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Q&A with Synopsys Scientist Lisa McIlwain: Advancing Women in STEM

Scientist Lisa McIlwain Advocates for Women in STEM
Photo courtesy of Gia Goodrich

By Editorial Team

While Lisa McIlwain has long held great respect for people in professions like teaching and caregiving who do so much hands-on good, she wasn’t always so certain she felt the same about the technology industry. Well, 2020 is changing her point of view. Imagining how we would have gotten through the COVID-19 pandemic without technology, she recognizes that this industry provides significant, real human benefits.

McIlwain is a Synopsys Scientist, the only woman so far to hold this post (though there are women in similar technical roles, such as Distinguished Architects). We sat down with her recently to talk about her role in the company’s Verification Group and her passion toward advancing women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

Q: What inspired your interest in a scientific career?

A: As a child I mostly wanted to read and wander outside. I had little interest in math or science. My parents were both scientists: my mom was a biochemist, though her career was unhappy and brief, and my dad was a professor of math and computer science. However, in our family, my brother and I slotted into gender-normative roles as mathematical (him) and verbal (me) from early ages. My dad spent a lot of time working on math problems with my brother, but not with me, and I found math tedious and difficult until high school algebra and geometry, when a couple of great teachers led me to the startling revelation that I could be good at it.

Q: What led you to the discipline of computer science at Purdue?

A: My dad taught at Purdue, so I grew up there. I started at Oberlin College as an English major. But during my freshman year I started to think seriously about how I could earn a living in that field and became doubtful. I had taken an introductory CS class at Purdue the preceding summer (Fortran! punch cards!) and done OK, and for an independent winter term project at Oberlin I learned C and wrote a random poetry generator. I had a lot of fun with that, and in the spring I decided to transfer to Purdue and switch to computer science. In a way it was a contrarian move, to prove to my family, and perhaps myself, that I could do this thing that I wasn’t expected to be able to do (I admit a hometown boyfriend also factored into that decision).

Maybe a more interesting question is what led me to electronic design automation, or EDA. When I graduated from Purdue, I could easily have landed in some Indianapolis bank’s payroll processing department. Instead I had the good fortune to be hired by Betty Shanahan, the only female member of Data General’s Eagle engineering team, whose race to bring a new minicomputer to market was famously documented in Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine. This book describes a corporate culture of tossing new grads into the deep end—which, in my case at least, was an exhilarating and confidence-building rapid-growth experience. After three years at Data General, I was hired by the startup Viewlogic Systems (now part of Synopsys), and from there went on to Mentor Graphics and, finally, Synopsys. I was very lucky to get that first chance, which I think I wouldn’t have without Betty Shanahan’s interest. She went on to become the executive director of the Society of Women Engineers and an active public advocate for the engineering professions generally.

Q: What are some of the rewards—and frustrations—of scientific and technological exploration?

A: I just love the intrinsic satisfaction of solving difficult real-world problems, along with the mental exercise that entails. I also love working with a great team and collaborating with so many different people that I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise know. I think this career has forced me to grow in directions that I might not have otherwise.

Q: What are some of the challenges that women engineers face?

A: I think that, as in any traditionally male field, women in engineering still must prove their technical competence in a way that men do not have to. Also, women must be more aware of how they are perceived in the workplace and adjust their behaviors accordingly. This takes time and energy that could be better spent on the work itself, and that can be frustrating.

Another challenge is, outside of work, many people don’t know what to make of a woman in engineering and/or find her profession intimidating. It takes a unique social skill to address this and it can have an isolating effect.

Q: Tell us a little about the work that you and your team are involved in.

A: My team and I are working on a project that will massively parallelize traditionally sequential algorithms, to allow rapid verification of our customers’ extremely large circuit designs.

Q: What’s a typical day like for a Synopsys Scientist?

A: I’m sure it varies considerably according to the person’s position. Like everyone else, I am working remotely, but for me this is not new as I live in Oregon and the rest of my team does not. My days consist of writing and reviewing specifications and code, debugging, and technical discussions with colleagues. I try to take a break to get outside for some exercise every day. Some Synopsys Scientists have more managerial/executive roles, and I have done those jobs previously. All are expected to exhibit deep and broad technical leadership.

I was astonished to learn that there aren’t yet any other women Synopsys Scientists. I would like to spend more time mentoring younger women to help them advance their careers and reach these higher positions.

Q: In terms of verification, where we are helping our customers find bugs earlier and faster, what are some areas where we could further push the boundaries?

A: Well, that is what my team’s current project is all about: redesigning our tools to effectively utilize modern parallel computing architectures.

I also think customers would benefit from closer integration of different verification technologies, and of verification and implementation technologies.

Q: Congratulations on your upcoming 25-year anniversary with Synopsys. Highlights so far?

A: Thanks! 25 years is a long time to work anywhere, so there have been a few. I joined Synopsys’ Digital Design Group as a founding member of the Formality® team; building that team and bringing a new product from concept to market leadership was definitely a highlight! Three years ago, I transferred to the Verification Group, and the opportunity to learn and work in a brand-new product area, with another great team, has been completely rejuvenating.

Q: Who is your idol in the science or technology world and why?

A: Scientists I admire most are those who find effective ways to speak to non-scientists on scientific subjects of critical importance to humanity. I think in many ways this is much harder to do than science itself. So, Rachel Carson, Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye, and, lately, Anthony Fauci.

Q: For young girls who are starting to find an interest in STEM, what advice would you give to them?

A: Scientists and engineers are not born that way; they’re just people who have learned how to do science and engineering. You don’t have to look, or sound, like other people’s concept of a scientist or engineer to become one. If your ideas are different, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong; that’s what creativity and innovation look like. While aiming for perfection is great, if you’re achieving it on a regular basis that means you should be trying something harder; the purpose of education is to learn something, not to get straight A’s. Finally, all those boys are not smarter than you, though they might think so, and might like you to think so.

Q: What are you passionate about outside of work?

A: My family. Civic engagement. Critical thinking. Preserving what’s left of the natural world.

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