As appeared on MIT Technology Review on April 23, 2014
Cammy Abernathy ’80
Materials scientist heads University of Florida’s engineering school.
Most MIT alumni apply lessons learned during their time at the Institute, but Cammy Abernathy does it in service to a rising generation of engineers.
As dean of the University of Florida’s School of Engineering, a position she has held since 2009, Abernathy is emphasizing entrepreneurship, interdisciplinary education, and leadership training for 6,000 undergraduates and 2,700 graduate students. Exposure to MIT’s culture of diversity and creative problem-solving has been an important influence on that work. Today, the school she leads is America’s sixth-largest granter of engineering degrees, with strengths in materials, biological and agricultural engineering, and manufacturing.
“It’s a very good time to be here,” says Abernathy. “Florida wants to make the university a top-10 public institution, and we have money to hire faculty and build infrastructure. It’s an even better time to be an engineer, because the world is realizing that they need more of us. Our incoming students want to help people and solve problems—make a difference, not just make a living.”
With that desire for broad impact in mind, Abernathy draws on her MIT studies not only in technical topics but also in such areas as art history and literature.
“To be effective in the world, engineers need both technical depth and broad social skills,” she says. “Employers want people who can lead, work in teams, work across cultures, appreciate different perspectives, and especially communicate. A lot of that comes from humanities, arts, and social sciences.”
Abernathy came to MIT in the mid-1970s with an interest in inorganic chemistry. She gravitated to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where mentors included professors Don Uhlmann (her thesis advisor) and William Kingery. An internship at Bell Laboratories with Dexter Johnston, PhD ’66, convinced Abernathy that semiconductors were the field for her.
Following graduation, she earned MS and PhD degrees at Stanford University before rejoining Bell Labs to work on compound semiconductors, including high-frequency power amplifiers used widely in portable electronics. While there she married fellow materials scientist Steve Pearton; the pair moved in 1993 to UF, where Pearton is a professor. They have a son, Max, who is now in high school.
“Women and men alike are concerned with work-life balance, and it can be reassuring to see women faculty members with kids,” Abernathy says. “I’m proud that our school is 23 percent female and our freshman class is 30 percent [female]; nationally it’s 18 or 19 percent.” She relaxes with genealogical research and is a longtime Red Sox and Celtics fan.