International Women in Engineering Day, Part 2: An interview with Jennifer Vail and a look back in time

This is the first year we are celebrating Women in Engineering Day, so we decided to take a dive into some historical timelines to share some of the lesser known pioneering women in the history of engineering. Women who are heroes in the face of adversity as they followed their passion to design and create, regardless of the societal norm, and with or without a degree.

However, we are not only celebrating the women of the past but also the women of today! We’ve spoken with multiple female engineers working in tribology and biochemistry to find out what it’s like for them to be an engineer in the 21st century. This week we were fortunate enough to be able to chat with Jennifer Vail. Jennifer is a well known tribologist who currently works for DuPont and in our interview she offered some fascinating insights into the world of engineering and tribology.

Jump to our interview with Jennifer by clicking here.

Back to our historical figures now. You have probably heard of this first woman, who is known as the first computer programmer. A mathematician who happened to be Lord Byron’s daughter, who whilst the absent and estranged father wrote poems; was herself busy writing algorithms.

Ada Lovelace

If you look into Ada Lovelace’s life, it becomes clear that she was a brilliant mind who was dealt difficult familial issues. At five-weeks-old, Lord Byron demanded that Lovelace’s mother take their five-week-old child and leave. Her mother was also absent for extended periods of time, leaving Ada to be cared for largely by her maternal grandmother Judith, the Hon. Lady Milbanke. Then, at a young age, she had a series of ailments from blurred vision to the measles, for which she required bed rest for almost a year!

Lovelace did not succumb to these unfortunate circumstances and grew to become a determined and inquisitive young woman who was fascinated with learning how to fly, and later became known for her involvement on Charles Babbage’s computer, the analytical engine. Lovelace played an undeniably vital role in the complexity of such work by publishing the first algorithm to be used by a machine, hence why she is accredited as the first computer programmer.

Ada not only worked with the technology of the time, but is also credited with seeing some of the possibilities computing could bring. While others limited themselves to thinking of mathematical problems being solved, Ada looked onwards to how music and art could also benefit.

There are many fantastic books out there about Ada Lovelace and we would encourage you to read more if you are interested!

Tabitha Babbitt

By Unknown author –

An inventor from a Christian sect called Shakers, Tabitha Babbitt spent some of her life as a weaver in Harvard. While there she would watch workers at a sawmill using a two person whipsaw. Tabitha questioned the efficiency of this method for cutting wood and soon came up with a solution.

In 1813, Babbitt created the circular saw to cut lumber. It’s circular shape and spinning nature meant the saw could constantly cut, whereas whipsaws only cut on the forward and not the back stroke. The ingenuity of this particular invention was that it was powered by electricity’s enemy: water! The efficiency of the circular saw was instrumental in cutting down on the time and energy – sorry, we couldn’t resist.

There are several competing claims to this invention, though, as well as similar designs. As Tabitha was a Shaker, there are no patents in her name for the saw or any of her other inventions she is tied to, such as cut nails and the manufacturing process for false teeth. However, it is generally accepted that she did indeed design a circular saw , and her design is credited with being much more useful than any of the competing claims for large scale wood cutting.

Sarah Guppy

By ArnosCourt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Have you ever seen or been across Bristol’s famous Clifton suspension bridge? Well, Sarah Guppy created a patent for the same design of bridge and shared it with none other than the bridge’s final creator, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Guppy, originally from Birmingham, UK, was considered as prolific and brilliantly minded as Thomas Edison. She was best known for building bridges, with a key focus on riverbed bases, and her first patent was for safe piling bridge foundations.

Sarah didn’t limit herself to just bridges though. Over her life she took out a total of ten patents, including methods of keeping ships free of barnacles, a bed with built-in exercise equipment, and a tea and coffee urn that would cook eggs and keep toast warm. Sarah is also credited with working closely with Brunel and providing technical support in the development of the Great Western Railway.

Tribology Today – Jennifer Vail

For the first instalment in our talks with women engineers of today, we spoke with tribologist at DuPont and TEDTalk alumnus Jennifer Vail! Much like the women we have talked about already, Jennifer hasn’t limited herself to one area of work. Instead Jennifer has investigated everything from dog foods to aerospace materials and even writes fiction when not doing STEM outreach. In her TEDTalk Jennifer explained how tribology “is literally all around us!” from brushing your teeth (and your pets) to performing ballet on stage.

Keep reading to find out how simply looking around you at a theme park can be a kid’s gateway into the science of friction, lubrication and wear!

How long have you been an engineer?

I finished my PhD in 2012. Prior to that, I did some internships as an undergraduate with GE Aviation and Walt Disney World Engineering.

When did you start becoming interested in engineering?

As a kid, thanks to Disney World! I’m from Florida so we would take regular trips to Walt Disney World and I loved trying to figure out how everything worked. (I really loved when the rides would stop for whatever reason and I could really look around…) BUT I didn’t actually realize this was engineering until I took a physics course in high school. As soon as I discovered that, my path was set.

What do you enjoy the most about engineering?

I love understanding how things work and specially solving problems. I love solving any puzzle and mechanical engineering for me is just puzzle solving in the world around me. I get a bit of a hit of adrenaline when I work through a problem and solve it!

What drew you to tribology, rather than one of the other areas of engineering?

I love that it’s an intersection of materials science and mechanical engineering and touches almost everything around us. It’s also always an adventure- no two problems are the same.

In my mechanical engineering coursework at the University of Florida, we had to do a materials science course, as well as “technical electives.” My materials science professor was so engaging that I focused my electives in materials science and took his polymers class as well. During my senior design course, the professor asked what my next steps were and I wasn’t sure but was considering grad school. He asked about my interests and when I said I equally loved mechanics and polymer science, he said he had the perfect position for me in his lab. This was Greg Sawyer- a fantastic tribologist and he became my PhD advisor. 

What are some of your biggest achievements?

I never know how to answer this- professionally speaking, I owe all my success to my advisor, amazing mentors, collaborators, and colleagues I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I will say that tribology has managed to take me around the world- that was unexpected!

What does a typical day look like for you?

I don’t have a typical day, which is why I love what I do. I run a lab but also am involved in business projects.  Outside of work, I’m all over the place- I’m learning viola, I swim (sports tribology is super fascinating to me!), I write fiction, and am heavily involved in STEM outreach.

What are some of the misconceptions of being a female engineer?

I wish I knew what the expectations are because people are often surprised to find out I’m an engineer- not sure what they are expecting.  I think some of it is an expectation that we’re like characters on The Big Bang Theory- I don’t know anyone like that.

What do you think the industry and society could be doing to encourage more women to study or choose a career in engineering?

To portray more women in these roles in pop culture- movies, tv shows- and have the characters be just like any other character. Right now, it seems like the female scientists are often quirky side characters, which are amusing but a caricature that is hard to see yourself in. Pop culture did a lot to normalize women in law and medicine- it’s time for that to happen in engineering and other STEM careers. Programs like Mythbusters have done a lot of good to promote how fun and cool engineering is. BBT from my view, did the opposite.

Looking beyond the industrial applications of tribology and how tribology knowledge can benefit companies, are there any ways you think the general public could benefit from a better understanding of tribology?

Tribology has a key role to play in sustainability, as well as many of our everyday interactions. The more people who are aware of tribology, even at a very high level, the better. The next great tribological idea doesn’t have to come from a tribologist- someone may look at something they’re doing and have a great ah ha moment but that can’t happen unless people are at least aware of tribology.

We do learn about friction at primary and secondary school (elementary and high school) but do you think that the term tribology should be introduced at the same time and that the curriculum could or should do more to highlight it’s importance?

I think so but I’m biased! I didn’t learn about it until college but I’ve been a guest speaker for primary school kids and they absolutely loved discovering tribology. It’s a fun word. I had follow ups where they said they had so much fun telling their parents about this funky new word they learned. They sent me videos looking at tribology in their houses and asking about potential applications they thought of. I was really impressed by the entire experience. As one of them told me: “I can’t look at things the same way now!” That’s a pretty powerful thing!

Is there anything you wish you had been told as a young woman when you were just getting into engineering, or tribology or even into working life?

  • Engineering will take you places you never imagined
  • Don’t let anyone dissuade you from following your dreams
  • Ignore anyone who says it will be hard- what is ‘hard’ anyway?         

Is there anything else you want to say?

If you know someone who excels in STEM subjects, let them know how awesome that is! Growing up, my brother was the coolest person in the world (surfer, musician, etc.) and he always told me my math and science skills were a superpower. It was a big deal hearing that from him. Don’t tell him that though- it may go to his head. Also, if you want to make an impact on the world, engineering is a great way to do it! It’s fun!

If you want to find out more….

If you want to find out more about any of the historic women engineers we wrote about today please feel free to get in touch and we will share what we have.

If you want to find out more about Jennifer Vail then we cannot recommend her TED talk highly enough. Jennifer has also kindly allowed us to share her socials:
Twitter: @FrictionPhD
LinkedIn: Jennifer V.