Woman Proves Her High School Teachers Wrong

06/03/02    Portland, Ore.

Teachers told her that engineering was too demanding for women

Her high school teachers in northern Illinois advised her against engineering. It was too demanding for women, they said. Cynthia Archer, who has a bachelor's in electrical engineering, master's and soon-to-be doctorate in computer science and engineering from OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering, has proved them wrong. She will be part of OHSU's 28th Commencement set for Friday, June 7, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland.

She's already had a 10-year career, first in sonar development for Raytheon and then in satellite communications for GTE Government Systems Corp., both in the Boston area. Despite a solid background in signal processing from an engineering perspective, she felt she lacked the computer knowledge the evolving field demands. "I needed a computer science degree to continue to advance," she said.

When her husband, David Archer, landed a job in Oregon, Cynthia opted to go back to school. After their second child was born, she started classes part-time toward a master's degree at what was then the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology.

Cynthia and David, who met in advanced calculus class at the University of Illinois, have a son, Isaac, 11, and a daughter, Iris, 9. David now works as an engineering director at Mentor Graphics.

With small children at home, Cynthia took four years to complete her master's then decided to continue toward a doctorate. "I liked working on problems that are new," she said. "I'd like to do research, and for that you have to have the Ph.D." She also wanted to keep working with Todd Leen, Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering. Archer and Leen have collaborated on four published papers on adaptive transform coding, a means of compressing digital signals. The research could make large digital files, such as scientific data, easier to share across the Internet.

Archer has also built fault detectors for sensors used in an environmental project that monitors conditions in the Columbia River estuary. The sensors, which measure the amount of salt in the water, must be changed periodically because biological material accumulates on them. This causes the sensors to measure salinity. The fault detectors make it possible to know when the sensors aren't working, therefore they can be changed only as necessary. "The field worker doesn't have to put on a wet suit and go out and check the sensors in January," Archer said. "It's very rewarding to take this knowledge and apply it to make someone's life easier."

Eventually she hopes to do signal processing research related to medical devices, such as noninvasive imaging and cardiac monitoring. "Well-established techniques from computer science and electrical engineering seem to have many applications in the field of medicine" she said.

She admits to taking her work home with her, but she also gets help from her husband, who reads all her papers. Explaining her work to someone outside her field, she said, has helped her learn to express technical concepts clearly.

Although she spends about 50 hours a week on campus doing research, Archer hasn't let school consume her life. She volunteers at her children's schools every other week and introduces middle school girls to computers through the Association for Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics, a joint program Between Portland State University and OHSU (AWSEM). She is also a member of the OGI Student Council and serves as a student orientation tour guide.

"I participate in the AWSEM visits because it's important that girls interested in math and science get some support," she said. "I got very little encouragement when I was a kid." Things haven't changed entirely since then. "My son takes Saturday Academy [a children's science program] physics classes, and it's all boys," she said. "But we hope Iris will be there next year."