Cristina Davis and Raquel Pimentel Contreras over a blue background
Associate Vice Chancellor for Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives and Professor Cristina Davis, left, and M.S. student Raquel Pimentel Contreras

International Women’s Day Spotlight on UC Davis Women in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, the University of California, Davis, College of Engineering recognizes women in engineering, their journey to and in the field, and how they promote a diverse, equitable and inclusive world.

Meet some remarkable women in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and learn how they inspire inclusion in engineering.

  • Cristina Davis, Professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives
  • Raquel Pimentel Contreras, M.S. Student

What inspired you to pursue engineering? Describe your journey to UC Davis.

Davis: Engineering touches all aspects of our lives. As engineers, we are able to contribute to technologies that enhance lives, improve our society, and power our economy. Working on applied engineering research problems can lead to a career full of fulfilling accomplishments.

Pimentel Contreras: In our family, it's just us girls, and we've built a strong bond with our dad. He was the one who introduced us to tasks typically considered "men's work" around the house. My fascination particularly grew with cars while helping him with his trucks. This hands-on experience ignited my passion for Engineering, uncovering my enthusiasm for building things, tinkering with vehicles, and indulging in practical work. My mom has been equally influential in shaping my career path. She's an amazing woman who consistently encouraged my sisters and me to pursue our ambitions and not allow societal expectations to stop us from achieving what we wanted. Both of my parents, being immigrants, moved to this country aiming to provide us with a better future, and making them proud has always been my greatest aspiration.

Describe your current research and its impact.

Davis: My research focuses on chemical sensing. I lead an interdisciplinary team made up of engineers, chemists, computer scientists, and biologists. Together we work on applications ranging from miniature mobile sensors that can detect chemicals in the environment, to metabolomics applications to determine health effects of wildfire exposures. These topics are critically important in California and the world.

Pimentel Contreras: I am close to finishing my project: a portable chemical detection platform capable of identifying and quantifying mercaptan additives. Mercaptans are the compounds responsible for the distinct "gas leak" odor in natural gas. The significance of this research is due to the absence of a portable device in the current market that can precisely measure mercaptan levels. This innovation could revolutionize how gas companies monitor and ensure public safety by providing more accurate mercaptan concentrations in gas lines. Currently the technology present is not portable and very sensitive to any movement which highlights the need for a portable device.

The 2024 International Women’s Day theme is #InspireInclusion. Why is it important to "inspire inclusion" in the engineering field?

Davis: For our engineered systems to be the most effective, it is important that representatives from our entire society are involved in creating the solutions.  Different perspectives, ideas and thought processes enhance the design process.  It allows us to provide engineering solutions for all.

Pimentel Contreras: When I began my journey in Engineering, there were only 2-3 female students in all my classes. Often, I encountered skepticism and discouragement from my male peers, who implied that Engineering was a "man's field" and not suited for a girl. However, this experience demonstrates the importance of reassuring young girls passionate about science, math, tools, and cars that they are not alone. It's crucial for them to understand that with determination, they can accomplish whatever goals they aspire to, regardless of the field. There is no better satisfaction than achieving your goals and proving everyone wrong.

What people or programs have inspired inclusion throughout your journey in engineering?

Davis: Public education in the United States has been one of the transformative pillars of societal progress from the twentieth century to present. The State of California’s mission to serve and educate within our state has had transformative power in our local and state communities.

Pimentel Contreras: Dr. Davis is a huge inspiration in the field of engineering. As a woman who has achieved remarkable success, she leads one of the biggest engineering laboratories at UC Davis. Her presence as a female leader in this traditionally male-dominated domain serves as a powerful motivator, attracting more women to the field. Working under a woman like Dr. Davis provides a sense of security and belonging in an environment where women are the minority.

How do you make others feel welcome in engineering and promote diversity and equity in the field?

Davis: The University of California system, by its very nature, helps enable social mobility and education for all Californians. The 1960s saw The California Master Plan for Higher Education provide an architecture to enable individual achievements, and this has powered our state economy for decades.

Pimentel Contreras: As a Latina, I'm very familiar with the challenges of being a minority and make it a point to treat everyone equally. I believe in valuing individuals for their character rather than their appearance or background. In the lab, I strive to be supportive and create an environment where everyone feels welcomed and comfortable around me. To me, a person's skin color, gender, sexual orientation, and other attributes don't shape their identity, rather, it's their deeds, personality, and accomplishments that truly define them.

Primary Category

Secondary Categories