Leading the Way: A Conversation with Tricia Berry
by Lori Dubois and Ceal Craig
Keeping the Mission Alive
A conversation with Tricia Berry leaves you with a distinct impression that she is far from done with her work. Her passion for being an advocate for women in STEM has guided her in developing relationships and building an impressive career thus far. And she's not done yet! A recent recipient of the WEPAN Founders Award, Berry shared her thoughts on her own path and her involvement with WEPAN and women in STEM initiatives.
Becoming a Texan
While some individuals describe a rather roundabout way of reaching their career, Tricia Berry knew her path was engineering since high school. She grew up in central Illinois. After attending an engineering camp at Southern Illinois University prior to her junior year in high school, she considered many types of engineering. Math and science were big interests and medical school was also a thought, though chemical engineering wasn't even in the equation at the time. After exploring chemical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), however, Berry found it to be a good fit and graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering. She began her professional career working in process design for The Dow Chemical Company. In this capacity, she also worked with a lot of students on The University of Texas at Austin campus while participating in a co-op mentor recruiting program.
During her years at Dow, Berry earned her MBA, and ultimately she shared her resume with Sherry Woods, who was at the time UT Austin's Women in Engineering Program (UT WEP) Director and also a past WEPAN President. Woods knew UT Austin was searching for the right person to fill a position as Director for the Engineering Scholarship Program and Undergraduate Recruiting. Berry accepted this position, which began her career in academic services in an area close to her heart. Two years later, she moved into the role of Director of the Women in Engineering Program at UT Austin, replacing Sherry Woods when she changed positions. Berry has also served as the Director of the Texas Girls Collaborative Project since 2007.
Crediting her parents with making sure she learned about different educational and career options, Berry appreciates their involvement in her educational choices and extracurricular activities such as engineering camp. She also remembers great science and math teachers who were positive and supportive. They encouraged and supported her in participating and excelling in science fairs and labs. Once in college, Berry found role models in some faculty members. Unlike many young women, she notes how lucky it was to "have had mostly women managers and strong female leads at Dow." One manager and friend, Rosalyn Jones, helped her make the jump from Dow to UT Austin by helping her see it was a great fit for her. Sherry Woods, her predecessor at UT Austin, also supported Berry in her transition to Director of the Women in Engineering Program.
Meeting and working with the women of WEPAN has also helped shape Berry's career and her success. The "incredibly supportive members of WEPAN encourage and support me on grants and projects. They also push and challenge me so that I can have an impact with my work," says Berry. In an environment where female mentors are often sparse, Berry has enjoyed a somewhat different experience. Male mentors are important too, and Berry was quick to credit her husband when asked who her most important male mentor was. He encouraged her to make the change and take the job at UT Austin, following her to Austin and changing jobs himself.
On being a STEM Advocate
Berry's firsthand experience of recognizing the opportunities afforded women with STEM educations ignited the fire to encourage others. Being able to teach kids how to problem solve, how to work through a process to obtain success, and how to use that perspective to view the world creates the next generation of engineers.
Becoming involved with WEPAN
Berry was first introduced to WEPAN while working at Dow. She attended her first WEPAN conference in San Antonio in 1999. She says "It was fascinating. I met people who were doing what I loved as their jobs." Prior to being involved with WEPAN, Berry's experience with associations was from a professional development standpoint. Says Berry, "When I was exposed to WEPAN, things were flipped. Instead of supporting my job as an engineer, here was an association helping transform the culture to encourage women and girls to become engineers." After accepting her UT WEP Director position, it was a given that she would become involved with WEPAN, following in the footsteps of Sherry Woods once again. Berry saw lots of opportunities with "lots of great people who were passionate about the same things I was passionate about." She found a place to connect with like-minded peers where she could brainstorm, share ideas, and learn about what others were working on in the STEM fields.
WEPAN also possessed something unique from most organizations Berry had been exposed to before. She noticed that the barriers to participating that exist in some associations were absent in WEPAN. "There just isn't the hierarchy that you find in a lot of other organizations," relates Berry. "You can contribute at a significant level in an open and inviting atmosphere at WEPAN, versus the jumping through hoops to serve in a leadership position somewhere else, which can be exhausting."
WEPAN Founders Award meaning
Tricia Berry is honored to have recently received the WEPAN Founders Award. In an organization she admires, with founders who are still actively serving as role models, she feels it is a "lot to live up to." The WEPAN founders, Suzanne Brainard, Jane Daniels, and Susan Metz, were "visionary in thinking about what might help universities change," says Berry. "Each of the founders brings a unique perspective, personality, and demeanor to the organization." She looks up to them and values their input, appreciating the times they have challenged her to think about where she wants to go and what she sees herself doing in this space. Berry is happy to be active in an organization that is a very close knit community making people feel welcome. She values being a part of a community where people always are ready to share and help each other out, which has not changed since her first days with WEPAN.
Sharing advice from someone who's been there
Speaking from a wealth of experience in something dear to her heart, Berry shares one important word of advice with girls and young women considering engineering as a career: "Explore!" She adds, "Some people have a fixed idea of what engineering is and think it doesn't match their interests. I hate seeing them abandon the field before even meeting a real engineer or experiencing an internship and finding out what engineering is really about." Berry describes it as "having an experience with engineering."
For those entering the women in engineering or diversity in engineering service space, Berry counsels them to never stop questioning. She believes there are always opportunities to learn from the students and also your peers. Berry says, "If you come into these kinds of roles and you assume it has all been done before, you may not have as great an impact." She believes that the WEPAN community helps foster this questioning and learning environment, and that being open to how we can improve allows us all to serve students and move the needle forward.
The future world of Tricia Berry
Although UT Austin is currently experiencing the highest number yet of women enrolled in engineering, just over 25%, she isn't finished with that effort. "We are still not where we want to be; it is not 50%," says Berry matter-of-factly. She sees lots of opportunities to galvanize the Texas Girls Collaborative Project, disseminate best practices across the state, and reach more girls. Regardless of the next job title, Berry knows it is likely to include STEM, girls, diversity, and the education space. She notes the growing interest on the K-12 side and the outreach side as being rich with possibilities. Berry says some parents comment, "If I had known what this (engineering) was when I was in high school, then I would totally have been one (an engineer). That's what I want these young girls to know." One thing that won't change for Tricia Berry-is her passion for advocacy. In her own words, "It's who I am. And I'm not done yet." We take those words to heart and look forward to her continuing passion as she leads and mentors the next generation.