Meet 10 Hokie alumnae who are laying a foundation of support for the next generation of women in engineering. As emerging leaders in their disciplines and organizations, these women speak to the importance of mentorship, representation, and dreaming big.
What does it take to be a woman in engineering – a discipline in which women have historically been underrepresented? Many women across the various fields of engineering point to drive, an innate curiosity, and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others. But they also speak to an important undercurrent of support as they pursued their academic and professional goals, an unwavering community of friends, family, and mentors who not only encouraged the pursuit of their dreams, but often showed the way forward.
In September of 1921, the first full-time undergraduate women students came to Virginia Tech. Ruth Terret was studying civil engineering and four other students were studying applied chemistry, trailblazers who lit the path for women to study engineering, science, and more at Virginia Tech. In this 100th anniversary of women students at Virginia Tech, the College of Engineering is joining others across the university to highlight the important role engineering and science played in first bringing women to campus.
Representation and support remain important factors in women pursuing engineering at Virginia Tech. Even though the university has come a long way, with many prominent women in leadership roles across the college, 12 alumnae who have been inducted into the college’s Academy of Engineering Excellence, and the Hypatia living learning community focused on women engineering students, we're looking for opportunities to grow.
Below you’ll meet 10 early to mid-career alumnae who are already paving the way forward for the next generation of Hokie engineers. As standouts in their disciplines and organizations, these emerging leaders discuss their paths into engineering, the difference mentorship has made in their careers, and why it’s important to support the women who will come after them.
Network Director for Launch Vehicles and Robotics, NASA
B.S., Aerospace Engineering, 2012
Rosa Avalos-Warren had always known she wanted to pursue a career in space exploration. Her study of aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech helped her understand how to apply theory to real-world scenarios, she said, as she worked under some “amazing” mentors, including her professors. “With a lot of support from my parents, brothers, Virginia Tech’s professors, and my mentors, I was able to fulfill my dream of becoming an aerospace engineer,” Avalos-Warren said.
Since graduating in 2012, Avalos-Warren has worked for NASA in multiple engineering and management roles, leading more than 25 missions for flights to the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew Program, and recently serving as the human spaceflight mission manager for the Artemis program. Avalos-Warren is now the network director for launch vehicles and robotics at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She counts her efforts leading missions, producing space hardware, empowering the next generation of women space explorers, and being a working mother of two as some of her most rewarding experiences as a woman in engineering.
To Avalos-Warren, “cultivating and supporting the next generation of women engineers is a must.” A first-generation college student from Lima, Peru, she was the first in her family to attend a university in the United States and has taken part in outreach with the U.S. Department of State to connect with students from around the world. “During one of my outreach events in a small Peruvian village, I remember a young girl telling me, ‘I didn’t know women could actually be engineers and work in space exploration — thank you for opening my eyes to something I didn’t know,’” Avalos-Warren said. “This was the highlight of my trip. It certainly stayed with me, and motivated me to continue pursuing outreach activities.”
Director of Design, Capital One
Ph.D., Computer Science, 2007
Since receiving her Ph.D. in computer science in 2007, Jamika Burge has explored roles in tech research and education, entrepreneurship, and leadership as a design and tech executive. To describe herself more simply, though, she’s gone with the title of human computer scientist — Burge is interested in understanding people and their needs and ensuring that computing technologies meet them, and she’s committed to making design and technology on the whole more inclusive.
To that end, six years ago, Burge co-founded the Washington, D.C.-based think tank blackcomputeHER.org, with a mission to support computing, tech education, and workforce development for Black women and girls. Burge currently serves as the organization’s president, and for the last four years has been growing its Fellows Program, a cohort-based leadership development program designed to cultivate Black women leaders in computing and tech.
The Fellows Program provides a safe space for personal and career development, Burge explained, and it creates a talent pool from which leaders go on to serve as facilitators and speakers for other blackcomputeHER programs that the organization provides at scale. “This allows us to develop capacity within the community, and, in turn, amplify these women through leadership opportunities to continue to grow the broader the community,” Burge said.
To date, nearly fifty Black women have gone through the blackcomputeHER Fellows Program. For Burge, providing support and mentorship to other women, especially Black women and other women of color, could reshape engineering and tech fields in urgently important ways.
“Inclusivity and intersectionality are critical to truly innovating in design and tech spaces, and our next generation of women engineers expect and deserve the opportunity to be represented in the solutions we create,” Burge said. “I've benefited professionally when other leaders have acknowledged the value of my voice and listened to — and followed — my recommendations, not because I'm a woman, or Black, but because my lived experiences bring influence and skill to the work. The best leaders recognize that unique perspectives are powerful and drive impact for the business.”
Associate Professor of Practice, Virginia Tech
B.S., Mathematics, 1996
M.S., Computer Science, 2002
At the Computer Systems Genome Project, a research group composed of more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech is conducting the first effort to catalog the lineage of computer system performance over time. Margaret Ellis, one of the project’s leaders, loves to witness the enthusiasm students express when those in the group and her classroom discover how concepts in computer science work.
Ellis’s passion for opening up participation in computer science is threaded through her career. She started out aiming to be a math teacher and did so, then branched out to computer science instruction, eventually returning to graduate school at Virginia Tech to study computer science further. She worked in industry and started her own business before returning to education.
Ellis remembers pivoting to teach computer science within higher education to get more involved in enabling female access to the subject. “I changed my career path when I attended a workshop about encouraging girls in AP Computer Science, and began to understand my experience as a woman in the field,” she said. “I directly benefited from seminal outreach efforts to broaden participation in computer science. I was fortunate enough to begin my faculty career at Virginia Tech under Barbara Ryder, who is a leader, advocate, and role model.”
Ruby B. Sutton
Environmental Engineer, Nevada Gold Mines
B.S., Mining and Minerals Engineering, 2015
For the past three years, quarterly print magazine STEMher has shared the stories of more than 100 women and girls worldwide, featuring their education, experiences, and skills in STEM. “I am excited to share STEMher Magazine with the world,” said Sutton, STEMher’s founder and director. “I created STEMher to share the stories of women and girls worldwide who are in STEM, to inspire young girls and women to pursue STEM, and to educate and empower, as well as celebrate those who are thriving in their academic programs and careers.”
Alongside publishing six issues of the magazine since its founding, Sutton has served as an environmental engineer for Nevada Gold Mines. Throughout her career, she’s confronted imposter syndrome and the loneliness of being “other” in engineering, as a Black person and a woman in the field, Sutton said. These moments have served as reminders of the importance of her work with STEMher, including efforts to inspire women in engineering, present to groups and organizations to better their place in the field, and showcase their achievements in STEM.
“We have to remember to lift others as we climb,” Sutton said. “It’s important to help guide those who are coming up behind us so they won’t make the same mistakes we made, build up their confidence, be a support for them, and empower them to go beyond. The women ahead of me inspire me to be confident in my skills and abilities, and to reach for excellence and nothing less.”
Program Manager, CrowdAI
B.S., Electrical Engineering, 2015
During her senior year at Virginia Tech, Paige Kassalen attended the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Women in Engineering conference. During the conference, someone in the crowd asked a question, Kassalen remembers: “How do I continue studying engineering, when my family and friends say I can’t?” Kassalen said this was a defining moment for her — she realized how fortunate she had been to have an amazing support system and decided that she needed to go above and beyond to encourage the women around her in life and work.
“I realized I can make an impact by being someone who says, ‘you got this!’” Kassalen said.
After graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering, Kassalen became the only American, female engineer on the ground crew for Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered airplane to fly around the world. Though the project saw success, Kassalen battled her own forms of self doubt as she began her career.
“Everyone, especially women, can have imposter syndrome,” Kassalen said. “Earlier in my career, I always thought someone else would be able to find a better solution than me because I was so new to the field. At some point, I realized that that mentality was not sustainable and I was done sitting on the sidelines. I was qualified to start making decisions and could not let my inner self doubts stop me from driving changes and implementing solutions in organizations.”
Kassalen now works at CrowdAI, a start-up company that’s currently building a code-free platform to implement computer vision models into a range of industries. She sees the effort as a path to making artificial intelligence accessible for technical and non-technical users. In that role and others before it, she’s learned how invaluable it is for women to work in STEM spaces.
“Diverse teams solve diverse problems,” Kassalen said. “In order to have more innovation in sectors that especially impact women, we need more women solving those problems. Every woman in STEM or in leadership has made it easier for me to step into those roles, and I am working hard to make sure it continues to get easier for the next generation.”
Charles T. Holland Professor of Mining and Minerals Engineering, Virginia Tech
Mining and Minerals Engineering Department Head
B.S., Mining Engineering, 2002
M.S., Mining Engineering, 2005
Ph.D., Mining Engineering, 2008
Kray Luxbacher looks back at her time as a student at Virginia Tech — an eleven-year journey from receiving her bachelor’s degree in mining and minerals engineering to completing her Ph.D. — as one of seizing opportunities in engineering as they came along. She’s inspired by other female mining engineers who’ve done the same, and whom she’s encountered as the Charles T. Holland Professor of Mining and Minerals Engineering and head of the department. Luxbacher was the first tenured female professor in the department and its first female head.
Luxbacher remembers having outstanding mentors throughout her time at Virginia Tech and hopes to provide the same support to current students and alumni. “Alumna Ruby Sutton stopped by just the other day to visit, and she is thriving as an engineer with a metal mining company in Nevada,” Luxbacher said. “Another female student was just selected for a highly prestigious national scholarship recently, and a group of female students invited me to dinner at their apartment once — just to get to know me better and talk about their job offers.”
It’s these daily interactions that she finds most stimulating and rewarding as a woman in engineering. A member of the mining and minerals engineering faculty since 2008 and department head since 2020, Luxbacher feels deeply committed to diversity and inclusion, serving as founding faculty member of the Watford Society, which promotes diversity, inclusion, and professional development among the student body.
“Innovation comes from diversity of thought and perspective, and our society has enormous challenges awaiting engineers, so certainly, I want to see a diverse group rising to meet these challenges,” Luxbacher said. “In mining, these are issues like recovery of critical minerals, supply chain in a global market, and decarbonization.”
Staff Systems Test Engineer, Cruise
B.S., Electrical Engineering, 2016
There’s a memory from high school that sticks out to Alexis Tuason as a powerful snapshot of her experience as a woman in STEM thus far: volunteering with an all-female robotics team. Tuason picked up a lot of skills and lessons from that time and the years since, she said.
“The most fulfilling thing for me is passing those lessons along to the next generation, not just by talking, but by helping them work through it themselves, hands-on — whether it’s technical problem solving, organization, breaking down big problems, or communication,” Tuason said.
Tuason has been able to lend those lessons to others in the workforce as an electrical engineer for Stack Labs, and now as a staff systems test engineer at urban self-driving service Cruise. She started on that path while at Virginia Tech by “taking a leap,” she remembers, and turning down a co-op position close to home for hands-on work experience as a Stack Labs intern.
“I made that decision and every career decision since by following what I'm actually passionate about and care about,” Tuason said. “If you love what you do, you'll do a good job, enjoy yourself, and your professional career will thrive from it. It's simple advice, but it can't be more true.”
Software Engineer, Microsoft
B.S., Computer Science, 2019
Jiayi hadn’t yet chosen a career path when she arrived at Virginia Tech, but during her first computer science course in her freshman year, she was hooked. She decided to major in computer science and eventually worked as a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses within the department. Lee loved the interactions with new people every day, she said.
As a software engineer for Microsoft, Lee aims to continue connecting with students to build their interest in computer science. She’s working on a shadowship program with the company to better expose college students to the industry. “It’s absolutely important to support the next generation of women engineers,” Lee said. “My first computer science class was taught by a female professor, Margaret Ellis. She served as a role model for me — it was refreshing and inspiring for me to see a professional woman in the tech field.”
Project Manager, Quible & Associates, P.C.
B.S., Civil Engineering, 2010
As an engineer, Cathleen Saunders has contributed the past 11 years of her career to ensuring safe stormwater management, with a focus on design, project management, and construction for water, stormwater, and roadway design. Recently assuming the role of partial owner in Quible & Associates, P.C., she’s eager to continue her work of providing unique site designs, including a future redevelopment of the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center in Nags Head, North Carolina.
Saunders was recognized for her work by the Society of Women Engineers’ Distinguished New Engineer Award in 2018, and for her part in an effort she’s equally passionate about: engaging women in STEM learning and careers. Through her volunteer positions with the society, Saunders has mentored engineering students at universities all along the east coast, in addition to serving as a professional counselor at Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Looking ahead, Saunders is excited to assist with the group’s middle and high-school STEM activities in Richmond, Virginia. “It’s been rewarding to present at various Society of Women Engineers conferences and to be able to give back to students who will soon come into a position like mine,” Saunders said, who is appreciative of her company’s support of her outreach efforts.
Saunders said she’s grateful to have worked with an organization like the Society of Women Engineers, with the opportunities it’s offered to connect with other women in her field. “Through the Society of Women Engineers, I’ve met many other women in engineering that have mentored me through life changes, like working from home full-time and maternity leave,” she said. “There are things that females may have to navigate that their male colleagues do not. It’s been beneficial to have female mentors assist me in balancing particular areas of my life.”
President and CEO, Quality Agents
B.S., Biological Systems Engineering, 1999
After graduating from Virginia Tech and earning an MBA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Carla Rampy began her career as a validation engineer at a consulting firm supporting biotech and pharma clients. There, she learned about equipment and utilities that support drug manufacturing. She’s since started her own business, Quality Agents. One of her team’s latest projects has them validating equipment to support cell therapy manufacturing.
As a business owner, Carla Rampy has found it fulfilling to hire young female engineers and watch them grow as they take on management roles — and to show them that women can lead.
“It's important to give women confidence in engineering, and it starts with seeing other women engineers in top leadership roles,” Rampy said. “Women also must be interested at a young age in engineering in order to maintain interest level throughout college and future job placements.”
Want to support more women pursuing engineering at Virginia Tech? Consider a gift to the Future Alumnae Scholarship fund.
Awarded to first-year students who demonstrate leadership, academic success, and service in high school, this unique and competitive scholarship is renewable up to four years for recipients who are active members in women’s engineering student groups. Following an esteemed career in engineering, Susan Hughes established this scholarship to bring together individuals and corporations interested in providing financial support to students pursuing degrees in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. For more information, contact Director of Development Emily Hutchins at (540) 231-4066.