Live Without Limits: An Interview with FY24 SWE President Alexis McKittrick, Ph.D.

Introducing FY24 SWE President Alexis McKittrick, Ph.D., who discusses her goals for the year, the power of belonging, and the importance of professional development at all stages.

Q: Let’s begin by discussing your theme for this year, “Live Without Limits.” In view of everything going on in the world — especially some of the legislative activity that threatens to undermine the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) work that is central to SWE’s mission — this is a hopeful and optimistic message. Please tell us why you chose this theme and what it means to you.

A: Simply put, “Live Without Limits” is what I want for all SWE members. I want all of us to be able to pursue our careers and passions without being limited by the barriers and challenges that society places on women in engineering and technology. SWE’s contributions to DEIB are more critical now than ever given that these values are coming under fire in our society. This is particularly threatening for those with intersectional identities who face additional barriers from multiple facets of underrepresentation and associated bias. I chose “Live Without Limits” as my theme as a signal that SWE is actively working to break down societal barriers for women in engineering and technology. To be successful, it will take all of us advocating, listening, and working to live without limits together.

Q: In the past few years, SWE has made significant progress in key areas. These range from increased membership to holding record-breaking in person post-pandemic events and championing greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging across the organization. How do you see this momentum continuing and expanding?

A: SWE has had a strong past few years, which is remarkable when you think about the impact of the pandemic on the world and the toll it took on many other organizations. This is a testament to the brilliant and flexible staff we have at SWE headquarters, led by the incomparable Karen Horting as executive director and CEO. Staff members are always ready to pivot toward what is in the best interest of SWE. Our momentum is high right now — and we are not slowing down! The buzz around the WE23 conference in Los Angeles is outstanding, and early indications are that it may be one for the record books. And, while we’ve focused on DEIB initiatives heavily in recent years, SWE continues to have a lot of opportunity to grow in this space and is taking a fresh look at ways to engage members from underrepresented groups and different geographic areas equitably.

Q: What areas of growth do you see the Society pursuing under your leadership?

A: It is important to me that every member (and future member!) of SWE knows and feels that they belong here. Supporting and improving membership belonging in SWE is a journey, and we are taking steps in that journey this year via several new initiatives. The board of directors is examining how SWE can better serve members where they are, especially when they cannot access SWE events or other resources in person; the senate has made membership belonging one of their strategic initiatives for this year; and the SWE culture study results have shown us we have a strong culture among members with key opportunities for growth that can be pursued.

SWE also has an opportunity to improve volunteer leader experiences in everything from communicating opportunities for professional development to applying for leadership roles and ensuring leaders have sufficient training for their roles. We have amazing and passionate members who are willing to volunteer their time in leadership roles for SWE, and we need to respect and value that time.

SWE will also be rolling out exciting updates to our prestigious awards program this year. They will allow us to continue to grow our recognitions and provide a brighter spotlight for the achievements of outstanding engineers and technologists.

Q: What aspects of your personal or professional background have been helpful as you prepared for your term?

A: My career has been focused on aligning myself with roles that help policy makers have the best science and engineering information available to make data-informed decisions. I am bringing what I’ve learned about advocacy and STEM policy in my career to SWE. I’m also bringing my collaborative approach to leadership that comes from being in many rooms where the goal is to resolve different approaches to science and technology policy issues into one cohesive path forward. My previous terms on SWE’s board of directors have spanned from the action-oriented, procedure-focused role of Society secretary to the speaker of the senate, where I led the senate in its long-range strategic planning for SWE. This diversity of roles and approaches to SWE’s goals has given me a flexible mindset for how we can move SWE forward and meet our mission.

Q: Do you have a favorite “SWE moment”? Or has there been an event or SWE experience that is especially memorable or pivotal?

A: There are a lot to pick from, but my favorite recent one was when my two daughters (13 and 10) accompanied me to WE Local Hartford in March 2023. This was their first SWE conference, and I wasn’t sure what their reactions would be. They attended the STEM EXPO on Saturday, which was filled with amazing, hands-on experiences that they truly enjoyed. The biggest surprise was their incredibly positive reactions to the keynotes. They found the stories and lessons from the speakers inspiring and motivational — and they even met one of their favorite “bakineers” from Netflix’s “Baking Impossible” show, Sara Schonour, before she gave the closing keynote! (Major cool points for mom.) I have always been hopeful and excited for what I can learn from SWE conferences; now, I’m hopeful and excited for what my daughters can learn too.

Q: What would you say to encourage a new SWE member to make the most of their experience?

A: Use SWE to build your network! There are so many opportunities to meet others in SWE that have career journeys, skills, and experiences that may be similar to or different than your own. These connections won’t only help your career growth, they will also form a support structure and sounding board as you chart your own course to Live Without Limits!

Q: Similarly, do you have any advice or insights for members farther along their SWE journeys?

A: Yes. SWE has professional development opportunities at all career stages — everything from webinars to in-person courses like eXXec and volunteer leadership opportunities with SWE groups. This is one thing I truly value about SWE: No matter where I’ve been in my career, there has always been programming that supports me being a better engineer and leader. If you haven’t been to the updated Advance Learning Center in the past year, check out all the new Continuous Learning Point offerings from SWE! (You learn key skills, plus, you get cool badges!)

Q: In this issue of the magazine, several articles explore the different ways that engineering can drive responsible, sustainable practices. Can you share your perspective on engineering’s role in ensuring a positive future for humanity?

A: Engineers solve problems. We see challenges and work to find solutions to overcome them. This is our collective engineering superpower, and we have the responsibility to the future generations on this Earth to use our powers for good. Developing technical, policy, and operational solutions that create more sustainable and cleaner practices in areas like energy, manufacturing, and transportation is how engineers and technologists can make meaningful contributions to a positive future and ensure a more sustainable world.