UMKC Faculty Profile: Debra O’Bannon

By Joseph Salazar.

March is Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”.

Women today currently earn 41% of PhD’s in STEM fields, but make up only 28% of tenure-track faculty in those fields. Keeping that startling statistic in mind and in celebration of this year’s theme, I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to some of the women at UMKC who are a part of STEM fields. I had the wonderful opportunity of learning about what it’s like to be a woman in STEM through a Q&A with several faculty members at UMKC. Their stories will appear throughout the week.

O'Bannon_DebDebra O’Bannon, Professor—Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering

Why did you go into the field you did? I have been in the civil engineering field since I was a sophomore in college. Although one of my mother’s cousins was a chemical engineer, I didn’t know him. All the people in my immediate family were blue-collar workers, with very little college experience. I was good at math, and a bit of a geek, and wanted to go into Physics (because that’s all I was familiar with). But, like hundreds of other freshman at MIT, physics didn’t pan out for me. A nice guy in my dorm was a civil engineering student (in transportation), and I liked that they had a track in environmental engineering. I was a college freshman in 1975 – the first Earth Day was in 1972. So that’s what I did. I’ve been in the water area for a long time.

What is it like being a woman in your field? When I was in college, there weren’t many women, but there were a few. People were nice to me, so it was nice to get a little extra attention. That was about the same when I worked after college. When I came to UMKC in 1989, I was the only woman on the engineering faculty until recently. There have been few problems—it does get a little lonely sometimes—so I am quite active in the Society of Women Engineers. One thing that is exciting for me to see is that there are [now] women engineering deans at universities, woman-owned engineering businesses, and women highly-placed in engineering corporations. While we are still few, our numbers are growing. And for myself, I am now a full Professor, and a Fellow in the American Society of Civil Engineers.