This blog post is based on an interview between Dr. Cynthia Furse and Carly Bagley, a state employee for the Utah Historical Society. We’ve included additional resources at the end of this article if you’d like to learn more about Dr. Furse and Utah Women in STEM.
When we think of people who change the world, who comes to mind? Artists? Doctors? Politicians? What about engineers? Dr. Cynthia Furse, a hard-working researcher and professor at the University of Utah, shows us how a career in STEM can broaden our horizons and help us change the world.
Even as a young woman, Furse wanted to do things differently. Prior to 1975, middle school students in Logan were divided into two groups: Girls did home economics. And boys did shop. However, a young Furse wanted to learn to work with wood. “I already learned how to sew and quilt from my mother… So I already felt like I had a good handle on home economics,” Furse said, “I really wanted to take shop.”
Initially, Furse received some resistance. Even though she selected shop as a course, she was put in home economics with other girls. Fortunately, her parents contacted her school and the next day she was put in an all-boys shop class. “You know, seventh grade boys are not always too nice to you,” Furse said. However, she had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Grey. “He just embraced me like any other student and made me feel like I did fit in, even though the boys didn’t.” Mr. Grey encouraged Furse to work hard and she learned unique skills like drafting, woodworking, metalworking, and welding. Her experience as the first girl to take shop at Logan Jr. High influenced her to become an engineer one day.
Mr. Grey was the first of many mentors. Her high school physics teacher, Mr. Bradford also helped Furse by asking her, “Have you thought about engineering?” At this point, she had not. Nor did she know what engineering was. When she went to her school’s career center to get an information pamphlet, the school counselor handed her friend (a boy) a pamphlet on engineering, and gave Furse one on nursing. Luckily, her friend gave her his pamphlet.
Who is a woman in history you admire? Furse replied with Florence Nightingale. It was unusual for a woman nurse to help soldiers in the army at this time. She admires Nightingale for her bravery and how she treated the whole person, not just their injuries but their overall well-being.
After high school, Furse attended the University of Utah to study mechanical engineering on a full-ride scholarship. Although she was excited to learn, Furse often felt stressed by her coursework and was scared that she wouldn’t be able to keep her scholarship if she fell behind. Additionally, Furse was the only woman in a large lecture hall of students for an electrical engineering course. As she stood at the top of the stairs, Dr. Carl Durney kindly called her down to sit up front. From then on, Furse would sit at the front of the classroom so she didn’t have to see when she was the only girl in the room. Professor Durney knew Furse’s name and encouraged her. Soon, she began to excel. Furse described her first exposure to electrical engineering as “beautiful” and “magical,” and therefore chose to change her major to electrical engineering.
Despite Furse’s excitement and talent for engineering, she did experience exclusion during college. Several male students didn’t let her join their study groups because they didn’t want their association with Furse to make their wives or girlfriends jealous. Additionally, Furse was teased for not knowing what some electrical parts were and someone broke one of her projects on purpose. However, Furse believed that she was surrounded by more good people than not. “I think even today,’ said Dr. Furse, “That the guys who gave me trouble just didn’t know what to do with me. That’s what happens when you are different.” And Furse also had many male peers and professors who supported her academically and professionally.
Furse received a Bachelors, Masters, and a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Utah. Today, she is a Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the U. Because of her experience as both a student and professor in Utah, Furse believes that, “Utah is a place with great creativity and appreciation for both the arts and sciences where people really value education.” Utah also has the unique challenge where around 80% of students work while going to school. Additionally, Utah students often have the added responsibility of caring for their young families. Knowing this, Furse has developed new teaching methods to help her students.
What would you say to your younger self? “Never give up… If your path gets blocked, as it sometimes does, go around it. Jump over it. Find somebody who will lift you over it. Just never give up.”
Furse began experimenting with the “flipped classroom” model around 2007. This method “flips” the typical teaching model by providing video lectures and reading before class and gives students the opportunity to work through homework problems in the classroom when Dr. Furse is available. She found this type of teaching helped students retain more information and now it is considered very mainstream in academia. Additionally, Furse prevented students from falling behind in their courses by embracing the hybrid classroom model. Furse records lectures so students can join remotely. “So you show up when you can. And when your kid’s sick, your car broke down, you had a late night, you gotta get to work, whatever: join remotely,” she says , “It’s better than not joining at all.” When the COVID-19 lockdown hit in 2020, Furse was prepared.
Furse has influenced hundreds of students through her innovative teaching methods for more than twenty years. In addition to her academic achievements, Furse has changed the world by inventing a system to locate intermittent electrical faults on aged aircraft wiring and creating telemetry antennas for medical implants. Furse continues to change the world by mentoring and teaching her University of Utah students. “There have been so many times I’ve been ready to [give up]. There have been tears many, many times in my world and in my career. And sometimes it has looked impossible.” Dr. Furse says, “But sometimes what’s impossible is actually an opening door to something else that’s more possible. A terrible antenna is a good sensor, for example. So just because it seems impossible… don’t give up.”
To read more about women in Utah history, visit the Utah Women’s History Initiative.
Carly Bagley is a public historian for the Utah Women’s History Initiative. Carly has a BA in Family History and Genealogy from Brigham Young University and an MA in Public History from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio. She enjoys interviewing others and sharing stories about those in history who are often overlooked.
University of Utah, “Cynthia M Furse Faculty Profile,” accessed June 30, 2023, https://faculty.utah.edu/u0029376-CYNTHIA_M_FURSE/hm/index.hml.
Sima Noghanian, “Women’s History Month Special Article: Interview with ‘Professor Cynthia Furse,’” The Applied Computational Electromagnetics Society Journal (ACES) 38, no. 3 (March 2023), https://aces-society.org/journal.php.
“2020 Chen-To Tai Distinguished Educator Award,” accessed June 30 2023, IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation vol 68, no. 12 (December 2020), https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=9299387