WoW Woman in Wearable Tech and WoW Ambassador in Boston | Stephanie F. Zopf, chemical engineer and smart textiles expert

Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic

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Born, raised and educated in the greater New York City area, Stephanie spent most of her time on the East Coast. In 2006, she received her BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Columbia University in the City of New York. She then performed research for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) from 2007-2011, gaining a deep understanding of scaling up nanotechnologies into chemical-biological protective suits. In 2011, she was awarded a Department of Defense SMART scholarship to pursue graduate research at Tufts University to understand how to integrate ionic liquid gel electrolytes for flexible supercapacitors under the tutelage of Professor Matthew Panzer. After obtaining her MS degree in Chemical Engineering from Tufts in 2013, she continued to develop ionic liquid gel-based flexible supercapacitors at NSRDEC with a focus on textile integration for wearable energy storage. Her latest gig entailed working at HP that involved projects on projects in digital textile printing and others in printed electronics but is now moving to Boston hoping to advance the future of wearables and smart textiles manufacturing.

Stephanie, welcome to our team! Tell us a bit more about yourself, your background and how you became interested in world of technology and particularly wearable technology.

Thank you! I was trained as a chemical engineer, but my artistic and creative side has never left me. I got into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at a young age because I loved the rewarding feeling I got from solving problems. A big chunk of my post-college career in STEM was spent working for the US Army Natick Solder Center in Natick, MA (USA) where technologies to protect and sustain the US Warfighter are developed. These technologies included everything from advanced textiles, ballistic armor, footwear and food. The specific projects I worked on at the Center entailed characterizing chemical protective textiles as well as designing a flexible and wearable energy storage device for the Warfighter. It was in this phase of my career I got into wearable technology since I learned developing technologies for the human body was a very complex design problem.

How did you find out about Women of Wearables?

I found out about Women of Wearables when I was doing research on fashion and wearable technology. I wanted to understand how one could make better wearable designs that didn’t feel like one was wearing another computer. I found myself reading the interviews of other women on this site, and I was excited to find a community of people interested in the same topic.

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What are projects you're working on at the moment?

At HP, I am involved in a project printing on textiles, though I will be moving on to a new venture as my family and I get ready for our move back East. I also make jewelry from repurposed materials. Then there’s the random artistic collaborations that happen between me and my husband when daycare tells us that we need to dress up our daughter for Comic Con themed days (my daughter is the guinea pig for all my wearable designs). 

I am also fascinated with the mind/body connection, and currently a big chunk of my time is devoted toward training to teach Pilates. This fascination stemmed from my love of dancing and how we connect our bodies to music so my past projects were ones that allowed me to explore this space. For example, one project entailed designing an interactive ballroom shoe that could tell you whether you danced on the beat. Another project, a collaboration with a sculptor and also good friend of mine (who happens to also be a mom!), involved an interactive sculpture that allowed you to physically feel music using solenoids.

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What was the biggest obstacle in your career so far as woman in tech? How about biggest achievement? 

In addition to the other challenges women face having their ideas heard, my biggest obstacle has been communicating the meaningful possibilities that developments in flexible electronics, functional textiles and advanced manufacturing can provide, and not just sounding like we should work on it just because it’s “cool.” I’d like to see more people discuss these technologies on a higher level — why are we tinkering or innovating with these technologies and what are the implications of it if it were actually implemented? By the way, I am not saying it’s wrong to pursue playful ideas. Playful innovation is so important because it speaks to our inner creative selves, allows us to learn, and the works that emerge inspire others. I think when one has a balanced view of both approaches – rational innovation and playful innovation – we can have more purposeful discussions about the futures we imagine with these technologies and can thus design impactful solutions.

I enjoy mentoring younger folks in STEM, and so I feel my biggest achievement is when I can inspire others to use their imagination but also think critically about what they are doing in their work. So far it’s working for my 2.5-year old daughter, and hopefully she’ll become a woman in tech.

Why is #WomenInTech movement important to you?

The #WomenInTech movement is important to me because I feel that women’s natural traits can add a powerful perspective to the field. The intellectual and emotional awareness that women bring to the table is a breeding ground for collaboration and creativity that can add a very powerful perspective to tech innovation if women didn’t feel held back.

How does the tech ecosystem look in Boston?

Boston (and its environs) is a very fertile place for innovation in tech. With respect to wearables and textiles, the research from universities like MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Boston University, WPI and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) consortium provides ideas in novel materials and computing that advances wearable technologies. MIT and UMass Lowell have also recently built advanced manufacturing centers to help startups (which are also abundant in the area) innovate in flexible electronics and smart textiles. More established tech research organizations in the private, federal, and health sectors provide places for transitioning wearable innovations.

What will be your main goals as Women of Wearables Ambassador in Boston?

My main goals as WoW in Boston will be: (1) to find and promote more women in the field of wearable tech in the local community, (2) to connect makers and developers working in this field to resources where they can see their ideas flourish, and (3) to foster the cross pollination of ideas between different groups with the goal of truly innovating in this area. 

What will be the key trends in the wearable tech and smart textiles industries in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?

With the rapid onset of advanced manufacturing, I see the wearable tech and smart textiles industries completely converging. I believe we’ll find ways to make wearables as commonplace as another piece of our wardrobe. Right now, I think the obvious application of wearable tech and smart application is in healthcare because most everyone is concerned with their well-being. As we find ways to enable the manufacturing of wearable tech and smart textiles, I do foresee challenges in terms of the federal policies and regulations – e.g. relating to health, the environmental, data privacy – encountered when implementing these technologies for the consumer. Futuristically, I think the trend will head towards scaling up the manufacturing and integration biological materials into what we wear. 

Who are your 3 inspirational women in tech?

Amanda Parkes, Genevieve Dion, and Behnaz Farahi.

 

Website: www.stephaniefzopf.com

LinkedIn: Stephanie F. Zopf

Twitter: Stephanie F. Zopf

 

 

This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.