Dr. Liesl Folks is the current Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at The University at Buffalo. Before she became the Dean, Dr. Folks worked for Hitachi GST and IBM in Silicon Valley, both multinational companies. As Dean, Dr. Folks is the head administrator of teaching, research and service operations for UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She also teaches some classes in electrical engineering. As a woman in STEM, she feels that it is pivotal to create good role models in order to encourage young women to take this trying yet rewarding career path. She stated early on in the interview, “It’s not very easy for young women to see themselves as research scientists because we have so few role models. There’s Madame Currie and then list seems to mumble off.”
Q: “What sparked your interest in a career in STEM?”
A: “I decided that I wanted to go into physics after I attended the first Australian National Science Summer School – I fondly refer to it as ‘geek camp’, and it is now called the Australian National Science Youth Forum – in Canberra for a two week summer camp. I visited a linear nuclear accelerator at the Australian National University as part of that program. I thought, ‘I’d quite like one of my own one day,’ although I eventually veered into magnetism and magnetic devices instead.”
When asked, “What do you think needs to be done in order to draw more young women to a career in STEM?,” Dr. Folks replied, “One of the issues is that we neglect to tell the stories of the women in STEM, even when they do have a big impact.” She went on to discuss arguably one of the most important mathematicians in NASA’s history, Katherine Johnson, who is credited with calculating the exact trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in Space. Her name was nearly lost in history until 2015 when she received the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. She also briefly discussed Megan Smith, a fellow Buffalonian, who was named the United States Chief Technology Officer in 2014. Smith had also previously worked for Google as Vice President, leading new business development. Dr. Folks believes that it is essential to bring about more discussion of women in STEM in order to inspire the younger generations.
To learn about more amazing women in STEM you can go to https://www.whitehouse.gov/women-in-stem
Q: Who has inspired you throughout your career and life?
A: “When I first started at The University of Western Australia for my PhD, the university had just appointed its first female leader of the university, Vice-Chancellor Fay Gale. She was very inspirational and had keen vision to make sure the university was graduating a good workforce for the future. She set up fantastic employee development as well. I looked up to her for a long time! Then at IBM, I admired a great number of women, including Ginny Rometty, who later become the CEO of IBM! These women really taught us how to operate effectively within the company.”
Dr. Folks does a stellar job of inspiring others herself through a program in which UB is partnered with National Grid. The objective of this program is to provide experimental learning in STEM to girls and boys in grades K-12 from Westminster Charter School, located in the city of Buffalo, NY. She believes that these “field trips” to UB help the students visualize a future at a university; something many of these children often do not think is an obtainable goal due to their economic status. She went on further to say, “We want to make it clear that the university is accessible for them in order to encourage them to think more seriously about going to college.” The program has been going on for three years now and Dr. Folks looks forward to engaging with more classes and making more relationships with the children who participate in years to come.
Q: What is your favorite part of your current job at UB?
A: “I absolutely love the diversity! I routinely engage with small children, high schoolers, college students, faculty and alumni, some of whom are well into their 80s. I deal with all sorts of people from so many different age groups and all walks of life—not many jobs allow you to do that! I often get to do tours at manufacturing sites where I get to see how things are really built, always something that has interested me, as well.”
When asked,“What do you feel has been the most pivotal moment of your career?” Dr. Folks did not have a definitive answer. She responded with, “Oh good Lord, I don’t know that I’ve got there yet!” She continued, “I guess the moments when you push a technology out of the lab so it can be used by real, everyday human beings.” Dr. Folks is a quintessential example of a woman who is constantly looking to improve and challenge herself. Her positive mentality has opened up so many doors for her, which is why she has had and continues to have an incredible career.
She encourages young women to realize that “it’s a big deal to say yes. There are so many people who are clever, but are fearful of change. People cower away or pass up great opportunities all the time. Especially if someone has targeted you and asked you to take interest in a new opportunity, say yes, because that person who asked you is taking an active interest in your career path, and can probably see something great ahead for you.”
Contributor: Ally Massimi