Montana State University

From mazes to motorcycles: MSU engineer navigates them all

January 12, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Engineer Kristie Simpson on a test motorcycle in one of Dynojet Research's labs. Simpson is the only female engineer at the company, which builds equipment for the high performance motorcycle and auto market. (MSU Photo by Jay Thane.)   High-Res Available

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In a lab at Dynojet Research in Belgrade, Kristie Simpson sits on a high-performance motorcycle and revs the engine. The front of the cycle is locked in place. The rear wheel sits on a rotating drum. The motor howls. The cycle would race at more than 100 mph if it were free.

Simpson pulls over a computer screen mounted on a steel arm and examines data from the dynamometer she's testing. The dynamometer measures the engine's performance and Simpson watches the cycle's rpm, torque and speed to see if the software she's written is doing its job.

It's a day's work for the only female engineer at Dynojet, a business that many people associate with the testosterone-laden world of hot rods and racing motorcycles, but which Simpson associates with computer code and circuit boards.

"I didn't even know what a dynamometer was when I applied for the job," said Simpson, 27. "I didn't even know how to pronounce dynamometer."

But Simpson, despite her shy and soft-spoken demeanor, hasn't been one to be intimidated as she has made her way in the male-dominated world of engineering, first as an undergraduate and then in her first professional job.

She was the only girl in the programming class she took on a whim as a high school junior in her hometown of Chaplin, Ky. Up to that point, she had planned on being a psychologist.

"It was the first class where I was going to lunch and talking to my friends about it, where I was thinking about it at night and where it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning," she said. "I'd always enjoyed math and science and the logic of programming really appealed to me."

Her first program was a maze that could be navigated by a smiley face.

Her instructor, a woman, encouraged her to pursue programming in college and Simpson enrolled in computer science at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Again, she was the only woman in her classes. Nationally, women still only make up fewer than 30 percent of engineering and computer science undergraduates.

"It seemed like the classes were filled with all these hard-core gamers and they were talking a different language," Simpson said. "At first I thought I needed to 'man up' and become one of the guys. But in the end I found that if I was just myself, it would all come together."

And come together it did.

"Once I got through my first classes, I knew this was going to work for me," she said. "I loved it. All my programming classes were my favorite classes."

After college, she came to Casper, Wyo., with her husband-to-be, Scott Mullen. He worked as a Wal-Mart assistant manager and Simpson found the demand for programmers nil.

A job hunt led to Dynojet and in 2001, the couple moved to Montana, Simpson to Belgrade, her husband to Butte for a time until a position opened at the Bozeman Wal-Mart.

"Despite Kristie's shy, reserved nature, she isn't afraid to try anything and is a quick learner. Working in a pre-dominantly male oriented industry and work environment, she was never intimidated and isn't afraid to try new things," said Dianne Jeffers, Dynojet human resource manager. "Her work ethic and drive, as well as her knowledge of our industry, has led us to use her in a mentoring capacity for new software engineers. Kristie is truly an asset to our software team and to Dynojet."

At Dynojet, her co-workers encouraged her to learn the electrical engineering side of the devices she was programming. The company offers educational assistance and Simpson went to Montana State University planning to take a single physics course.

But she met Jim Peterson, head of MSU's electrical engineering department, and he encouraged her to pursue a master's degree in electrical engineering. She took one undergraduate course a semester for three years as preparation and then entered the master's program in 2005. She'll graduate in 2008.

"I think it makes me a better programmer," she said. "I can make my code more efficient because of my electrical engineering understanding, and I have a better idea how to fix problems knowing about circuits and electronics."

She's also no longer the only woman in her class. Of the 30 students pursuing master's degrees at MSU in electrical engineering, five are women.

"A lot of women are probably very interested in science and engineering, but it seems like it is a male dominated field and that can turn them off from that option," Simpson said. "But just give it a chance. It can be a lot of fun and don't be intimidated by the fact that you may be a minority."

For Simpson, the fun of engineering has gone beyond code and circuits. She has earned a motorcycle endorsement for her driver's license, though she's unsure if she'll actually buy a bike.

"I don't know," she said good-naturedly. "They make me kind of nervous."

Contact: Kristie Simpson, (406) 388-8541 or ksimpson@dynojet.com