If Allison Marsh mentions the Women in Microwaves series that she and Kate Kuisel worked on, don’t bother making a joke about microwave ovens. Marsh understands the impulse — she’s just heard them all already. And she laughs off the idea.
“That's not what we're talking about at all,” the history professor says. “People are all thinking that, and we're talking about integrated circuit design or shielding and noise.”
Marsh and Kuisel, an undergraduate double majoring in history and philosophy, are the co-authors of an oral history project highlighting women in microwave science and engineering. The series is published by the International Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ peer-reviewed Journal of Microwaves; the first installment appeared in the journal’s July issue.
Though women have reached parity in some engineering fields, they’re still a small minority in electrical engineering, comprising only about 12 percent of the field. Narrow the focus further to microwave engineering, and the share shrinks to about 7 percent.
The series addresses that gender imbalance by spotlighting highly accomplished women — and it aims to rectify the disparity by inspiring young women to join the field.
Changing the mind of one person could impact we don't even know how many people.
— Kate Kuisel
But the challenge of telling untold stories is that they’re, well, untold. Journal of Microwaves editor Peter Siegel approached Marsh about writing the series; Marsh writes a regular column for Spectrum, the IEEE’s flagship magazine, that tells the story of technology through historical artifacts. Siegel gave Marsh access to the IEEE History Center’s recording archive, which houses hundreds of oral histories — but only two of them featured women in microwave science.
Marsh’s objective became to document women’s experiences in the field in their own voices — to create what historians call a primary source. But without a background in microwaves, she wasn’t sure where to start.
She asked Siegel for some names to research; he came back with a list of 22 women with a broad swath of accomplishments, experiences and personalities. Women like Maria Stuchly, who immigrated from Poland to Canada and helped the world understand what microwaves and electromagnetic fields do to the human body. Women like Rhonda Franklin, the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in microwave engineering from the University of Michigan. Women like Shrouk El-Attar, an Egyptian electrical engineer who’s also a belly-dancing LGBTQ activist.
Marsh handed the reins to Kuisel, then a sophomore, to write a short bio of each woman. Kuisel excelled at that, so Marsh asked her to suggest the project’s first few subjects.
“I said, ‘Look, you're doing the research. You figure out which ones appeal to you,’” Marsh says.
“She let me choose who to interview,” Kuisel laughs. “How crazy is that?”
Kuisel had Marsh’s full confidence. Kuisel has dreamed of being a historian for as long as she can remember. Her grandfather, Richard Kuisel, inspired her passion for history and academia; he was a noted historian of French economics (though Kuisel says she didn’t know how noted until her brother sent her a picture of their grandfather’s name in a citation in a textbook). She still geeks out about the 70-page research paper she wrote while attending an academic magnet high school in Charleston, South Carolina.
Kuisel wanted to learn how to do professional academic research by her sophomore year. She had taken one of Marsh’s courses — The Rise of Industrial America — as a freshman and loved Marsh’s teaching style. When the semester was over, Kuisel emailed Marsh to ask what projects she was working on and where she could help.
Marsh wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to have a research assistant — especially one as gung-ho as Kuisel.
It's not that I ended my class and said ‘OK, who wants a summer research internship?’ And she did this in the midst of a pandemic, so she's obviously a student who’s looking to do more than the minimum requirements for a class or her major. She really is invested in this.
— Allison Marsh
Marsh was surprised that Kuisel picked, of all the options Marsh presented, the one about women in microwave engineering. The field is highly technical, Marsh says, and Kuisel’s interests lie mostly in how the media influences the perception of history. But Kuisel is also interested in women’s studies and women in STEM, and she was keen to learn the disciplined techniques of oral histories.
Marsh was eager to give Kuisel a taste of that world — though a lot of it, she says, is unglamorous: sending emails, setting up appointments and formatting papers. But, between February and July 2021, she also had Kuisel doing serious work: identifying information gaps in interviews, writing follow-up questions and drafting sections of the article.
“It wasn't like I was just doing the boring research of reading their Wikipedia pages and finding out the basic stuff,” Kuisel says. “I was there for the interview. I was writing the article alongside [Marsh]. I definitely didn't feel like an undergraduate student.”
Kuisel also didn’t feel like an undergraduate when her name appeared on the byline next to Marsh’s — a perk rarely granted to rising juniors.
“I was so excited,” Kuisel says. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe I got published!’ And my name is the second name on there! It brought the biggest smile to my face when I saw it printed. I sent it to everyone. I was like, ‘Look at me! There's my picture at the bottom!’”
Marsh was happy to share the credit. Within the discipline of history, Marsh says, collaborative work isn’t the norm, and research assistants are often thanked with acknowledgments, not co-author credits.
“If I'm working with a student — whether it's an undergraduate or graduate student — I'm going to make sure that they are listed as co-authors,” Marsh says. “I feel like it’s a moral obligation.”
And for Kuisel, at least, working in her dream field was way better than a summer waitressing job.
“This is what I want to do with my life,” she says. “There’s something about working in your career field, and knowing what it's going to be like, and knowing that you'd like it that’s exciting. It’s like having a taste of what you’re going to do. It’s a great experience.”