It is true that many students don’t get to know many engineering majors as their classes are always in Cebula Hall instead of Old Main. What many students also don’t know is that Cebula Hall houses the office of Dr. Amanie Abdelmessih, Mechanical Engineering professor and researcher for NASA.
Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, Abdelmessih always planned on being a doctor, but not in the area of internal flows of heat transfer.
“I used to say, ‘I will be a medical doctor and help everybody’ when I was young,” Abdelmessih says. She originally wanted to be a medical doctor until she realized at a young age that people indeed die, and that doctors cannot heal everybody. She cannot stand to see people in pain, so decided to focus on other talents.
Abdelmessih was always the top of her class when it came to math. Alexandria issues a national exam, and students can make choices for their higher education based on their total score. At the time, engineering schools took the highest. Abdelmessih received her bachelor’s degree from her school of choice, Alexandria University. The engineering program was made up of all technical courses, giving her two and a half times the credit hours of what is required in the United States.
After obtaining her degree, Abdelmessih went into the paper industry and entered the real world.
“I was overprotected as a child,” she explained. Abdelmessih grew up with equal rights in her home, and her parents were always very supportive of her education. In a time and place where women were generally thought of as lesser than their male counterparts, her parents were truly ahead of their time in raising her.
“When I decided to get my degree in engineering, my aunt took me aside and told me that engineering was not adequate for girls. She said that nice girls go into English Literature.” Abdelmessih soon realized that her aunt was not the only person who thought this way. As she entered the work place, she came to see that she would have to prove herself to earn male respect. At the time, women were not allowed to work after 9:00 p.m., so the company could only use her for the morning shift. Everyone was unhappy that they had hired a woman who could not work the majority of the time.
“The laborers were not used to women, and it was obvious they did not want me there,” she says. “They treated women like animals.” Luckily, her parents taught her to have respect for her elders, and she learned on the job to take care of her own problems and not complain about the way she was treated by the men. After a year, they were treating her with respect; even as their own daughter. One of the workers even named their daughter after Amanie, giving her the best compliment she has ever received.
After awhile, Abdelmessih became bored. She began taking classes towards gaining her master’s degree in the evenings while still working full time. She continued to work hard to prove herself so that she was not looked over. After she gained her degree, she had to make a choice: she could keep fighting to become CEO of the paper company one day in order to prove herself, or keep studying towards her PhD.
“I decided that I wanted to do something I enjoy instead of proving to others that I am capable.” However, her journey from Egypt to Saint Martin’s would prove to many how capable she truly is.
Abdelmessih applied to Oklahoma State University so that she could study with a professor under a research assistantship to help pay for her doctorate. However, research money was scarce, and the chairman offered her a teaching assistant position when the money ran out.
“I used to think teaching was boring,” she says. “But it was the first time in my life that I realized I could make a difference.”
Abdelmessih decided that teaching was her calling, and wanted to find work in California in order to be closer to her family who had also moved to the United States. She ended up at Northrop University in Inglewood. She began teaching a graduate course, and then was hired full time until the school was unfortunately shut down due to financial difficulties. However, it was this event that led her to Saint Martin’s.
Saint Martin’s, a college at the time, was searching for reputable staff for their thermal engineering classes. Although the resources seemed small to Abdelmessih, she decided to give the school a try. She was immediately impressed by the students on her visit, who paid much attention to her presentation and asked intelligent questions.
“I also liked the setting here. It’s pretty and safe,” she said. “A number of things attracted me.”
Luckily for the Saint Martin’s engineers she took the job. During the summers she researches for NASA at the Dryden Flight Research Center “numerically studying high temperature black body cavity/ water cooled heat flux gages, heat transfer environmental characterization of high temperature furnace calibrator” and other things that makes an English major’s head spin. She has received NASA certificates of recognition for her research contributions in 1991, 1992, 1998, 2005 and 2007. She has been published over 20 times, is a faculty member of the Saint Martin’s University Society of Fellows, and given the National Distinguished Engineering Educator Award by the Society of Women Engineers last semester among others.
However, as decorated as Dr. Abdelmessih is, she tells me that the most exciting part of her story is the work of her Saint Martin’s students. Each year the senior class of the Mechanical Engineering Department must put together a final project, and Dr. Abdelmessih tells them that if the project is good enough, she will get it published. Every year she fights for grants so that students are able to build contraptions such as instrumented air conditioning bench experiments, computer assisted instructional aides for heat transfer, or currently, efficient dryers for the paper industry. In 2006-2007, her students designed and built a heat flux simulator that is currently used for research at NASA. It is obvious that Dr. Amanie Abdelmessih has truly made a difference for the students at Saint Martin’s University.