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Stanford Report, May 31, 2000

'Recovering supermom' seeks right mix of career, family


Hard work, family time and community involvement are the top priorities in her life, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Sheri Sheppard said May 17 in a talk she gave as part of the "What Matters to Me and Why" series. But in balancing these three goals, she said, she has been forced to seriously rethink how she lives.

"I admit I am a recovering supermom," said Sheppard, speaking of adjustments she has made in her personal and professional life. Now, rather than trying to "do it all," she selects the most important tasks and tries to do them with greater diligence. "I discovered that sometimes less is more," she said.

Sheppard spoke at a lunchtime forum in which faculty and staff share their insights on values, priorities and lifestyle choices. The series encourages reflection within the Stanford community on how values inform one's actions, said Martin Shim, a member of the series' steering committee.

Speaking to about 30 students and staff in a side chapel of Memorial Church, Sheppard said that while her focus has changed over the years, her intensity has not.

"In my early years, my focus was music and writing lots of poetry," said Sheppard, who in high school dreamed of becoming a concert violinist.

When she realized her talents lay elsewhere, she said she dove headfirst into math, physics and engineering. She earned her doctorate in 1985 at the University of Michigan and joined the Design Division of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford a year later. Her research focuses on weld fatigue and impact failures, fracture mechanics and applied finite element analysis. She has won numerous teaching awards and is the faculty sponsor for the Women in Engineering seminar series.

In the last 10 years, Sheppard has become interested in learning about the types of people who go into engineering and what motivates them. She recently was appointed Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where she will lead an investigation of engineering education in the United States. She will continue to teach and do research at Stanford.

With Sheppard's change in focus has come a change in how she approaches her work. "I find myself going in directions where there is no path, or there may be only a vague path," she said. "I've been described as a tempered radical, someone who rocks the boat --but not so hard as to overturn it."

She credited her parents with instilling in her a strong work ethic. "I have a sense of duty and obligation --that I've been given a lot and I owe something back," she said.

As a parent herself, Sheppard tries to spend at least some time every day with her husband of 21 years, mechanical engineering Consulting Associate Professor Ed Carryer, and their 11-year-old daughter, Portia. Time with family could take place at 11 o'clock at night over a bowl of ice cream, she said, or could just be a walk around the block.

In her talk, Sheppard addressed the question of whether becoming a parent negatively affects one's career. While the answer varies from person to person, Sheppard said parenting brought many benefits. "I feel I'm a better teacher from having been a parent," she said.

She also said parenting has encouraged her take more of an interest in her community, whether that be at the office or at her daughter's school. "One priority is making sure I'm never too busy to say hello to someone with a smile," she said.

One of the toughest lessons was learning to be more selective about which new projects to take on. She said she applies a three-part test: "Can I do it, will I do it, and will I like myself and the world as I go about doing it?" She said she no longer reads e-mail at work --she does it in the morning and at night so that during the day she can focus on students and research.

An admitted perfectionist, Sheppard said it has been especially hard to accept that "less is more" at home. Women are usually conditioned to put everyone ahead of their needs, she said. They need to realize they don't have to do it all. "Sometimes Christmas cards don't get mailed until August," she said, "and that's OK."

Besides focusing on what to do and what not to do, Sheppard said she remembers to take time to just "be." That means stopping the car to smell the purple lupine at the side of the highway, she said. "I want to be open to the instantaneous things that happen --the things that really need to be savored."

For Sheppard, there was no one moment when her priorities shifted to this new perspective. "What I started to realize is I simply shifted the order of things that I was giving my energy to."

Tina Lamers, a graduate student in manufacturing systems engineering, said Sheppard's talk was candid and inspiring. "Sheppard is a good example for women in engineering to look at how she has evaluated her life and chosen certain paths."

Catherine Zandonella is an intern at Stanford News Service. SR