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Ohland Begins Her Term as ASME President, Aims to Promote More Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

by: Jessica Hoover
Karen J. Ohland
Karen J. Ohland
An active member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) since 1983, Karen J. Ohland has recently begun her term as the 141st President of the society. She is an ASME Fellow and the Associate Director for Finance and Operations at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Ohland has also served as the Finance and Senior Administrator for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of education and concerts and lectures. Prior to her career in museum administration, Ohland worked as a Biomedical Engineer in industry, academia, and government.

Since joining ASME, Ohland has held several leadership positions including as a Student Leader, Section Chair, Regional Secretary, District Leader, Vice President, and Senior Vice President. She also has served on the ASME Board of Governors from 2016 to 2019, was selected by the Board in 2020 to return to complete a vacated Governor position, has served on several presidential task forces and committees, and has mentored and contributed to the professional growth of many ASME members. For her commitment to the society, Ohland received the ASME Dedicated Service Award.

Ohland is also a member of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi, the American Society of Engineering Education, the Orthopedic Research Society, and the American Society of Biomechanics. She has bachelor’s degrees in engineering and biology from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in anatomy from the University of Chicago.

Reflecting on her beginnings and experiences in the engineering field, Ohland recently spoke about how she will use that knowledge during her term as ASME President.

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What first led you to becoming a member of ASME?

My parents, Ted and Nancy Ohland, were both educators with a passion for learning and for giving back to the community by volunteering. They let me try many things including working on the family cars, which led me to college to study engineering. In college, I learned I enjoyed working together with other students on engineering problems. And from my professors I learned that we were part of a community of engineers; one that I could be a part of by becoming a member of a professional society — in my case, ASME.

What inspired you to run for President of the society?

I have been inspired by my family members’ commitment to giving back and by the guidance, mentorship, and support of the many friends and colleagues I have met on my pathway. To support ASME’s mission (to advance engineering for the benefit of humanity) we need to create more pathways into engineering and make those pathways more visible, especially to those just beginning their journeys. We also need to broaden access and prioritize mentoring and connections with others, virtually and in person, locally and worldwide.

I ran for ASME President because I and others believe that my leadership and extensive and diverse experience are what is needed to guide ASME at this time. My leadership style is inclusive, aligned with the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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How do you think your past experiences have prepared you for this role?

By taking various volunteer positions in ASME, working with and getting to know volunteers in different parts of ASME, I developed empathy and an awareness of how the experiences and priorities of our volunteers differ depending on their volunteer path. In each role, I actively participated and actively listened. I assumed increasingly higher leadership positions at the regional, national, and international levels because I saw that by working with and leading others, I could make a difference and be a part of advancing ASME’s mission.

Throughout my career and in ASME, I gained experience with long-range strategic plans, managing organizational change, setting and achieving goals, and supervising others. This breadth of experience in many areas, coupled with my depth of experience in a few areas, was an asset when I joined ASME’s Board of Governors. My most recent experience as a member of the Executive Committee of the board helped prepare me to be President by providing deeper insights into ASME’s strategy, the way ASME functions, and the importance of effective inclusive leadership.

What goals do you hope to accomplish during your time as President?

My primary goal is to continue to more deeply integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into ASME’s culture. ASME consciously promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion in our programs, events, member outreach, learning and development opportunities, scholarships, publications, and communications, and works to create safe spaces for groups and individuals to share concerns and discuss solutions.

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Pursuing diversity in engineering ultimately leads to innovation, profitability, and happier customers for businesses while better reflecting our society. And the global challenges ASME aspires to address require more people with different knowledge, skills, and perspectives. However, according to the National Science Foundation, women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, yet only 15 percent of the engineering workforce and 9 percent of the mechanical engineering workforce and less than 14 percent are individuals from minority groups long underrepresented in the profession.

ASME needs to be part of the solution to increasing the number of women and individuals of different backgrounds currently underrepresented in the engineering workforce/profession.

Have you encountered any challenges in your career, and how did you overcome them?

Some of the challenges I have encountered early in my career were when I followed what I thought were the rules. When people look at job opportunities (paid or volunteer), studies have shown women won’t apply if they don’t meet 100 percent of the requirements; men will apply if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications. It’s often not because women are less confident, it’s because they are following what they think are the rules.

When I needed to learn how a process worked or when I took a new position, I did my research, asked lots of questions and based on those answers, asked even more questions. I prepared by inviting people who had worked on the process or served in the position to be my mentors. And I kept asking questions about the culture and — when I could — I worked to change the culture to make it clearer how things get done.

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What does it mean to you to be elected ASME’s 141st President?

Since I was a child, I have been excited about solving problems and creating things that didn’t previously exist. I grew up on Long Island in New York where I knew people who were part of the team that helped return Apollo 13 safely to earth. I saw, firsthand, what a difference engineers could make and the importance of great teamwork and inspirational leadership.

It is an honor and a privilege to have been elected ASME’s 141st President. Working together, the volunteers and staff members will strengthen others, encouraging and empowering them to find their lifelong professional home where they can impact the world, contribute content, share ideas, participate in communities, and work on projects that improve the human condition.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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