March 19, 2024
By Chloe Arrington

The George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering is celebrating Women’s History Month by shining a light on some of the women in our community. March has been recognized as Women’s History Month around the world for over three decades. It serves to highlight and celebrate the achievements of and continue the fight for equality for women in every field.  

Alumna Deborah Kilpatrick, B.S. ESM 1989, M.S. ME 1994, Ph.D. ME 1996, talks about her journey at Georgia Tech and career path as a woman in STEM.

Introduce yourself! What drew you to a career in STEM and Georgia Tech?

My name’s Deborah Kilpatrick. I’m a Georgia native-turned-Silicon Valley transplant, GT-cubed engineer (three degrees at Tech), and now a medtech and digital health executive, and Mom of a student at the University of Vermont. 

I was always good at math and science and always intrigued by people who were working on complex problems to improve society. Growing up in Cochran, Georgia, Georgia Tech was my aspiration and where I wanted to be. When then-Governor Zell Miller created the Governor’s Scholarship program for in-state students, it allowed me to join campus in fall of 1985 as a freshman in the College of Engineering. It was so much fun the first time, that I came back for two more graduate degrees at the Woodruff School.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Tech?

I don’t know if I’d call it a favorite, but I vividly recall living in Glenn Dorm pre-air conditioning! Some of my best memories involve singing to the upstairs jukebox at PJ Haley’s with my roommates in the 1980s, and given that I spent about nine years on campus across three degrees, countless nights in the library, and many, many football games. I also remember walking up and down The Hill thousands of times.

Can you tell us about the trajectory of your career, and the path your mechanical engineering foundation has led you on?

After my undergrad, I spent two years on the F22 Raptor program using the Cray supercomputer for advanced structural mechanics modeling. When I went back to graduate school, I was drawn to mechanical engineering because I could dive deep into my technical interest in computational mechanics while applying it to human tissue as a complex material problem. Choosing this as my doctoral work in Professor Ray Vito’s lab became the defining factor of my future career trajectory in medtech. I could have just as easily gone back to the aerospace sector but working in his lab drove my interest to work on bioengineering problems in the healthcare sector. Based on everything that was going on in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s in medtech, I knew that was where I wanted to be for my career. I’ve spent the last 27 years here working with some fascinating people, companies and products in medical devices, molecular diagnostics, and digital health.  

Who are some women of history, and present day, that are inspirations to you? 

First, my mom. The roots she gave me run deep, they’re strong, and they’ve always kept me grounded. Second, there are many women in STEM without whom our daily lives would be different, but I’ve always been fascinated by the great discoveries in materials science and engineering, because their impact on society can be so broad and lasting. In this category I must call out Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist working in the 1960s on next-gen fibers for new applications in extreme conditions. She invented Kevlar, enabling hundreds and hundreds of product applications in every part of our lives. These days I am inspired by so many of my women friends doing amazing things in medtech. They’re researching, building, commercializing, and funding what’s next in how we manage human disease. I am constantly learning from them.  

Is there a woman that history forgot who you would encourage people to learn about? 

Throughout my time at Georgia Tech, I took many electives studying the history of science and technology and the Age of Enlightenment texts like Newton’s Principia. But it was many years later that I learned about 18th century mathematician and philosopher Émilie du Châtelet, a French woman whose translation of the Principia was published a decade after her death and included many of her own original thoughts and ideas including the concept of conservation of total energy.  

Historians say she would have been among a small set of people on the planet who were even capable of understanding the Principia’s underlying mathematics at the time, a fact made even more remarkable in that she lived in an era when women were not allowed formal education in such topics. In this case, history did not forget her, but we should all certainly know about her—because her translation made Newton’s ideas much more widely understood and accessible to the world.

What would you tell young women who want a career in STEM, and is it the same thing you wish someone had told you?

I was fortunate to have a sense of resilience instilled in me that helped me learn to respect but never fear the complexity of a problem. I think this is an important mindset for anyone who wants a career in STEM working on the larger problems in energy, climate, human health, etc., because the work is rewarding, but it can be incredibly challenging and lengthy. In mentoring conversations with young engineers struggling with how to approach a particularly tough technical problem, I usually start with reminding them to embrace the complexity, because if it were easy or obvious to solve, why would we be needed?   

Having a career in STEM and being a business founder, from your experience, how would you encourage men to advocate for and amplify the voice of women?

Looking at it from a business perspective, we critically need men and women at all levels of management and influence to question the norms, be willing to change legacy dynamics, and listen to the overlooked voices in the rooms we find ourselves in because that is often where the nonobvious solutions to our biggest scientific and engineering challenges will be found.