Sisters in STEM

Different paths led sister duo to engineering

MARIETTA, Ga. (Dec 9, 2019) — When Katherine Mitchell graduates from Kennesaw State University this spring, there will be plenty to hang her hat on.

While pursuing a mechanical engineering degree in the Southern Polytechnic College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, she has co-authored three research papers as a member of the College’s Nuclear Energy, Science and Engineering Laboratory (NESEL) and has presented her work at numerous academic conferences across the country. She already has landed a job at Crane Nuclear and has invested additional time as a member of the Marching Owls athletic band.

Another point of pride, she said, are the doors she is opening for her younger sister, Anna Mitchell, who is a first-year student in the same degree program at Kennesaw State.

“My biggest advice to her has been to get involved early and often,” Katherine said. “I’ve tried to introduce her to my classmates and professors, and connect her with clubs so that she can find an area of mechanical engineering that speaks to her.”

Katherine and Anna Mitchell
Katherine and Anna Mitchell

The Mitchell sisters are attempting to do what few women do nationwide by earning a degree in engineering. Though women make up more than half of the U.S. population, they only earned 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees in 2014, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). In October, KSU was awarded an NSF grant to improve gender diversity among the institution’s engineering programs and to increase degree success for academically talented students with demonstrated financial need.

Though they happen to be in the same degree program at the same time, Katherine said they both followed different paths when it came to picking a major, adding that she originally thought she would study mathematics.

“I grew up building things when I was little – LEGOs and K’NEX ­– and knew that I was particularly strong in math but didn’t know if I should pursue a degree in mathematics or engineering,” she said. “I didn’t have any engineering experience prior to attending KSU, but a friend of mine convinced me that I should come to college to learn new things and that I was more than capable of studying engineering. I’m so glad that I did.”

During her second semester at KSU, Katherine was introduced to Eduardo Farfan, professor of nuclear engineering, who subsequently invited her to research under him. When attending the American Nuclear Society annual meeting in June 2019, she brought Anna along for the experience.

“I didn’t understand much of it, but it was really cool to see her stand up in front of a bunch of adult men who all had degrees in nuclear engineering and watch her teach them something,” Anna said.

Unlike Katherine, Anna knew well in advance that she would study engineering, crediting their mother for encouraging her to take engineering classes in high school in preparation.

“I want to say our mom had more influence on us than she realizes, because in college she studied chemical engineering and she’s always encouraging us to explore how to build things and how things work,” Anna said, adding that her mother is currently enrolled in KSU’s integrative studies degree program.

Since arriving at KSU, Anna has taken part in the annual Pumpkin Launch, a popular semester-long project for students in the Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course, and has been invited by Katherine’s research partner to study carbon nanostructures.

“Just the ability to become involved with nuclear and have the ability to add that to my resume is an amazing opportunity, and I don’t think I would have had that opportunity without her,” Anna said. “We have twice the networking opportunities because we can introduce people to one another.”

Justin Park, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering whom Katherine credits as being a major influence, said that having two sisters pursue the same degree at the same time has been a rarity in his academic career.

“I have never seen this case in my life, actually,” he said. “I’m assuming that it is very unique to have two siblings in the same program, but I believe it would be even harder to find a pair of sisters pursuing an engineering degree at the same time. It is a joy to see them walk the same path, becoming best friends.”

Though Katherine is soon to graduate, Anna said they might not be the last pair of Mitchell sisters at KSU. Their younger sister, Elizabeth, is currently taking engineering classes at her high school. Katherine and Anna are actively recruiting her to study mechanical engineering at the University.

“I want to be the same mentor for her that my older sister has been for me,” Anna said.

—Travis Highfield

Photography by David Caselli


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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 38,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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