Cover Photo: A highly-sought speaker, Pamela McCauley, Ph.D. is a strong advocate for student success and women in STEM (seen here presenting at the Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Energy)

By Raymond Jones

Ask Pamela McCauley about her academic degrees, and she can give a simple answer. She has a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate, all in industrial engineering, all from the University of Oklahoma.

Ask her where she’s from, however, and the answer’s not so simple. Like many “Army brats,” she moved around the country constantly as her dad changed duty stations. But whenever he served overseas, she and her mother typically stayed behind with a grandmother living in Oklahoma.

She benefited greatly from the chance to spend time together as an extended family. And her mother, in particular, was “a terrific optimist and wonderful mentor” who emphasized that the sky was the limit in terms of young Pamela’s ambitions.

Those dreams easily could have taken a detour when she became a teen mother, an experience she drew upon, years later, to write a book titled Winners Don’t Quit…Today They Call Me Doctor. Her goal in writing this book was to inspire young women, particularly those who may be mothers, to pursue their dreams and education. Looking back on that period, she credits family support and unconditional love for making a huge difference when she needed it.

Now, after 27 years in academia, she is passionate about the opportunity afforded by her current position to “give back” to students and colleagues at the Wilson College School of Textiles. She enjoys nothing more than offering the same type of mentoring that she benefited from when considering her own options for schooling and a future career path.  

Dr. McCauley’s biography includes not only teaching but the completion of more than 100 technical papers, book chapters and conference lectures, along with a widely-used textbook on ergonomics. She’s pleased with those achievements, but is especially proud to have been one of the first three African American women named as a Fellow in the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers. This distinction recognizes “significant, national contributions to the profession.”

In February of this year, she received another prestigious recognition when was named to the 2021 Class of Fellows of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). AIMBE’s mission is to provide leadership and advocacy in those fields “for the benefit of society.” AIMBE is also committed to increasing diversity of the medical and biological community through leadership and advocacy. AIMBE Fellows represent the top two percent of the most accomplished leaders in the fields of medical and biological engineering.

Despite the wide range of honors received during her distinguished career in academia and as an entrepreneur, McCauley says she herself felt “deeply honored” by the opportunity to accept a multi-faceted position at the Wilson College of Textiles. “This college has a global reputation,” she says, “and I was thrilled to move into a job that enables me to interact on a daily basis with so many accomplished people.”

Her current title is “Associate Dean of Academic Programs, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” The latter part of that title was added several months ago, as part of the institutional response to racial issues and awakenings that shook the country during the summer of 2020.  

Shortly after arriving at NC State, McCauley had the opportunity to participate in a “diversity and inclusion town hall.” She remembers that encounter as one of the most powerful experiences she’s had in any academic setting. “I learned,” she says, “that people here treat each other with huge respect and have genuine concern for their colleagues.”

One thing she especially likes about her current job description is “the chance it provides to be on a leadership team that is so thoroughly committed to encouraging, empowering, supporting, uplifting, coaching and inspiring students.”

McCauley is aware of a public perception that the American textile industry is in decline. She’s nothing but bullish, however, on its future. “A lot of manufacturing operations are healthy and actively recruiting,” she says. “I see it every day in my role as mentor, faculty member and leader. In addition, there are huge opportunities for our graduates with respect to career paths in textile engineering, polymer color chemistry, fashion, art and design, medical applications and sustainability in general. The Wilson College plays a vital role as an innovator and there’s no doubt it will continue to grow.”

Despite her past focus on academics, McCauley has had a few experiences that took her off the beaten path. For example, she once applied to be an astronaut. “Maybe this ambition was the result of all the time I spent looking up at stars and constellations when I was young,” she says.

In a typical selection cycle, the astronaut program draws roughly 3,000 applications for about 20 openings. Highlights of her NASA adventure include “the most thorough physical exam of my life.” In addition, she spent a lot of time sealed up in a cocoon-like structure with no light. “They wanted to make sure,” she remembers, “that none of the candidates had claustrophobia.” 

Other unusual excursions included the delivery of a keynote address on ergonomics in Romania. And, as a Jefferson Science Fellow, she was sponsored by the U.S. State Department to evaluate the HIV/AIDS healthcare delivery system in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. The experience left her humbled. “It was staggering to see how much they do with the few resources they have to provide outstanding support to their citizens. Their medical professionals are among the most enterprising in the world. I have rarely been more inspired than when observing this level of commitment.”

She returned home motivated to instill that same spirit of optimism and adaptability in her students and colleagues.

With COVID-19 still impacting operations, she says the thing she’s most looking forward to is an opportunity to mentor students in person. “I started during the pandemic, so most of my connections here have been virtual,” she says. “I never realized before how much I missed just being able to interact with people face to face and with the quality of the Wilson College Community, I am genuinely looking forward to future opportunities to connect in person.”