Women's History Month: Illuminating Dr. Melissa Ricketts

March 31, 2020

Dr. Melissa Ricketts, Sr. Design Engineer, has been in the lighting industry for almost three years. We sat down with Dr. Ricketts to discuss why she decided to become an engineer, why she chose the lighting industry, and the greatest challenge she’s ever faced.

How did you decide to work in Engineering and/or the Lighting Industry?

During the start of my PhD program, I got involved in lighting research using nonimaging optics to reshape illumination distributions. I fell in love with the theory behind nonimaging optics and its governing equations, and went on to write several successful research papers, including a full tutorial that was published in the prestigious Optical Society of America journal.

While I loved the theory, I wanted to work in the industry to apply what I learned and grow my knowledge of lighting. I’ve always loved hands-on work, so despite getting my PhD in physics, I was really an engineer at heart. The lighting industry was the perfect fit for me.

What is the greatest challenge that you’ve conquered?

Getting my PhD was the most challenging thing I have ever done. There were so many times that I questioned myself and my abilities. My health suffered, especially my mental health. The stress and rigors of the program can be debilitating. There’s so much pressure. There were so many times I wanted to quit. I can be pretty stubborn, and the stubborn side of me kept pushing right on through. It helped that I loved my research so much. That made the work so much more rewarding.

What is your advice for other women?

My best advice is to stay true to yourself. Know what you want in life and go get it. Don’t ever let anyone hold you back. There were many times people I knew rolled their eyes when I told them that I was getting my PhD. They thought I was wasting my time and tried to talk me out of it. There was even a time in my PhD program where I suffered from sexual harassment that heavily wore me down over years of my study. In the end, I knew that I had to stand up for myself and put MY needs first. The only way to get what you want in life is to fight for it.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Why and how did this person impact your life?

I was heavily impacted by my high school AP physics teacher, Mr. Boykin. He managed to earn the respect of a bunch of unruly teenagers, including myself, which impresses me to this day. He always treated us like adults, and I admired that about him. He also taught me to find joy in physics, to challenge myself, and to push my limits. I learned a lot from his teaching methods as a student. Moreover, he was responsible for bringing out my passion for physics. I attribute my decision to pursue physics entirely to him. I still look up to him to this day.

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

A good leader should always have empathy. If a leader can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes, how can they expect those on their team to do what they require? Understanding goes a long way, and I pride myself on trying to exercise that daily. At the end of the day, people want to know that you understand what they are going through, and that you can meet them halfway.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing female leaders today?

It can be really challenging for female leaders to build necessary support systems in male dominated workplaces. This is especially challenging in the “It’s not what you know but who you know” environments. Being a female engineer means I’ve been surrounded by a “boys’ club” environment my entire career. There were times in physics when I was the only girl in an all-male course. This also creates a lack of female mentors to look up to. Most of my mentors have been male, which is fine because I’ve had some great ones, but I love it when there’s a fellow female that I can admire and turn to; someone who really understands what I’m going through.

What is one mistake you witness female leaders making more frequently than others?

Women tend to hold back for fear of appearing “witchy but with a b” and I too suffer from this. There are times that I need to say something to a fellow co-worker, but I hold back thinking, “They will roll their eyes and think that I’m being a b#*ch.” There are times that I would rather not stand up for myself for this very reason. Women everywhere suffer from this. It’s time for us to say, “If a man can say it, so can we!” Stand up for yourself!

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Don’t obsess over what other people think about you. You cannot be a people-pleaser and a leader at the same time. It can be destructive to replay conversations over and over in your mind, wondering if you said the right thing. It can consume you, make you timid, and overly self-conscious. Trust yourself. Trust that you know what you are doing. Trust that if you are in this position, it is because you DESERVE it.

Why is it important to have male allies on your leadership journey?

Diversity is important. For the same reason that males should have female allies, so too should females have male allies. Both genders have something to bring to the table, a unique and different perspective on life, and it would be shortsighted to believe otherwise. Moreover, male allies can be some of the biggest proponents for female growth in the workplace.



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