs of that one voice.”