Not all of engineering focuses on the inner workings of machines, electronics and computers, or the construction of buildings, bridges and roads.
A subset of the field – typically called industrial and systems engineering – focuses on the inner workings of complexity itself, unraveling connections and refining processes in everything from workplaces and organizations to cultures, economies and natural systems.
Professor Tamika Gordon is currently working toward her doctorate in this field, while teaching classes in SUNY Broome’s Engineering Science and Physics Department. The 2019-2020 school year is her first at the college, where she teaches courses in physics and engineering design.
“I’ve seen SUNY Broome grow since I’ve been here. It has a great reputation in the community,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine starting anywhere else.”
From healthcare to STEM
The Brooklyn native didn’t always imagine a future in science, technology, engineering and math. She began her studies in healthcare, with plans to become a pediatrician. After she learned about the opportunities in computer engineering, she shifted her focus and earned her bachelor’s in the field at Boston’s Northeastern University.
It represented a culture shift, too. Health sciences tends to draw more women, while STEM fields are traditionally male-dominated.
“When I went to school in Brooklyn, I went to a predominantly African-American school with Caribbean culture,” said Professor Gordon, whose parents – both proud and supportive of her career choices – are Jamaican. “And then I went to Northeastern, a primarily white university with a white-male dominated engineering program.”
During her undergraduate years, she found the support she needed to make the switch from health sciences to engineering. She also forged needed connections through the National Society of Black Engineers.
After graduation, she worked for a mobile application company and for a charter school embarking on her master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering at Binghamton University, where she is continuing to work toward her Ph.D. Her dissertation topic draws on her early background in healthcare: It explores how Medicaid payment reform impacts patients receiving treatment for mental health concerns.
As a Binghamton University graduate assistant, she became involved with the Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), which aims to increase the number of historically disadvantaged students prepared to enter college. In particular, STEP exposes middle- and high-school students to careers in STEM, health-science and the licensed professions.
The experience sparked Professor Gordon’s interest in teaching. She particularly appreciates that moment when a struggling student makes the connection and finally understands the material.
“It’s more than knowing the answer; it’s about how to approach a problem,” she said.
At SUNY Broome, Professor Gordon appreciates the small class sizes and the supportive nature of her department. The community college mission also makes higher education accessible to students of many different backgrounds, giving them opportunities they may not have otherwise had, she reflected.
Becoming a professor has given her the opportunity to show that engineering science and physics are also open to all – and include a broad swathe of career paths, such as systems or industrial engineering.
“Honestly, by having more diversity in the faculty, you’re giving people of color and women the opportunity to be that role model,” she reflected. “You aspire to be what you learn about and what you see: That’s the barrier.”