2006 Society of Women Engineers National Conference

KANSAS CITY, MO.
The annual Society of Women Engineers conference was held October 11-14. For me, it started when I purchased plane tickets to the wrong city. All I had in mind was that I was going to some city that I didn’t really care about. After opening the airline web site, I tried to think of what airport I was supposed to fly to. I typed DCA for the origin and STL for the destination. I asked myself if that was Seattle or St. Louis and remembered that Seattle was SEA. I got a list of nearby airports for DCA, but only STL showed up for the destination. I selected a set of flights and before I clicked to purchase tickets, I asked myself again if STL was right. Of course. It’s not Seattle, I thought.

Five days before my trip, as I made lunch I sang,
I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. They got some engineering women there and I’m gonna be one. I might take a plane or I might take a train…
Wait a minute. Where am I taking this alleged plane? I looked up my reservations, and sure enough, I was going to St. Louis. I looked at a map to see how far that was from Kansas City and realized not only would I take a plane, but I might also have to take a train. So, going into problem-solving mode, I looked up flights to the airport in Kansas City (which I found out was MCI). Flights out of Baltimore to MCI were $500, not including fees to change reservations. The web site didn’t even show me the flights out of Reagan-National or Dulles.

Not liking that option, I looked up car rentals – $200, and I wasn’t sure about the parking situation in downtown Kansas City. While complaining about my boneheaded flight plans to my husband, he got all excited, saying I could take a fun road trip across Missouri past all the corn fields. I did not want to take a road trip. I just wanted to get to the conference. Then he suggested looking into Greyhound. $75 round trip and the schedule worked well. I never looked into the train option. So I took the bus, which dropped me off within walking distance from my hotel in Kansas City.

I’ve been to many engineering conferences, but the SWE National Conference was unlike any other I had attended. This conference turned out to be the most cheesily corporate event I had ever been to. Every time someone got up to speak at a microphone, she had to spew out a 60 second ad for whatever company she worked for. Even at an award ceremony, when the trophy was a glass bowl, we heard more about the special design of the high-strength glass created by the glassware company than about the award recipient and why she was chosen to receive the bowl.

The advantage of attending cheesily corporate events is the great swag – stuffed animals, canvas bags, flashlight pens, leather-bound notebooks, mini-radios, and it wouldn’t be an engineering conference without calculators. Except the calculators don’t have sine or cosine functions, so I’m not sure when engineers would use them. I can add in my head. I’ll have to give them out for trick-or-treats.

I wasn’t sure what to think when Big Oil gave SWE a $1 million check at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the swag floor. Does Big Oil now own SWE in some unstated way? What does Big Oil expect in return? Big Oil even had their cheer team up front in matching corporation uniforms. The last time I was given a matching corporate uniform to wear, I dressed it up with a red tie and navy pants so I looked like one of Stalin’s boys.

SWE thanks you for your gasoline purchases

So much food was available throughout the conference that I didn’t have to worry about meals. I ended up giving a sandwich to some guys at the Greyhound station who didn’t speak much English. I also gave away my glo-necklaces to some kids at the station.

So how did I end up with glo-necklaces and an extra sandwich? Celebrate SWE, a party with favors such as glo-necklaces, was held on the last evening of the conference. Admission to the party was $65, and since I do not have a rich employer to pay for these extras, I did not purchase a ticket. Instead I saved a sandwich from lunch to eat in the evening. But my colleagues encouraged me to come down incase someone had extra tickets to give away. Sure enough, as soon as I walked in, someone walked through shouting, “Anyone need tickets?” This good fortune was not unexpected. The previous evening someone walked up to me during a reception and asked if I knew of anyone who needed a ticket for the dinner that evening. Score! Two dinners without paying the $130 ticket price. Hey, learning to be a chiseler was part of my engineering education.

Like at all conferences, it was great to have the opportunity to catch up with colleagues. I ran into Joy Bell, a former classmate whom I met in calculus class 18 years ago.

Lisa Schaefer (left) and Joy Bell (right)

I also recognized John Kasab, someone I knew from a week-long conference I went to in the summer of 1998. It’s fun to recognize people I haven’t seen for many years.

John Kasab

At one of the fancy dinners, I saw Dr. Mary Anderson-Rowland, a professor who has been at Arizona State since long before I started the three engineering degrees I earned there. I’m glad I ran into her because she is forming a collection of stories about the experiences women have while earning their Ph.D.s in engineering. Boy did I have a story. My Ph.D. thesis advisor paid himself my entire summer salary plus my last two weeks of pay on a research contract I brought to the university, then wrote me a nasty memo firing me as his student and copied the department chair. Luckily I had a good enough reputation to be able to quickly pull together an entirely new thesis committee that day. I’d wonder where that story is going to appear in print, but it doesn’t really matter. What is my former thesis advisor going to do, fire me?

The trip home was somewhat nerve-racking since I had to depend on several transportation service providers to do their job efficiently. Catching the Greyhound just after midnight the evening of Celebrate SWE, I didn’t get much sleep that night. Transferring in downtown St. Louis, the Greyhound waited 35 minutes for other connecting passengers. Fortunately, I arrived at the airport in St. Louis barely in time to wait in the security line for 40-minutes. There were two lines and I was in the very slow one. There could have been three lines, but the three TSA agents manning one of the security stations were too busy chatting to send anybody through their metal detector.

When I finally got through the metal detectors, I found out why my line was slower: the Harasser. After my last bag went through the x-ray machine, they stopped the conveyor belt. Trying to be a part of the solution, I asked if I could retrieve my bag since my flight was leaving in twenty minutes. The TSA Harasser yelled that I had to wait until they started the conveyor again. When the conveyor brought my bag within my reach I picked it up, but the Harasser grabbed it out of my hand and put it on top of the x-ray machine, saying it needed to go through again. This was the bag that contained nothing more than a box of crackers and a bag of chips. The bag that contained a digital camera, cell phone, an old nine-inch long PDA, a rogue bottle of hotel-supplied hand lotion I later discovered, and John Updike’s “The Terrorist” made it through with no problem.

My chip and cracker bag sat on top of the machine for a few moments while I begged the other TSA agents to please place it on the conveyor. I considered doing so myself, but that would have likely prompted the Harasser to grab all my bags and send them through again. Finally one of the TSA agents asked what my bag was doing on top of the machine and sent it through. But that wasn’t good enough. The Harasser ordered another TSA agent to search my bag. When she found only chips and crackers, she seemed confused, but sent me on my way. Luckily my gate was nearby, and I arrived in time to board.

It was a long day, but my flight landed at Dulles on time. I almost volunteered to get bumped in exchange for a $300 voucher, but I had been gone long enough that day, my 12-year wedding anniversary. And my husband (the better-looking-than-Tom-Cruise assistant district traffic engineer at VDOT) would be waiting to show me what he had been working on all day: signal re-phasing along Route 50 between Dulles and Fairfax.

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