CMU professor, researcher honored as national Hispanic Engineer of Year

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Cristina Amon grew up in Venezuela with aspirations to become a teacher. But after she arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s to pursue graduate studies in mechanical engineering, she discovered she loved research, too.

Now Amon has a high-ranking job at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering that allows her to do both.


Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Dr. Christina Amon sits in "The Barr," which is a Smart Room in Carnegie Mellon University's Hamburg Hall. Amon, among the highest-ranking engineers at CMU, was honored with an award from the International Hispanic Education Society.
Click photo for larger image.

For her work in the classroom and in research, Amon received the national Hispanic Engineer of the Year Award in Education last month. She was honored in Austin, Texas, by the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corp., which recognizes excellence in science, engineering and technology.

Amon, 46, is the Raymond J. Lane distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at CMU and director of its Institute for Complex Engineered Systems.

She's the first person to hold the professorship endowed by Raymond Lane. Lane, who grew up in Moon and is a former president of software giant Oracle Corp., created the professorship in memory of his father, who earned a degree at CMU while raising a family and working at Westinghouse Electric Corp.

As a professor, Amon gets to teach at least one course per semester and mentor graduate students.

As director of the Institute, she coordinates interdisciplinary courses for students in various colleges at CMU and oversees research projects that have commercial potential. The Institute encourages companies to sponsor its research and help move it from research labs to industrial applications. Among the firms that spun out is BodyMedia, a local firm that makes personal health monitors.

Amon considers the national award to be a way to increase her visibility as a role model for young Hispanics and women considering engineering careers.

"Engineers don't publicize well what we do," said Amon.

While TV dramas give lots of attention to doctors, lawyers and detectives, there aren't many shows that "depict engineering as an exciting profession," she said.

And that's too bad, Amon noted, because engineers have high starting salaries and often can have their graduate studies fully funded by doing research.

Raising the profile of the profession, especially among women and minorities, is one of her own career goals.

Amon sits on CMU's diversity advisory council and was a driving force behind Engineering Your Future, a program for city high school girls who are interested in engineering. The girls begin the program in eighth grade and throughout their high school years are provided opportunities to explore engineering programs at CMU.

Amon also participates in an annual program for fourth-graders that brings them to the CMU campus to participate in engineering-related activities such as assembling a rocket. "At least these programs open their curiosity and let them think about engineering as a career possibility."

While women are still a minority in engineering fields, the numbers are improving slightly.

In 1955, women received less than 1 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission. Now the total exceeds 20 percent annually.

At CMU, about 22 percent of the current sophomore engineering class are females, and women comprise about 29 percent of the freshman class that is expected to declare some type of engineering major.

The statistics aren't as good for Hispanics and African-Americans. The College of Engineering has only 6 percent Hispanics and 7 percent blacks.

The problem in recruiting minorities to CMU, Amon said, is largely a result of Pittsburgh not being a minority population center. "We don't have as many role models as ... Texas, Georgia, Florida or California."

When Amon arrived in Boston as a graduate student, she could barely speak English. Spanish is her native language, and she studied French in Venezuelan schools.

She credits her husband with making it possible for her to advance to the top in academia. He worked part time while the couple's children were young and she crafted flex-time hours that sometimes included going home for dinner with her family and returning to the office from 7 p.m. to midnight.

Her schedule is a bit less demanding now that her children are older. Amon's daughter is a freshman at Duke University, where she studies biomedical engineering; her son is a junior at Central Catholic High School in Oakland.

"Unless you have a husband who will help with the children, it's very difficult to go through the tenure process .... It's a struggle and challenge to simultaneously have children and work."


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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