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Mary Baker (second from left) with husband Wayne Pfeiffer (left) and children Gordon and Betsy

Mary Baker (second from left) with husband Wayne Pfeiffer (left) and children Gordon and Betsy (33K JPG)

"Many times what appears to be a disadvantage turns out to be a tremendous advantage," says engineering mechanics alumna Mary Baker.

As a female in the 1960s, Baker wasn't the typical engineering student — and consequently, she sometimes had to convince the faculty she was serious enough about engineering to be worth their time. One course in particular, in which she often was called upon to work problems on the chalkboard in front of class as a test of her commitment, helped her hone the study skills she needed to succeed. "Up until that time I had not been a disciplined enough student to learn the materials daily instead of waiting for the exams. It was like having a test every day," she relates.

So at the end of class, there was nothing left for her to study and Baker managed to get 100 percent on the final exam without the pressure of studying for the final. "I find it remarkable that an instructor who seemed unreasonably hard on me provided me with knowledge and discipline that benefited me over and over again," she says.

In fact, during her first week on the job at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC), Baker garnered respect from her new colleagues for solving an engineering problem that was a direct application of that class. "I feel that instructor gave me an incredible advantage over the other students and I appreciate what he did for me to this day," she says.

Today she is chair of ATA Engineering, Inc., formed in April 2000 after parent company SDRC decided to discontinue its advanced test and analysis consulting projects. Baker was on the team that led the effort to spin the SDRC consulting engineering division into an independent company.

Based in San Diego, California, ATA uses advanced test and analysis methods to drive early design of mechanical, aerospace and electromechanical products such as satellites, launch vehicles, amusement park rides and computer peripherals. "By use of these advanced computer methods, many of which we have developed, we have been able to help create products that achieve very high performance goals," says Baker. "I hired most of these people and am very proud to have assembled this group of individuals and to have helped them work effectively together."

That camaraderie is the company's foundation. "This small company is made of people who love the technology we use and work together to solve engineering problems," says Baker. And even as company chairman, she spends a good share of her time working on customer engineering problems. "The other part of my role is to help steer the company into future projects and products," she says.

Baker formerly was vice president of SDRC's western region operations engineering services, and was a project manager, manager of analytical services, technical director, and director of projects at the company. Prior to that, she was a staff scientist at Systems, Science and Software, La Jolla, California; and a senior engineer at Rohr Industries in Chula Vista, California. The Wisconsin native holds MS and PhD degrees in applied mechanics from the California Institute of Technology in addition to the bachelor's degree she received from UW-Madison in 1966.

Her decision to attend UW-Madison was consistent with family tradition. Baker's sister, both parents and nearly all her aunts and uncles graduated from the university, and her grandfather, father and she all took their first college calculus courses in the same building. But Baker considered attending college elsewhere. "I had thought I would like to go to MIT, but was told by my father that I could get just as good an education in Madison," she says.

Baker tried majoring in physics and applied math, but found in engineering she could learn how to apply the same physics and mathematics to real problems. In engineering, she can see the difference and progress she makes. "With engineering, you keep testing and applying the concepts so that they continue to give you the power to change the world around you," she says.

Today she still keeps in touch with some of the engineering mechanics faculty, although she has not found time to visit UW-Madison very often. "With two kids and an exciting business and still lots to learn, free time seldom happens," says Baker.


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Date last modified: Friday, 09-Nov-2001 09:37:00 CST
Date created: 07-Nov-2001 10:49:00