Mcity project manager a role model for girls who want to raise families and tackle engineering challenges for the common good
Sarah Cicotte didn’t grow up wanting to be an engineer but now, as a 43-year-old mother of three, Sarah is running some of the most important research programs shaping the future of self-driving vehicles.
As a project manager at Mcity, Sarah was instrumental in launching the free A2GO shuttle service in Ann Arbor, where five self-driving cars transport passengers throughout a 2.64-square-mile area surrounding the University of Michigan campus. This innovative testing program is an important building block that will help make the cars of the future a reality in the next few years.
“I loved working on A2GO,” Sarah says. “It was so exciting. I championed that project for a very long time to keep it alive at Mcity and I feel I was crucial in it finally being executed. When I see the cars driving around, it’s really cool.”
The A2GO Autonomous Shuttle Service connects the U-M campus with Ann Arbor neighborhoods. Mcity is a partner in the project, along with May Mobility, Ann Arbor SPARK, i!important Safety Technologies, 4M, the state of Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Her work at Mcity isn’t Sarah’s first experience with driverless cars. That came early in her life when she found herself naturally attracted to the process of building things – especially things that go.
“I liked playing with Legos, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys,” Sarah says. “I had a K’Nex building set where you could make vehicles that ran on a battery. I remember being fascinated with it.”
Still, Sarah didn’t consider going into engineering until she met with her high school’s guidance counselor. Sarah had good grades in math and science and told her counselor that she wanted to work in a field where she could make good money.
“My mom was a single mother who always struggled financially,” Sarah said. “I told my counselor that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted a career where I wouldn’t struggle financially, like my mom. And he suggested engineering.”
That good advice holds true today. Of the top-paying 25 jobs for college graduates, 14 are in the engineering field. The highest-paying job is petroleum engineering, which offers a median salary of $139,300 a year. Other high-paying fields include chemical engineering, nuclear engineering, electronic engineering and more. The widespread need for trained engineers in so many sectors of society means that engineers can work in more than 20 different fields. A girl interested in healthcare can choose medical engineering. Someone who likes building things can go into architectural engineering. For someone good with computers, engineering offers jobs in both computer systems design and in creating software. Other fields include marine, agricultural and environmental engineering.
Sarah liked the idea of engineering so much that the only college application she submitted was to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. “I had the grades, the test scores and I was a girl, so I applied, got in and here I am.”
In the late 1990s, a growing number of young women entered engineering programs, hitting a peak of 21 percent in 2002, a huge increase from the meager 0.4 percent of women majoring in engineering in 1966. Since 2002, the percentage of women studying engineering has remained steady at 18 percent to 20 percent.
While engineering remains a male-dominated field – about 14 percent of working engineers are women – Sarah says she’s hasn’t found the field to be a boy’s club. In her job at Mcity, for example, half of the public-private research center’s directors are women and General Motors, one of Mcity’s founding industry partners, is led by CEO Mara Barra, who launched her career with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.
“In school, it was mostly guys and not a lot of girls, and I’m often in meetings where I’m the only female, but I can’t say I’ve ever been at a disadvantage for being a female in any of the jobs I had,” Sarah says. “I started working for GM in college including the Willow Run Transmission plant, which was a harsh environment for a young lady. I just got tougher. You have to be assertive and carry yourself in a certain way.”
A solid engineering education also has helped Sarah engineer a balanced work and family life. After graduation, she worked in several engineering jobs at General Motors, including an assignment as the design and release engineer for Cadillac. During that time, Sarah pursued a Master of Engineering degree through GM’s technical education program, knowing it would give her more career options.
“I knew when I started having a family that I would want to stay home for a while,” she says. “I really pushed myself to get that degree because I knew it would give me the leg up I would need to get back into the workforce after being gone, especially in a field like engineering.”
Now at Mcity, Sarah’s project manager job combines her engineering education with her work experience overseeing complicated processes and projects. One of those efforts is a sensor for “smart intersections” that would gather and transmit information in real time to connected cars. The $19.95 million project is designed to demonstrate the safety potential of connected and automated vehicles.
The centerpiece of the project is a stalk of sensors that Sarah has dubbed “Geoffrey,” after the giraffe mascot for Toys “R” Us.
“When we set it all up for a bench test in the office, it reminded me of toys in a toy store, which made me think of Geoffrey the giraffe from Toys “R” Us,” she said. “It’s been fun to be part of that project because it was a challenge to learn about the different sensors and how to put them together. It’s just nonstop pushing and driving to innovate.”
Sarah says one the biggest satisfactions of her job is being involved with the beginning of autonomous transportation technology that will transform the world around us.
“GM has been building vehicles for decades, but at Mcity you’re working with companies that are still in their infancy in an industry that’s growing by leaps and bounds. I’ll look at a component from a supplier and think, ‘How can they not know that their connectors will corrode from the dirt and water on the road?’ and then you remember that this company is only two years old.”
And at least one of Sarah’s Mcity projects is already part of transportation history. Last year, one of the driverless shuttles she worked on as part of the Mcity Driverless Shuttle research project was featured in “Collecting Mobility” a special exhibit at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The exhibit showcased automotive innovation through history, and the former Dearborn resident was a frequent visitor with her young children before the exhibition closed in January.
“The shuttle was inside the exhibit with glass in front of it, and I’m in one of the pictures on the plaque. I took a picture to show my kids. There I am, on a plaque in the Henry Ford museum!” she said. “We made it. We’re impacting history.”
Story by Brian J. O’Connor, a freelance writer based in Sylvan Lake, Michigan.