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Engineering Excellence: Advancing STEM-Based Business Education at Rutgers University

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Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program (PSM) & the Master of Business and Science (MBS) Degree

Engineering and computer science have become two of the fastest-growing, highest-paying professions in the nation. Both fields skew heavily male:

  • Women occupy just 13 percent of the total engineering workforce
  • In academia, only 17 percent of all tenured faculty in engineering are women 
  • Only 26 percent of all computer scientists are women  

w2For this "Women in Science Wednesday," we honor none other than the woman who applied her expertise in both engineering and computer science to establish and build out Rutgers Professional Science Master's (PSM) program: MBS executive director Deborah Silver, Ph.D., who has worked as a professor in Rutgers’ Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for more than 25 years—studying electrical engineering and computer science as an undergraduate before the two fields were categorized as separate disciplines.  

Co-founding Rutgers Professional Science Master’s program in 2010, Dr. Silver helped establish STEM-based business education at Rutgers University. Leading Rutgers PSM since its inception, Dr. Silver has expanded the program to offer 25 academic concentrations spanning three professional sectors—life sciences, engineering, and computer and information sciences. Comprised of 600 students, most of them working professionals, Rutgers PSM is now one of Rutgers' largest master’s programs as well as one of the largest and most diverse PSMs in the nation—with true gender parity among students.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Dr. Silver about her career as a scientist, about celebrating women in STEM at Rutgers, and how enrichments—including alumni mentoring, experiential learning, and executive coaching—have increased post-graduate success, and driven Rutgers PSM’s program growth. 

Q&A: Deborah Silver, Ph.D.

  1. What sparked your interest in engineering and computer science?w3

Way back when, my uncle bought a Radio Shack TRS-80—an early home computer. He became obsessed with this new technology but couldn’t convince anyone else to adopt his hobby. One day, he appeared at my parents’ house with a large gift box for the family. I ended up setting up the machine, following the directions and early coding examples—and that was that. I had always been good in math but didn’t have any interest in electronics or engineering until my uncle showed up. The rest, as they say, is history.

  1. PSMs were designed to prepare students for STEM-based careers outside academia. What made you choose academia over industry?

My first professional work experience was a summer internship during college–I worked for New York City’s Parking Violations Bureau (PVB). I was hired as an engineer to help use the PVB’s one and only computer to look up license plate numbers that couldn’t be read from copies of parking tickets. For the remaining 39.5 hours of the week, the other interns and I copied—by hand—the information from individual tickets to larger forms for filing. I am not sure why we needed to do this if they had a computer, but I guess the computer was not trusted yet. I was so bored, I decided to try to teach myself to write with my left hand. I’m a righty. Let’s just say, that did not go over well with my supervisor. After this "work experience," I decided to go into academia.

  1. You were studying computer science before many colleges even had formal programs in computer science. What was that like?

Exciting but strange. I studied computer science when it was a new field just splitting off from electrical engineering.

  1. How did you make the foray into data visualization?

I was initially interested in computer graphics, and I thought that data visualization was a practical application of that technology. Data visualization was a brand-new field when I entered it, and it was fascinating to me.

  1. How has your blended background in engineering and data visualization helped as you’ve expanded Rutgers PSM?

Well, that’s a two-part answer.

With engineering, I was involved with professional development efforts with students, and I noted the lack of working professional students in the engineering master’s program. It didn’t make sense to me. If students wanted advanced degrees but did not want to enter academia, then where were they going? New Jersey is one of the most concentrated industrialized states. Around that time, employers were also becoming increasingly vocal about needing candidates who possessed advanced academic knowledge—let’s say tech, right?—along with the business skills necessary to knowledgeably explain and discuss the technology or product, sell it, present information and communicate with others. Employers were not finding those candidates. So when I first heard about professional science master’s programs,  which combined advanced STEM education with business and regulatory courses, I realized that that was the answer.2

Data visualization has probably had the biggest impact on building and growing Rutgers PSM. Because it’s such an inherently multidisciplinary field, I wound up collaborating with researchers from all across the university—oceanographers, meteorologists, chemists, materials science engineers, mechanical engineers, and even social workers. That level of deep cooperation drove home the importance of being able to work with people from many different backgrounds—people who may have opinions or ideas that are a lot different from yours. Of course, in order to perform research, you need to secure funding for that research. And that involves communication, having the ability to organize and present data persuasively, and you need to know about finances. So, after collaborating with researchers from across Rutgers University and driving $25 million in outside support, I was fully aware of the immense value of combining multidisciplinary scientific studies with business education.

6. In creating and Rutgers PSM program, did you reflect on your own experiences as a graduate student?3

Yes. I wanted to make sure that Rutgers PSM provided a fully welcoming and supportive environment for all students, and I think we’ve definitely achieved this. Our curricula is student-centric, our students have access to built-in support networks and resources like alumni support and executive coaching. Everyone involved in our program—from program coordinators to  advisors and executive coaches, to our professors and instructors, to our wonderful staff—has one main focus: we are here to help students succeed. That student-centric focus and support is truly the hallmark of our program, and I believe students recognize and appreciate that.

  1. Are there certain challenges you faced as a female engineering student or in your early career that no longer exist for women today?

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering did not have a maternity leave policy for faculty members when I was going through the ranks. That was especially challenging for me.

  1. What changes have you seen over time at Rutgers that have been positive steps for women in STEM?

There is a universitywide maternity leave policy now :)

  1. What is your proudest achievement (besides your family and establishing Rutgers PSM)? 4

I’d say that in addition to providing students with valuable resources and opportunities at Rutgers PSM—alumni mentoring, executive coaching, and experiential learning—we are able to help students navigate the complexity of a large state university and present them with information about the many incredible educational opportunities available to them both at PSM and beyond—the wealth of resources and STEM-based courses that a large state university and an academic medical center such as Rutgers—and only Rutgers—could provide. This is a challenge that we have been able to crack—it’s a dual emphasis we’ve been able to balance, much to the benefit of our students.

  1. Any last advice or parting thoughts?

The term “Growth Mindset” is such a buzzword now, but it’s so important to have that outlook. The world’s most successful people also possess a very strong desire for lifelong learning, and they talk about that. All good scientists are constantly looking at the world around them, constantly asking questions—constantly asking, “why?” –and constantly searching to solve problems. I think no one says it better than Einstein did. “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Jen Reiseman-Briscoe
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