Lisa Lazareck-Asunta, IEEE’s Women in Engineering Chair, Is Just Getting Started

One of her goals is to make speaker panels and conferences more inclusive

5 min read
Photo of Lisa Lazareck-Asunta
Photo: Wellcome Library

THE INSTITUTE Being an engineer was not on Lisa Lazareck-Asunta’s list of potential careers when she was young, but a women-in-technology conference she attended as a teenager changed that. A few years later, after she was paired with a prosthetist and orthopedic surgeon as part of a mentorship program at her high school in Winnipeg, Man., Canada, Lazareck-Asunta decided she was going to specialize in electrical engineering.

She got the opportunity to see the surgeon fit a child with a prosthetic to elongate the child’s shorter leg. She also observed two knee replacements and one hip replacement from the surgical theater.

“That’s where the biotech spark in me was really honed,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “Even though I was squeamish, I actually loved the surgery because it was such a mechanical operation. It was the fact that you could do these procedures with the most advanced technology to help people.”

The IEEE senior member earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, and a Ph.D. in engineering science at Oxford.

Shortly after she graduated from Oxford, the Great Recession hit in 2008. She found it nearly impossible to find a full-time job. After a series of short-term stints, including postdoc work at the City, University of London, she was hired in 2010 by the Wellcome Trust. The charitable foundation in London supports science and engineering research with a biomedical perspective. During her nearly seven years there, she specialized in charitable grant funding and public engagement with science and engineering.

Lazareck-Asunta left the foundation in 2017. She started a family and recently joined the University of Reading, in England, as an impact development manager. She looks at the effects of research done at the university on areas outside of academia, such as public policy, the economy, and business culture.

LEADERSHIP LADDER

The chair of the IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) committee has been involved with IEEE since she was a student member at the University of Manitoba. She helped form the university’s IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society student chapter and became a cochair. From 2004 onward, she served as the society’s student and IEEE Young Professionals representative. She was mentored to take over as the society’s WIE representative, and became a voting member of the committee before becoming the chair. She also helped form the society’s diversity and inclusion committee.

Her visibility in the society led to several TV hosting gigs. When producers at the Discovery cable channel were looking for a host for its two-hour “Zapped special about electricity and the human body, they contacted the society’s executive director, who recommended Lazareck-Asunta. In 2018 and 2019 she filmed segments for the Science Channel’s “Strange Evidence” and “NASA’s Unexplained Files” series. She just finished contributing to the second season of “Strange Evidence.”

Over the years, she has taken on more IEEE leadership positions. In 2016 and 2017 she served on the IEEE Technical Activities Board’s strategic planning committee, and she is a member of the board’s committee on diversity and inclusion.

CHANGE THE PROCESS

Last year Lazareck-Asunta was elected chair of the WIE committee, a two-year term. One of her goals is to ensure the group’s work is making a difference.

The group’s charter is to facilitate the recruitment and retention of women in technical disciplines around the world. It does so by, among other things, forming new WIE groups, organizing workshops at major technical conferences, and advocating for women to hold IEEE leadership roles. Today there are about 16,000 members; men account for more than 28 percent of the total. There are more than 900 WIE groups. The annual leadership conference attracts attendees from around the globe.

“One of the immediate challenges I see for WIE is how best to articulate our impact,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “What differences are we—and should we be—making in changing cultures at the workplace, within technical fields, and within IEEE.”

The committee held a workshop in March to determine what projects were working and which ones weren’t. The group decided what success would look like and established metrics on how to get there.

“Lisa has found friends and enthusiastic supporters for her goals,” says IEEE Fellow Bozenna Pasik-Duncan, past committee chair. “The friendship, confidence, encouragement, and support she has found among the top IEEE leaders means the world to WIE. Lisa represents a new, innovative generation of IEEE leaders.”

Lazareck-Asunta wants to introduce more of a structure to the WIE Committee to make running it more manageable. It now has 60 people, which includes nine voting members—representatives pulled from IEEE’s 39 societies, seven technical councils, 10 regions, and five organizational units.

WIE is a beast in the best possible way—every organizational unit within IEEE wants to contribute,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “In as much as our committee is enormous, the burden on me is also enormous. I am just one chair, so at times it feels like all the IEEE issues around gender fall on my shoulders.”

To that end, she has told IEEE’s top leaders that increasing diversity isn’t just an issue for her or for female engineers but should be an objective for everyone.

“I read a fitting quote from Dr. Gigi Osler in an interview with UM Today. She is the first female surgeon and woman of color to be named president of the Canadian Medical Association—which inspires me.

“The end goal isn’t achieving diversity. It isn’t achieving equity,” Osler said. “The end goal is inclusion, where everyone feels supported and respected, working together for positive change.”

Lazareck-Asunta says “people are now realizing that it can’t just be one person who dictates across the board what others should be doing about equality. Systematic, process-driven changes must be made,” she says.

“The process of finding qualified women speakers is broken,” she says. “Conference organizers have to establish a method for finding these speakers on their own without relying on one volunteer, such as the WIE representative, who tends to be female. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure the presenters are representative of our membership.”

Other changes she is pushing for include requiring all conference venues to offer lactation rooms as a standard option rather than an add-on, and asking conferences to include information on family-friendly hotels on their website as a best practice.

She is working with the TAB conferences committee to create an IEEE-approved grant funding template so if a conference has funds, it can cover some travel expenses for attendees to bring caregivers for their children, aides for elderly parents they must travel with, or helpers for those with disabilities.

“I don’t care if you are a man or a woman looking after your child, parent, or yourself and you need travel support so that you can be included in an IEEE event, you should be able to get it,” Lazareck-Asunta says. “It shouldn’t be a case of knowing the right people to contact.”

More people would attend conferences if they knew such funding was available, she says, adding that she would like to see diversity discussed in larger conference events, like keynote lectures, in addition to luncheons.

“IEEE can be that change-maker,” she says. “We have incredible leadership and technical prowess, and reach across the globe. Let’s make a difference.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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