A True Visionary, Linda Katehi Captures One Of Engineering’s Highest Honors

By Cathie Anderson
The Sacramento Bee.

As a grade-schooler on the Greek island of Salamis, Linda P.B. Katehi harbored no illusions about going to college. Her mother and grandmother didn’t have more than a sixth-grade education. There wasn’t a library on the entire island. And, her family and virtually everyone else lived in some degree of poverty.

“There were no scholarships or anything,” Katehi, 61, told me. “We did not have then the programs that we have here. I could not have borrowed. We did not have the banks. There was no way my parents could borrow the money from anybody. We had relatives, but our family was all equally poor.”

So, how then did Katehi come to earn not only a bachelor’s degree but also master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering? How did she become chancellor of the University of California, Davis, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering? Indeed, how on earth did Vassilios and Georgia Katehi’s little girl manage to attain one of engineering’s highest honors, the Simon Ramo Founders Award, last month?

The answer to those questions began during a particularly bad cold and flu season on Salamis, when two of three teachers at Katehi’s three-room schoolhouse fell ill. The remaining teacher, Mr. Zaphyris, ended up teaching lessons for all 100 students for several days.

“He opened the wooden doors that separated the three classrooms,” Katehi recalled. “He would do math with first and second grade and then he would give homework. Then he’d do math with third and fourth and give homework, and then the same for fifth and sixth.”

As Zaphyris taught, Katehi said, he noticed that she was following along with the math that he was doing for the fifth- and sixth-graders, so he moved her into their group. Struck by her acumen, he made a point to tell her mother that Katehi definitely should go to college. Neither knew how this would be accomplished, but they prepared Katehi anyway.

By the time she was in middle school, Katehi said, she had exhausted what the high school math teachers could offer her, so one of her cousins, a math instructor, volunteered to prepare special lessons in geometry and trigonometry for her.

Then came a regime change in Greece that proved fateful for Katehi. The political leaders changed the constitution to make higher education free, Katehi said, giving her the chance to attend college. Soon after this, Katehi discovered just what she wanted to study while watching coverage of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins taking that giant leap for mankind.

Katehi said she marveled at the achievement, but what truly captivated her were the men watching the computer screens at mission control in Houston. She didn’t know what an engineer or a computer was, she said, but when she got back to school, she asked a teacher whether she could do that work. He assured her that she could.

“There was a whole generation of kids my age who decided to become engineers because, something they thought was so improbable before, it became a reality through engineering,” said Katehi, who holds 19 patents. “It takes my breath away. It allows you to imagine yourself doing things that no one else has done before. That’s what young kids want to do.”

That doesn’t mean that every kid is always welcome, and Katehi said she discovered that truth soon after she arrived at National Technical University of Athens in the early 1970s. The president of her freshman class asked her to meet one day, she said, and she was certain he would ask her to join a lab group, something he was doing with other students.

Instead, she said, he asked her: “Why did you choose to become an electrical engineer? You are going to go and get married, and you will never use this degree. You are taking a degree from someone who could really use it.”

She had never faced such overt sexism among the fisherman or blue-collar workers on Salamis, she said, but she said she did time and again in academia. Katehi stuck it out and earned a bachelor’s in mechanical and electrical engineering. She lectured at her alma mater for a year, then did some research for the Greek defense department before deciding to pursue graduate degrees at the University of California, Los Angeles. Upon graduation, the University of Michigan recruited her for an assistant professorship.

She was one of three female professors in a department with 85 faculty members, she said, and they were made to feel their difference. Katehi, for instance, was excelling at research to shrink the size of antennae so they could be integrated into military electronics. Although common in today’s smartphones and tablets, it was cutting-edge work at the time, so when the department head’s secretary realized he hadn’t put Katehi’s name on a short list of potential nominees for the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award, she asked him why not.

The secretary, Pam St. Louis, phoned Katehi, told her about the nominations and explained that the department would nominate her if a senior faculty member wrote a letter on her behalf. The secretary had tried but failed to get the director of Katehi’s lab to nominate her, so Katehi phoned another senior faculty member who readily agreed to do it.

In 1987, Katehi was one of a select group of U.S. researchers who received the honor and its accompanying grant.

She vividly remembered one colleague’s backhanded compliment: “He just put his head in (my office) and said, ‘Oh, I guess I have to congratulate you for the award. Nowadays, they give the award to blacks and women.’ ”

Katehi said she faced so much hostility that she accepted an associate professorship offered by UCLA, even though she had a young son, was pregnant with her daughter, and would have to split up her family. Her husband, chemical engineer Spyros Tseregounis, didn’t want leave a great job at General Motors before finding a similar position in Los Angeles.

As the couple anguished over the impending separation, Katehi said, she received a visit from Chuck Vest, then the dean of the College of Engineering. He asked Katehi for an opportunity to correct the situation. Vest would later go on to a lengthy career as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he opened doors for many people whose numbers have been historically underrepresented in academia.

Within one week, Katehi said, Vest made a key change in senior faculty that gave her the confidence to stay. Over her 18 years at Michigan, Katehi said, Vest and a number of other male faculty members advocated for her and mentored her. At the time, Katehi said, there just weren’t any women to fill that role.

“I learned one thing from that, that it is truly important to intervene,” Katehi said. “He believed in me and he had the strength to do it. He did not try to second-guess me. He did not try to patronize me. He did not try to tell me, ‘Oh, things will get better. Don’t be so sensitive.’ Those are the sort of things people will tell you.”

One of her mentors, former Michigan president James Duderstadt, told me: “Long after she left to become engineering dean at Purdue, provost at (University of) Illinois, and now chancellor at UC Davis, she continued to return to Ann Arbor for visits with her Ph.D. students. Such dedication to former students is quite extraordinary.”

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