Engineer Forging A Path

By Anita Todd The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

LAKELAND

At 5 years old, Christina Drake conducted her first scientific experiment and made two conclusions.

First, the experiment allowed her to quickly deduct that Barbie dolls don't tan in microwave ovens; second, the desire to discover was planted.

Drake was recently selected as an assistant professor of mechanical, industrial and electrical engineering in the College of Engineering at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

She said in addition to being interested in science at a young age, television helped create an interest in engineering.

"I was a really big 'Star Trek' fan and was always interested in the engineering character in 'The Next Generation,'" she said.

"I knew that when things went really, really bad he'd climb down into the engineering compartment and fix things."

But even though she had fostered those interests throughout her childhood and high school, she had planned on majoring in music in college.

"I changed my mind at the last minute and majored in materials science and engineering," she said. "If my future self would have told me when I was 17 that I'd be where I am today, I wouldn't have believed it."

After graduating from the University of Florida, she got married and began looking for jobs.

"I didn't really like any of the jobs that I was interviewing for," she said. She and her husband moved to Orlando and after one try at graduate school, she decided to try one more time.

More than successful this time, she finished her master's degree and doctorate in two and a half years at the University of Central Florida.

"Dr. Drake received her Ph.D. under my guidance. She is a bright, intelligent, talented individual who makes things happen," said Sudipta Seal, the University of Central Florida's director of the Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center. "She developed an innovative technique to evaluate nanosensors in a cost-effective way. Her work is well cited in the literature."

But when Drake entered the workforce, she said, it was culture shock.

"Lockheed Martin was a great company to work for and I was lucky enough to have a good boss," she said. "But I realized there was a cultural problem."

Although subject matter experts in their fields, women weren't promoted or taken seriously.

"It was subtle and something that no one really talked about," Drake said. "We were supposed to just keep our heads down and do our work."

Determined to make a difference for women in the field, she decided to make a career change and pursue a future in academia.

"My goal is to prepare females to start making cultural changes wherever they go," she said.

One step in that direction is the Women in STEM Leadership Program (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.)

Drake said the Florida Poly program is designed to engage students immediately with Internet-posted articles concerning possible career issues before they even begin classes as freshmen. This gives them an outlet to begin discussing potential issues as well as positive solutions.

Many other proactive aspects of the program are in place like discussion boards and mentors for students.

The female students themselves begin learning the ropes of leadership in a technical environment by planning and organizing events and technical competition teams; the art of networking and service by mentoring high school age females (the inaugural female class at Florida Poly is taking charge of putting logistics into place for this) while being mentored by women leaders in the STEM industry to help them with professional development and career advice.

"Many male students at Florida Poly are active in helping with the program too, recognizing that males in STEM fields have a role to play as well in making a positive impact on promoting gender fairness in STEM," Drake said.

The 33-year-old lives in Orlando with her son and in her time off enjoys music -- she plays the flute, piano and guitar -- and competing in trivia games with friends.

She said she was offered a similar position with Georgia Tech at the same time the job offer came in from Florida Poly.

"It was a hard decision, but how often do you get the chance to help start a university?" she said. "This might be a bit riskier, but I think I can make a greater impact here with something that is close to my heart."

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