Former Gore and Associates product developer addresses university engineers

Engineering lecture
David Russell/THE REVIEW
Jean Norvell talked Wednesday about her artistic approach to turning ideas into reality in a field that is predominantly occupied by men.

BY
Staff Reporter

As part of its annual series of events focused on strengthening the university’s engineering community, the Women In Engineering (WIE) group hosted a special lecture on Wednesday. The purpose of the WIE is to foster an environment that is conducive to the success of both incoming and graduate female engineers.

With this goal in mind, the WIE group wanted to bring in someone who could offer some perspective on what being a woman engineer in the workforce is like. The group selected Jean Norvell, a graduate of London University and a longtime member of W.L. Gore and Associates, a prominent manufacturing enterprise.

This lecture deviated from the norm in that it would more closely resemble a narrative of personal stories than a traditional academic monologue. It consisted of accounts of the difficulties of acclimating to new cultures, valuable lessons learned through trial and error and personal triumph through ingenuity.

Norvell’s work in Gore’s product development department proved to be quite prosperous, and during the lecture she shared how she came to work for them. She talked about the difficulties of adjusting to new environments, as well as her approach to turning ideas into reality.

Norvell was sought out by Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of engineering, and L. Pamela Cook, associate dean of faculty. She did not receive any formal degree in engineering, but became quickly acclimated through hands-on experience. She thrived thanks to natural ability and an unconventional approach to problem solving, utilizing an artistic perspective.

Norvell decided to begin by delving into her experience with international travel alongside her husband, who is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. She referred to her time in Japan, where she first pursued an education on the arts of fashion design and patent making. These skills were further honed upon her return to the states. During her time spent in Texas, several factories in New Braunfels commissioned Norvell to make patents and design prototypes of their products for them.

The time Norvell spent immersing herself in different cultures presented opportunities for self-reflection. She feels that the constant and stark changes in her environment ultimately benefited her personal development.

“One of the things living overseas in both Taiwan and Japan is that I had an opportunity to live as a minority in another culture,” Norvell said. “That’s very eye-opening because it gives you a chance to interact with people who have a different faith, a different culture and a completely different way of life.”

The WIE group invited Norvell to the university to discuss whether the arts have a rightful place alongside the academic disciplines included in STEM. She made it clear during the remainder of the lecture that the arts can be just as valuable as technical knowledge and taking a creative, unorthodox approach to a problem can present a solution that could not be attained through traditional knowledge alone.

After Norvell and her husband settled down in New Castle, Del., she began working for L.W. Gore and Associates designing experimental materials for garments. It was here that she began to appreciate the practical uses for art in a predominantly scientific field.

Gore’s initial attempts in advertising their products proved to be less than lucrative. When Norvell and her team of developers were approached by one of the company’s sales representatives, they discovered that this stemmed from the customers’ struggles to understand all of the advanced terminology used to explain the materials. When the salespeople transitioned away from this towards making use of commonly understood wording and analogies, profits began trending positively. This experience illustrated for Norvell the useful applications for the arts in her work.

“The point I’m trying to make is [that] sometimes art, [can be used] to explain something technical,” Norvell said. “It’s a way instead of using technical jargon to explain, particularly to people who are not technical, a way of getting art across for other people to understand.”

A recurring theme of the lecture was change and how it can benefit personal development, whether that be change of environment as Norvell underwent numerous times, or a change in methods. The theme of change resonated well with audience members like first-year Christine Lu.

“I really liked when she started talking about, like, if there’s a change, if you see an opportunity that can anyway broaden your knowledge then you should take it and I really agree with that,” Lu said.

The next event planned by the WIE group is the Meet Your Faculty Lunch and will be held sometime in November.

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