Fall ’17 Alumni Spotlight: Estela Llinás

Alumna Dr. Estela Llinás (MEng ’68/Ph.D. ’77)

40 years ago, Estela Llinás (née Soria) graduated from Berkeley with a Ph.D. in EECS.  One of an elite group of women during her era, she looks back on her childhood, her experiences as a woman engineer, her role as a mother, and a career that spanned three continents.

Dr. Llinás was born in Córdoba, Argentina in the early 1940s to a middle class family of Spanish origin.  Her mother was a skilled seamstress and housewife, and her father a violinist from a family of musicians.  She had been an avid reader since she was 4, and would delightedly sit in her grandmother’s home devouring apples and books together with gusto.

Bright and precocious, Estela knew she loved math by the age of 8.  “I knew that I wanted to teach mathematics. I enjoyed numbers; they seemed to have some attached magic for me.  I also experienced immense pleasure in the aesthetics of formulae and formula manipulation.”  It’s also the age she started taking music lessons.  “I am always surprised by my father’s reasoning: he explained that to learn music you need to understand the mathematics of fractions and this concept was introduced in elementary schools to 8-year-old children.”

She excelled at her studies and within 3 months, had passed her first-year exams in music theory/solfège and piano at the Conservatory of Music—with top grades.  “My skills with numbers and understanding of fractions made the introduction to musical theory simple, and my perfect pitch helped me with solfège.”

By the time she was 12, she had earned a diploma of Profesora de Teoria y Solfeo from the Conservatory and had experience teaching a master class to much older students.  In Argentina, students must choose a specialized area of study in 7th grade for the remainder of their education. Estela chose to study at a technical-commercial school, rather than take the more traditional maestro (educator) route as her mother preferred, and placed second in the entrance exam.  She graduated with a Baccalaureate in Commerce (the equivalent of a high school diploma) in 1960.

Now 19, Estela took a mandatory summer entrance course and was accepted into the Instituto de Matemáticas, Astronomia y Fisica (Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics) at the Universidad National de Córdoba.  Her father said he would agree to her going if she received her Profesora de Piano diploma (piano teaching degree) first, which she did within a year—winning a gold medal from the Rotary Club for Best Graduating Performer in the process.  She attended University on a scholarship but soon discovered that Mathematics, in and of itself, was just too abstract for her.  “I wanted to use the very rigorous concepts I was being introduced to in math to study/solve practical applications” she explains.  So she switched to Physics.

Her interest in math and science was not unique among her female peers.  “At the time of my career choice, I believed that it was unusual for women to go into sciences.  The summer course I attended in Córdoba proved me wrong: we were approximately 50% women, 50% men.  But, as time went by…about 10% of women and 90% men” went on to earn their Baccalaureates.

She married a fellow Physics student in 1963 and they emigrated to the States together to attend Berkeley.  Although she had to move away from her family to a distant country with unfamiliar customs and a new language, she was in a good place: she was starting a family and “going to attend one of the best universities of science/engineering in the world.”

While finishing her B.S. in Physics at Berkeley in 1966, she took an extra course that changed her life forever: Linear Systems.  “I enjoyed the topics covered in the course (it was really applied mathematics), and Prof. [Aram] Thomasian was an enthusiastic instructor that made a lasting impression on me.”  She loved his teaching because it was so “clear and precise.”  She also greatly admired Prof. Arthur Bergen for not only being an excellent instructor but also an exceptional human being.

It was the era of Prof. Lotfi Zadeh‘s tenure as Chair (1963-68), when the department was transitioning from EE to EECS.  At that time, one could earn a Masters degree in Engineering Science/Electrical Engineering from the department.  Dr. Llinás earned this degree under the supervision of Prof. Eliahu Jury in 1968.  Her first child was born two years later.

“When I was at Berkeley, in my 3rd/4th year of Physics I was almost always the only woman in the Physics courses” she said.  And “when I was in graduate school in Engineering, there were no female professors among the more than 50 Engineering faculty.”  She never took a single graduate engineering course with another woman in attendance.

She began work on her Ph.D. dissertation, which dealt with the identification of parameters for a model of the aorta system, supervised by (José) Nestor Distefano, a professor in the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering.  When she needed to use a computer she had to either walk down the hill to the computer center or up the hill to the computer labs.  She kept her computer program on punch cards and two boxes of printouts.

She had her second son in 1972 and somehow managed to finish her dissertation in 1974 despite being the primary caregiver for a 2 year old and a 4 year old.   Before she had a chance to wrap up the requirements for her degree, however, she and her husband accepted postdoctoral positions at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Federal Institute of Technology) in Zürich, Switzerland.  Her work there was centered in the Institut für Hydromechanik.

Then tragedy struck Berkeley: Prof. Distefano died suddenly, during the summer of 1975, at the age of 44. “This was not only a huge loss for the University, but also left me academically stranded.  After many mail exchanges, and at a moment during which Prof. Distefano’s colleagues were emotionally very upset, I was notified that Prof. Jerome L. Sackman [in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering] had graciously agreed to evaluate my work and serve as the Chair of my Doctorate committee.  These events explain why the official date of my graduation is 1977. To this day I thank Prof. Sackman with all my heart.”

At the age of 35, Dr. Llinás and her growing family moved to Pittsburgh when her husband accepted a teaching position in the Department of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).  “We were expecting a baby [her third son], and my condition did not help in getting an academic job.”  She stayed home for 6 months before being hired to teach a course in Nonlinear Systems at CMU’s College of Engineering.  Following a recommendation from one of her students, she took a position as a Systems Engineering Software Consultant at Westinghouse Electric.  It was “an hourly-paid job with my choice of hours/days to work, an ideal situation for a mother of three (I worked weekends, odd hours—whenever ‘dad’ was home).”  A year after her last child, a daughter, was born in 1980, she became a Senior Engineer.  Her experiences working in the private sector were generally very positive but “at Westinghouse, I was the only woman engineer and was often ‘confused’ for a secretary.”

“At the time, it was common to hear that female scientists might be hindered in their careers because of motherhood.  As a mother of four I can say that having children is a lot of work.  On the other hand, out of that demanding work rearing them, children give you energy, for the same reason that they require so much emotional and practical support as they grow up.  Coming home to them, watching them mature, and sharing the progress of their careers helps your own work.  Children challenge your thought patterns, and this is good for your brain.”  She had to adapt to four new and different personalities and each child had their own gift.

She had been dancing since age 15 but had to put it on the back-burner when she started her family.  “Everybody (male or female) confronts a balancing act in life.  The way to accomplish what needs to be done is personal and includes several parameters that are also individual.  Each person must find the balance.  In parallel, everybody will probably have to sacrifice something.”

She was offered a position as lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Main Campus, in 1981, after her research group at Westinghouse published a paper on optimization of power distribution.  In 1983, at the age of 42, she accepted a full-time, tenure-track position as Associate Professor in Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, which she still holds today.  Like a disproportionately large number of women in her position, she had to put up a fight before tenure was granted.

Thanks to people like Dr. Llinás, more women are visible in primarily male-dominated fields than they were 40 years ago.  But there is still a long way to go.  In 2010, she quoted that “roughly 20% of the physics graduate students at prestigious institutions are female.  Yet, only about 8% of the full professors are.”

As her children got older and her marriage ended, Dr. Llinás found her way back to dancing.  She returned to the EECS Department at Berkeley to teach summer school in 1998, 1999, and 2001.  She was also invited to be a Visiting Professor at the Facultad de Matemática, Astronomía y Física (FAMAF) at her old school, the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina (1991), and the Facultad de Ingeniería Mecánica Eléctrica y Eléctronica (FIMEE) along with the Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas (CIMAT) at the Universidad de Guanajuato, México (2001 and 2003).

Her advice to women who would like to follow in her footsteps:

  • The choice of partner is fundamental, and it is important that your partner is prepared to support your work.
  • Young women need to make smart, personal financial choices.  To be very specific, the choice of place you live in (preferably close to your work) and the selection of good care for your young children.  In other words, make sure that your income/investments help you in your work and help to secure the welfare of the children.
  • Please, as women, and as members of the majority of the population on Earth, participate actively in this revolution that, although we are different, we are all contributing in vital ways to human advancements, leading to better opportunities for all people.

Estela accomplished the dream she had when she was 8 years old:  she became a teacher of Math.  She went beyond that, though, to become the 12th woman to graduate from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in EECS and to plunge into the hands-on, dauntingly male world of engineering.  She studied and taught around the world and created a loving family who helped her achieve her goals.  And she still plays the piano.

Dr. Estela Llinás on her 70th birthday

“Maybe my life is better summarized by saying that, starting from humble beginnings, I was able to fulfill my dreams.  I know that my direct personal contributions to the sciences and engineering may have been small in comparison to others, but it has been done with professional honesty and integrity and a lot of enthusiasm.”