Solder Sesh #16: Bibianna Cha
Here's a transcript from our archives with special guest, and close friend of Carrie, Bibianna Cha! Bibianna a biomedical device engineer that has worked on stuff from insulin to eyeballs! Watch Carrie and Bibianna solder up a cheap Bluetooth Speaker kit and follow along with the transcript to the highlight clips below! She tells us about how she got into science, what her career path has been like, what changed for her when she had kids, and what course she's plotting now!
(0:00 – 6:09) Meet Bibianna Cha
Carrie: Hello everybody. I'm Carrie Sundra of Alpenglow Industries! Today, I have joining me, my good friend, Bibiana Cha. We met back in college, and we've known each other for a very long time. She's going to talk to us about making all sorts of cool biomedical devices and just going to chat about basically what got her into STEM and how she felt when we all hit college. Then we're going to talk about the cool things that she's worked on and the paths that her career has taken. I'd love to touch on how things changed when you had kids and if you felt supported in your career at that point or not, and stuff like that. Finally, what you’re thinking is about tech versus more managerial roots because I know you've done a little bit of both. A lot of people have those questions.
Bibianna: So, I have wanted to be an engineer since I was pretty young. I think that it's interesting because my mom was the one that fixed everything in the house. If a lamp broke and she'd be taking it apart and fixing things. So that's all I knew. When I came to America, the only subject that I was really good at in the beginning was math because the numbers translated. I really gravitated towards sciences and math just because of what I was good at when I got here, and I was really interested in it.
Carrie: And how old were you?
Bibianna: I was 10. I want to be an engineer probably since seventh grade. First, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and then I decided that I wanted to be a medical device engineer. When I was a sophomore year of high school, I watched this 20/20 episode about these people who have TMJ, and they were trying to look at other devices to help with their locking jaw issues. I thought that was fascinating! I got really interested in medical devices and that's kind of where I focused all my career.
Bibianna: My current position is the only position that isn't directly a medical device company, but I really enjoy what I'm doing now, and I've enjoyed everything in the medical device field. I'd encourage anybody to go into that! There's something amazing about going to a surgical suite and seeing somebody using a device that you designed, and you know how it works and how it was produced. You’re sitting there with your fingers crossed and you're like, “Okay. I hope it doesn't fail.” It is an amazing feeling to know that what you're working on has affected the life of people in a way that is helping people one by one. Obviously, in other fields you'd be looking at more global changes. If you are doing aerospace, obviously you'd be helping a bigger group of people doing other things, but I wanted more of a direct impact in their daily lives.
Carrie: So, why do you think you had such a strong pull towards engineering at such a really young age? I am going to be super honest and say that I really didn't know shit about engineering until I got to college. I didn't really know what engineers did. Even though my dad was one, he wasn't working in the field. He'd been out of the field for a long time. So, I had no real idea of what it was like for an engineer daily. What exactly did they do?
Bibianna: I had no idea. My dad was an accountant and my mom, she became a hairdresser, but she was a stay-at-home mom for a long time. I just liked watching her fix things. She wasn't afraid to take things apart. I would say probably my first introduction to engineering was a drafting class I took. I took a drafting class and I liked making straight lines and making things match and it made me happy. It was all pencil and paper, and I was really good at it. I took some architectural classes, and I was designing cars for fun in the end. Then I was really interested in space, but I didn't really know much about what they actually did. I just wanted to be a part of that. But it was really the medical device.
Bibianna: I think, just knowing there's a field of engineering that is designed to help people that really just triggered this passion. So, everything that I did in college and after college was towards having a bigger impact and having more direction. As I got older, I wanted to be able to have more standard direction of the company and the projects people worked on. That's the thing that I'm still really interested in having impact on – knowing that some opinions I have about where we should go in our product releases and projects we work on, that can I make impact on that. With my current company, I just started and I’m two and a half months in. So, there's so much for me to learn because it's much more biology related than anything I've ever worked on.
Carrie: Yeah. So cool. Always fun when there's a ton of stuff to learn.
(11:58 – 19:24) College
Bibianna: So how did you end up going to Mudd if you weren't sure about sciences?
Carrie: I was sure about sciences. I just didn't really have any good concept of what engineering entailed and what engineers did, other than build stuff, which seemed very nebulous to me. I had no idea about how anything was manufactured at that point in time really. We didn't have shop in school. We didn't have a machine shop. My mom was very into woodworking and turning and I had done a little bit of that with her, but other than that, I didn't really have any visibility into how things were made.
Carrie: Engineering was on the list because it sounded kind of interesting, but I didn't know; I did know it was either going to be sciences or engineering. I knew new science, and this was back in the pretty much pre-internet days. So, the way that people learned about different schools was through those top 50 colleges books – Barron's books. We got some of those, actually somebody handed them down to us because again, lived on an island. So, somebody from the previous year, their parents handed us down a whole bunch of college prep books and stuff, that was super cool. Mudd was in it and the fricking description for Mudd was so darn funny that I was just like, “Oh my God.” We were going to go to California anyway to look at Stanford. So, we’ve got to check this place out because it was all about donut runs and unicycles and shit.
Carrie: So that's how I got to be there. Actually, kind of coincidentally, there was a guy four years ahead of me who went to Mudd from the island. Pretty surprising. So, the headmaster actually knew about Mudd and he's the one that suggested it, too, because he knew that I was into science and math and stuff. When I got to Mudd, even though I excelled in my very small pond, it was… Yeah, I got my ass kicked left and right and up and down and sideways. Compared to everybody else, I felt like I had so few opportunities and experiences and just had so much catching up to do. Even though I took all of the AP courses that I possibly could and did really well on the AP exams and stuff like that. It was still just a huge, huge ego crushing blow.
Carrie: So, what was it like when you got to Mudd? Did you feel prepared?
Bibianna: The first week orientation, there were a large quantity of kids that were valedictorian, and I was not valedictorian. I was like, “Oh my God.” So, yeah, it was like a kick in the butt for sure. I did bridge, remember?
Carrie: Oh, you did bridge. You see, I should've done bridge. I really should have.
Bibianna: It was interesting. I don't know if bridge necessarily prepared me anymore, I guess. I mean, I kind of had the system down a little bit, but yeah.
Carrie: Well, but didn't you also take the first CS class? So, bridge was a program that that was, how many weeks was it?
Bibianna: A month.
Carrie: Oh, wow. Yeah. That's why I didn't do it. Bridge was a program that was a month long and it was for incoming freshmen. It gave you a little bit of an introduction to Mudd and a leg up. You did basically the first CS class during that time. That would have really helped me because I did super shitty in computer science. I had never done anything even remotely like C before, so I was just like, what is this? I had no idea what the compile errors meant. Robyn’s laughing next to me, shaking your head like yes, I have that feeling. So, yeah, I struggled hard in that.
Bibianna: Yeah, but you know, it's funny I wish I had taken more computer science classes in college.
Carrie: Me too, kind of. Even though I did do CS 5 and I didn't need to, but it wasn't that relevant actually. We had to make this terrible game called Walrus, which was like ASCII art Tetris, but coming from both sides and disappearing in the middle. I was like, “Nope, nope.” Honestly, I still wouldn't know how to program that shit. Give me a microcontroller and I can totally make it do stuff, but, oh man, just programming for the sake of programming.
(30:51 – 35:31) Internships and First Jobs
Carrie: So, first job outside of college. Tell us a little bit, because I know that there are people out there who struggle with job searching, right? It's tough because the line that you're fed, I think a lot of times it's like, oh, go to this prestigious school and then you'll totally get a job. It'll be easy to get a job right out of college. And that's not always the case. I mean, it was hard for me to get a job right out of college, too.
Bibianna: It didn’t help that Mudd, at that time, was so not very well known.
Carrie: Yes, that didn't help.
Bibianna: I got my first job; I think it was a tech job at Medtronic or Mini-Med at that time. It was a temporary position, as a mechanical engineer. I think a lot of times you kind of have to do what you need to do. Internships and co-ops are great, and I wish I'd taken advantage of that more in college because
my summer job was at the university, which isn't really the best place if you want to go into the biomedical industry. I would have probably focused more on getting internships and co-ops; places you get extra experience in the workplace. It's oftentimes they actually have an avenue for you to be able to start work there as an intern.
Carrie: My problem was that I hated my internship and wanted no part of working there full-time. I remember a summer intern at McDonald Douglas down in Huntington beach, the summer that it became Boeing; I interned at their space systems place, which, I mean, that was pretty cool. Being able to more or less run amuck in little electric carts around a giant place that was basically a factory for space stuff. It was kind of cool. Of course, me being young and female people loved to talk to me. And hell yeah I took advantage of that because it was fun to learn about all of the things that were going on there, you know? It was also my first experience with a huge company and there's a ton of bureaucracy.
Carrie: There were union politics and stuff going on and it was just very rigid and regimented. I could sort of get some time with this tiny sort of prototyping machine shop that was next door to the lab that I was working at. I could only sort of do that without anybody complaining because I was a college intern. If I had been in a full engineer, then I would have had to go through the main shop and a union person would have performed that work. I am definitely in support of a lot of that and in support of unions, but there was also a practicality that just was not there. I was talking about doing incredibly simplistic machining, machining operations, you know, drilling holes and cutting roughly the right shape out of a piece of aluminum. I was doing things that needed maybe an hour or two of time and that was me doing it, so I was slow. For the main machine shop, it was just way too small of a job, and they were totally backlogged. I was in the position of having to do it myself or having to wait for a month or two, and then my internship would have been over. So yeah, there were a lot of bureaucratic things that were just incredibly inefficient, and it drove me nuts. It totally drove me nuts.
Bibianna: No, I remember that. That's true for a lot of bigger companies because they, not only the union, but they [the company] want to make sure nobody's getting hurt using equipment, too. It's interesting. I feel like prototyping has changed so much since we were that age. With the advent of 3D printing and all these additive technologies that are coming to place, you can actually design up. I mean, there's more really cool stuff coming down the pipeline.
(53:07 – 1:00:19) Having kids while working in STEM
Carrie: So, when you had when you had your first kid, you changed jobs. Essentially, you quit one job and then started another one. How did that go with employers? I'm curious. I don't have kids, but I always hear other women saying that like, “Oh man, it's hard to get the flexibility that I need in order to take care of the kid and do things for the kid, as well as be at work.” “People don't expect me to perform as well, too. People tend to equate 8-5 butt in seat, with high performance.” “If you can't do that, if you need a little bit extra flexibility in your schedule or whatever, then you're not committed.” They get this attitude that they have to deal with. I'm curious if you experienced any of that or if the places that you worked for already had kind of robust maternity policies and things like that.
Bibianna: It's interesting because I would say that I never really had to deal with that much. I don't know. I might've mentioned I had kids, but it wasn't a question that, obviously, they are legally allowed to ask.
Bibianna: With my first job after I had the baby, I was very clear, like, “Hey, I need to make sure I can find daycare for my son.” At that point I didn’t have anything lined up and I wasn't going to start looking for anything unless I had to. The biggest thing for me was that Brandon was doing his hospital rotations. So, four times a year, he would be at the hospital pretty much 24/7. I’d have to be able to accommodate for my husband's schedule to take care of the kids, otherwise I'll be working from home and everything. I would say with the first one, they didn't have any issues. It was so long ago; I don't remember them having many issues. With the second one I was already working at a job where I was working pretty low-key hours and wasn’t very stressful. Then they said, “We have this other opportunity,” and I pretty much told them, “Hey, I need to be able to work from home. I have kids.” Honestly, I think that if it was any other company, I don't think I could have survived because the kids would be off school and I would bring them to work and they hang out in my office. The university, when I worked there, during the days that they have half days or whatever, I'd bring Brady to work with me and he would play with the fluids line and kind of get a sense of what it was like in the lab.
Carrie: That’s cool.
Bibianna: I'd bring the kids with me, and they would hang out in my cubicle.
Carrie: Now was that something that other coworkers were already doing, or did you just start doing that?
Bibianna: I just did it.
Carrie: You just did it, didn’t ask.
Bibianna: Maybe I asked, I can't remember. I just started, I was like, “Oh, the kids have a day off, I'm bringing them in.” They didn't have any objections to it. It's interesting, in any company there is the engineers and then there's the manufacturing plant people. I'm sure the people on the production floor were like, “Oh, it’s Bibianna. She gets to bring her kids to work while I have to slave away on the production floor and I have to find daycare for my kids.” So, I felt kind of bad.
Carrie: So, you think that there's maybe some privilege accorded to you and your status as an engineer versus somebody who was working on the floor.
Bibianna: Yes, I would say that after I started bringing my kids some other women who were accountants or whatever, there were not that many women engineers in the group, would bring their kids to work, too. Just for half a day or whatever, nothing long.
Bibianna: And they were super quiet, they just hung out in their little area.
Carrie: The normal for me growing up, I would get off of school and for me, I would get off of the boat, walk to my mom's office, do homework in our office for a couple of hours until she was done, and it was time to go home. I know a lot of kids that I went to school with, a lot of their parents were working in retail or own small, retail shops and things like that. Everybody would go to their parent's workplace for a few hours until it was time to go home.
Bibianna: Yeah. No, that makes sense. It would've been really hard if I couldn't bring them. I could've made it work, I guess. Obviously, I could always pay for daycare for them, to have them go somewhere else. I always kind of have felt bad. I think being a working mom, there's always guilt that you're not doing enough or you’re doing too much, you know? Thankfully, the boys made friends with a lot of other boys whose mom didn't work. So, they would go over to their house and hang out with them while I was working. I felt less guilt about doing my own thing and they really enjoyed having my boys around because they're their boys were playing with other people, so they don't have to worry about them and keeping them amused. So, it worked out. I think that having support at work and not having people get on my case about it and being able to work from home when the kids were sick, definitely made it worthwhile.
Bibianna: As much as things ended on a bad note in my last job at MST, they really allowed me to balance work and home really well, especially closer to the end. I'm not going to have any regrets about how long I stayed or anything like that. Even though I stayed a little bit longer than I should have.
Carrie: Well, you know, as long as there were good things about it.
Bibianna: Yeah, I learned a lot. The main thing I learned is that people are full of shit.
Carrie: Oh yeah. A common thing as it turns out.
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