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Mental Health in Engineering and the Beauty of Fury

Trigger Warning: Bullying

Plasma ball by Hal Gatewood; evocative of science

I am a graduate student in electrical engineering, but I tend to hate saying it as a cisgender female because I hate that everyone tells me “oh you must be smart” or “wow I could never do that.”  My responses tend to be “no, I’m just stubborn and think ‘I’ve made it this far, might as well keep going’” or “well I probably couldn’t do your job either and I actually am terrible at algebra.”  I’m not smart, just a stubborn hard worker.  Yet, I’ve also fought hard to be where I am; it hurts that people never credit me for that, or themselves really. 

It’s not just the discipline of engineering but my gender as well, that I’ve had to fight so hard.  I’ve seen many women-identifying individuals struggle in this field, myself included, and many have dropped out after a couple of years into college or several years into the industry.  There are others, along with myself, who are “non-neurotypical” individuals who have fought for our grades, and the right to pursue knowledge, and in general within the discipline.  These factors have led to situations of being written off by others in peer groups or even by those who ought to protect you and your rights for higher education i.e. my teachers in the university.  One of these times of verbal harassment, I have reasons to believe, was simply because I was female and it was even at a conference in front of other school groups no less.  Another time was when this substitute lecturer mocked my need for test accommodations in front of the whole class, that even my peers who need accommodations as well were too scared to ask for them/stand up for themselves. Now, unfortunately for those who have put me down, my peers around me knew just how screwed those people were about to become. 

“Anger was my sign of depression.”

I would like to talk about the three years of therapy I’ve had to experience due to these discouraging people, all the cis-males in my life berating and putting me down, and among other reasons.  I was in a rough spot in a relationship, but I realized after a psychology class that anger was my sign of depression.  Though my relationship with my partner was great, the mixture of being in the middle of a rough patch and the trauma induced by the people that were not so kind from my past – which I never really got processed –  led me to know I needed help.  I wanted to feel like the confident me again that I missed so dearly.  I went to our counseling center and met a wonderful therapist that got me through so much!  With their help, I finally started to feel like myself. 

Through my journey, I also discovered that I wanted to teach because I had a multitude of great teachers, including those who came to my defense when certain situations went terribly.  But I wanted to teach university students; boy I loved being a TA for classes and leading supplement sessions!  I found such joy in it, especially logic design courses (I’m a nerd and proud of it)!  Universities usually only hire people with a Ph.D., however, and I had no clue what I’d actually research.  All I knew was I loved learning, so much in fact that I also got certificates in neuroscience to learn more about learning.  Long story short, my therapy and neuroscience courses led me to find that as an engineer, I thought a bit different and kept thinking – “well, could I solve this with my engineer’s training?”  Now I study biomedical engineering concepts and though my degree is in electrical engineering, I actively enjoy working on projects of all kinds from hardware to software/AI type work.  So long as projects are remotely related to helping with the brain and mental health, knowing I get to work on these complex projects and solve strange problems every day is exhilarating.

Leo