Montana State University

MSU doctoral engineering student juggles career, motherhood

December 10, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger Cantrell, MSU News Service


Amber Broadbent holds a jet-in-tube nano particle precipitator. The research performed with the device will potentially enable the design of a pharmaceutical product with more surface area so that the body can absorb it more easily. Broadbent is pursuing a doctoral degree in chemical engineering while juggling life as a new mother. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Amber Broadbent cradles her two-week old baby boy, Ryland, in her arms. With his eyes closed, the baby quietly sucks on her fingers. Broadbent looks down at her tiny son, smiling.

"He's been a really great baby," she said. "He's so much fun."

She switches subjects in the next breath, describing the three different areas in which she's focusing her doctoral work in chemical engineering at Montana State University: fluid dynamics, magnetic resonance and linear stability analysis.

Chemical engineering and motherhood are difficult and time-consuming jobs. To tackle the two simultaneously is no small feat. But what's most remarkable, says Broadbent's adviser, is how Broadbent manages to be a star in the engineering field while simultaneously balancing family life.

This fall, the 27-year-old Great Falls native received the Graduate Student Engineering Award from the College of Engineering. The award was established this year in honor of Betty Coffey, who taught computer science in the college from 1977 until her death in 1984 and was distinguished as the first woman ever to achieve tenure in the college. It's the first time the College of Engineering has awarded the scholarship, and it comes with a $1,000 prize. But the prestige associated with the award is even greater than the money, said Sarah Codd, who teaches in MSU's Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. The award honors the recipient's academic achievement and service to the community as well as her potential for leadership and ability to enhance diversity.

Codd, who is also Broadbent's adviser, says Broadbent is the perfect recipient for the prize.

"The award recognizes someone who has a passion for what she's doing and contributes to society as an engineer," Codd said. "Amber is always taking advantage of every opportunity available to her. She is very smart and looks for courses to take that will challenge her the most and yet always makes time to support and motivate others."

Broadbent's hard work has paid off. Her scientific work has twice won her the top student poster prize at the International Conference on Magnetic Resonance Microscopy, an international science conference.

Bend Research, Inc., a pharmaceutical research and development company based in Bend, Ore., is funding Broadbent's doctoral studies at MSU -- a move that Codd said is unusual and evidence of Broadbent's talents. Broadbent worked for Bend Research for two years, after graduating from MSU in 2004 with a chemical engineering degree.

Broadbent's scientific aspirations run in her family.

Her father, Grant, is a physician and her mother, Lynn, also worked in health care. "Math and science were a big part of my life growing up," she said, adding that she had great teachers at her high school in Great Falls.

Broadbent enrolled at MSU as an undergraduate after being accepted to MSU and the University of Washington. Her father, who attended both MSU and UW, thought the education he received at MSU was better. That clinched the decision for Broadbent.

"MSU became the clear choice," she said.

Broadbent initially thought she'd like to pursue a career in medicine, but after working at a Great Falls clinic drawing blood, she had second thoughts.

At MSU, she signed up for chemical engineering without really knowing what it was. She's happy she did, she said, because the opportunities available to engineers, particularly chemical engineers, are unlimited. Working with companies that produce cosmetics, plastics, paint, fertilizers and other materials are all possible career paths. Jobs also exist for people working on new medicines, biofuels, and environmental reclamation.

"There are bigger and broader opportunities for people in chemical engineering than those even with a chemistry degree," Broadbent said.

Some women are intimidated by engineering, Broadbent said. But, it's no more difficult for a female to be an engineer than it is for a man, despite stereotypes, Broadbent said.

The challenges for females, Broadbent added, are "more from external misconceptions, like from people's families, how they were raised."

Still, Broadbent says it's important for women going into engineering to have good female role models. It's part of the reason she's on the Women in Engineering advisory council and has offered to talk to high school girls or female college students who are interested in engineering. Talking with female engineers can help dispel myths and identify opportunities, Broadbent said.

To balance work with motherhood, Broadbent relies on several things. Most important, Broadbent said, is having the support of her husband, Randy.

The couple met during the first two weeks of their freshman year at MSU. He earned a degree in business finance from MSU and works at Zoot Enterprises, a national financial services company based in Bozeman.

"I'm really fortunate, because my husband is awesome," Broadbent said. "It makes (motherhood) that much more fun. He's so excited and helpful."

It's also helpful for Broadbent to work with people who share similar values, including those who place an importance on family. Bend Research employees share a "work hard, play hard" mentality, Broadbent said, which was one of the reasons she was drawn to the company.

The same views about working and playing exist at MSU, Broadbent said. She has learned an incredible amount from Codd and other professors while in the lab, but exchanges outside of the classroom have been just as meaningful.

"Some of my best interactions with Sarah (Codd) have been while we're riding the chair lift at Bridger (Bowl)," she said.

Yet, it's sometimes tough to juggle work and family, Broadbent said.

"No matter what, as a woman, if you have a career, it's going to be a challenge to have children," Broadbent said. "But I also think there are lots of benefits to being a mother who works in engineering."

With a better base salary to begin with, mothers are more likely to be able to afford things such as daycare and help around the house. Many engineering companies also offer good health benefits, which can be a big selling point for mothers.

The bottom line, Broadbent said, is that "any woman having a career and a family is going to have to be creative."

She's excited about both. She plans to give herself a little extra time because of Ryland, but Broadbent plans to defend her thesis at about this time next year.

And, she hopes that her work with Bend Research will help improve countless people's lives.

Developing pharmaceutical products that can help people's health -- for example, Broadbent worked on a drug at Bend Research that was intended to help lower "bad" cholesterol and raise "good" cholesterol -- is something Broadbent finds satisfying.

"I hope to help make a difference in health care by developing and designing pharmaceutical products to help people," Broadbent said. "These products can make people healthier. They can really improve people's well-being and quality of life."

Amber Broadbent, amber.broadbent@coe.montana.edu