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Women in STEAM Careers – An Interview with Sarah O’Sell

Women in STEAM Careers – An Interview with Sarah O’Sell

Illustration of three women

In a company setting, how have you worked with 3D printing?
As an Industrial Design Manager, 3D printing quickly became an essential tool in the product development process for its rapid prototyping capabilities. Implementing the tool in the workplace and at suppliers helped bring ideas to form in a matter of days. This shaved one month off of product development timelines and won more clients faster. Utilizing 3D and digital file-sharing practices for prototyping and mold-making also enabled more custom or brand-targeted designs.

For a period of time, I was consulting for startups in the Bay Area, CA. That is where I connected with Women in 3D Printing. Joining a professional organization and then moving back home and launching a chapter in Seattle, WA, was an excellent experience to transition my career and build community around a knowledge area that I was excited to pursue.

On the digital side, I am now working as an Additive Manufacturing Marketing Manager at a digital manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, which is developing an Accelerated Geometry Engine. This backend computing infrastructure is designed to eliminate legacy hardware and software struggles and open up innovation development opportunities for the industry.

You also work with 3D printing from a learning perspective, what does this imply and what is it that interests you in this regard?
The democratization of technology and knowledge-sharing are important for social mobility. Since 2015, I have volunteered as a STEAM educator in high school innovation and entrepreneurial-focused classrooms and for community programs because there is a skills, gender, and access gap in technology. Tools like 3D printing and Computer-Aided Design are enabling a distributed world of educators, big-thinkers, and creators to share, connect, and design solutions for tomorrow. 

What or who inspired you to pursue a career in the additive manufacturing industry?
When I was studying Industrial Design at Western Washington University, one of our first 3D engineering projects involved 3D printing Lego pieces that were correctly toleranced for a custom kit. I was fascinated by how quickly a form could come to life and appreciated the development of and wide-spread use of bioplastics. With further research, I was particularly inspired by Neri Oxman, a leading female innovator developing sustainable architecture and generative design applications inspired by nature’s systems.

What It’s Like to Be a Woman in a Male-Dominated Profession?

The additive manufacturing industry is 11% female (Sculpteo, 2020). There have been moments where I’ve been considered out of place, ignored, or just the “booth girl” at trade shows. It is still a reality that professional women need a “ticket” certification to be “approved” to practice certain skills or advance. I realized I had to “build my own chair” at the table. This involved asking for 30min informational coffee meetings with mentors who I was inspired by, discussing skills growth, self-study, revising my resume to mention key hard tech engineering, computer science, and math skills, targeting clients for exposure, and saving up to take additional courses for certification after determining necessity.

Don’t expect a first meeting to lead to a job, it is your continued effort and noticed growth that will lead to a recommendation. After a 2-yr laser focus network-development push, I’ve been fortunate to find clients (when I was consulting) that respect my skills and now work at a company that supports my initiative. Joining Women in 3D Printing professional organization and launching the Seattle chapter was another growth point. It has been incredible to build a 3D printing community in Seattle when there previously was none, and now I try to serve as a mentor to high school and collegiate women interested in STEAM careers.

What advice do you have to young women who want to enter male-dominated tech professions?
For a period of time, I had to practice confident engagement and felt that I needed to prove myself. If you are truly passionate about a certain professional direction, nothing should prevent you from pursuing it. We spend ⅓ of our lives (or more) at our jobs – so it’s important to be selfish and go after those opportunities that make you light up. Women are less likely to apply for a job that seems like a stretch goal, keep in mind that you can only grow if you push your boundaries. Use LinkedIn career histories to map out skills and pathways to roles you’d like to have someday and take on consulting gigs or light volunteer work to gain skills and try out opportunities before committing.

Tip for getting more recommendations; figure out the work production chain (who will give you work and who you will pass your work to), connect with those folks, and understand their roles/needs. You may be the only person doing your job at a company if it is small, so for example, another designer may not be the person to recommend you for the design role, it might be an engineer. It may take some time to find a great mentor, hone your personal pitch, or land that great job, but there is a growing list of professional organizations that seek to close the diversity gap across the tech industry – join one and engage. Never stop learning.

Turning to the potential of 3D printing, how do you think it can be used to create a positive impact on our society?
For humans, we are seeing outstanding medical advances, from the accessibility of modern healthcare techniques to complete functional replacement of bone or tissue. For the Earth, the ability to “grow” a form, rather than remove material (and waste the scraps) is only the start. The ability to share files and digitize our supply chains is an enabler for diversified localization of production and a reduction in shipping emissions. I hope that more development and implementation of compostable or “circular economy” materials can happen in the next five years, especially as we begin producing more consumer goods with 3D printing.

Do you have any advice for students who want to learn more about 3D print or even pursue a career in the additive manufacturing industry?

There are local libraries across the country that are building out maker spaces. During the Pandemic, makers can turn to sites like MakeXYZ to connect with neighbours who may own a 3D printer. Fusion360 and TinkerCAD are free 3D modelling programs and sites like Thingiverse offer a significant library of Creative Commons-licensed files that are ready to print. For anyone wishing to pursue a career in the industry, learning is accessible for desktop “FDM” printers – this is a great place to start to understand the development to the production process.

Beyond there – start attending online events and just listen. When you pick up on repeated words or companies, Google them, reach out to other professionals with a thoughtful quick question on LinkedIn. Publications like Fabbaloo and 3D Printing Media Network have great industrial content. According to Alexander Daniels Global Additive Manufacturing (AM) Salary Survey 2019, a full 37% of respondents came into the industry with no experience in AM or from industries other than listed adopter industries, or engineering. You can too. Know your worth and speak to your value.

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