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New Faces: Sarah Harris

Women going into engineering should take care not to fall victim to the "imposter syndrome," this professor advises.
People  |  Oct 13, 2014  |  By Megan Downs
(Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Sarah Harris, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, comes to UNLV after spending 10 years as an assistant and associate professor at Harvey Mudd College in the nation's top-ranked undergraduate engineering program.

Why UNLV?

I would love to enhance the undergraduate- and graduate-level teaching and research, and it's great to work with such a broad group of excellent researchers. Some of the research I'm doing is in collaboration with Dr. Martin Schiller in life sciences on modeling protein-protein networks using electrical circuits. We started this project while I was still at Harvey Mudd in 2012.

What do proteins have to do with engineering?

Proteins interact with each other through a network. Networks exist in electrical circuits as well, so if we can model proteins using electrical circuits then we can better understand and predict behaviors of the biological systems. And not only that, we also hope to use protein networks as computational circuits.

You wrote a major textbook that is used in computer engineering courses around the globe. How did that start?

I had always wanted to write a textbook combining digital design and computer architecture, probably since I was an undergrad. The textbook is successful, I think, because it makes the subject approachable and cohesive -- each topic builds upon the previous one. I worked on this with a colleague at Harvey Mudd, David Money Harris (no relation). He had published a popular textbook on VLSI design already, and we approached his publishers about writing this textbook. We had each separately taught courses that covered the topics using our own material, so we researched what was out there and decided our approach offered a cohesive understanding of the combined topics of digital design and computer architecture, starting with the basics of 1s and 0s and building up to designing your own computer processor. We wrote the first draft within a year and a half.

Now, there are at least 30 universities using it and it's been translated into Chinese, Japanese, German and there's a new Russian version coming out. I just spoke with some professors at a university in Germany who happen to be using our textbook, too. It's been really rewarding to see how widely it is used.

What's the most common misconception about your field?

More often than not, when I say that I'm an electrical engineer the response is "Oh, that's really hard." Yes, it's challenging but it's totally fun. It's like a lot of things -- it can be difficult at first, but the more you work at it, the easier it becomes. It does take effort, don't get me wrong, but it's disappointing if thinking it's too hard is what drives people away.

Any advice for women who are entering the engineering field?

Don't get discouraged. A couple of years ago I went to a meeting with the president of Harvey Mudd and several dozen female leaders in technology, even Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook was at this meeting. It was the first time I had heard of the "imposter syndrome" where people think, "Oh, I shouldn't be here. I'm not good enough or smart enough. People are going to find out and wonder why I'm here." And I think the trick is to realize that feeling like an imposter happens to almost everyone. And then move on to doing what you want to do.

Both men and women are susceptible to that feeling. If you enjoy what you are doing, and you run up against some challenges, work through it and remember the end goal, which is being able to create and build cool things -- things that help people and make the world a better place. In engineering you don't have to stop at thinking about something that would be cool, you can actually build it.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

I want to be the professor who explains things clearly and empowers students to be able to do it themselves -- whatever it is: building a robot, deriving a formula, etc. I'd like to help them reach that "Aha" moment where they can say, "Hey, look what I created."

Any hobbies?

Sleep! (I wish I were joking.) I have three little boys, ages 5, 2, and 0. Before kids, I used to do lots of things -- like rock climbing, tennis, windsurfing, traveling. I'm sure I'll get back to those hobbies. I guess I still do some of those things, just on a different scale -- usually accompanied with words like, "Don't climb on that!"