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Kim LaScola Needy: Working for diversity and equality in engineering

Small in stature but big in presence, Kim Needy has been the first woman at a lot of tables, but she is working to ensure she’s not the last. by April Wallace | May 8, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Dr. Kim Needy, dean of the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, is seen here March 3, 2022 in her Fayetteville office. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

It happened on a carrier airplane. Kim LaScola was a high school student seated in a hammock on a plane ordinarily for paratroopers the first time that she really thought she could be an engineer.

LaScola grew up in Pittsburgh, where the U.S. Steel Corp. was headquartered. So when they sent an engineering-centric program to her high school, it encouraged students like her who had a penchant for math and science to pursue engineering by providing job shadowing opportunities and more.

"I took my first flight through this," she says. "They took us to the Pennsylvania International Guard Station and flew...that was really amazing. That's when I started thinking about engineering. I thought 'You could earn a good living, and you can have independence.'"

Now Kim Needy is dean of the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, a position that she has had since November 2020. She is the first female in the role. One of the many, many things that Needy is currently tasked with is finding the next chancellor for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, since she was named chairperson for the search committee in February.

"I could always count on Kim letting me know how I could be more effective," says Chancellor Emeritus John A. White Jr., who returned to the engineering faculty soon after Needy became a professor and head of the department of industrial engineering at UA.

"She's an exemplary leader," he says. "Therefore I was not surprised when President Bobbitt selected her to chair the search committee for UA's chancellor."

Last month Needy was honored as an Extraordinary Woman for faculty, a designation by the Chancellor's Commission on Women that recognizes someone who is "a role model and inspiration for others seeking gender equality; who empowers those around them; and makes a positive impact on women's experiences on campus."

That designation surprises no one close to her as they've either watched her build others up or more often been one of those people themselves.

"Dr. Needy is a very thoughtful, caring and hard working leader who is absolutely brilliant at creating an effective team," says Patricia Koski, former dean and associate dean of the Graduate School and International Education at the University of Arkansas. She got to know her when Needy was dean of the graduate school from 2014 to late 2020. Koski says she learned a lot from her, which helped when she took over as dean.

"Her goal, always, is to empower other people," Koski says. "Over and over, I saw her reach out to people as a mentor to help them achieve their goals. I was amazed that she did this because her own schedule was so packed full."

Koski counts Needy as a mentor too since she continued to pick her brain as she followed in her footsteps -- a daunting prospect, she notes.

"Kim was a very hands-on advisor who guided me through every step of transitioning from a graduate student to an assistant professor in industrial engineering," says Heather Nachtmann, associate dean for research in the UA College of Engineering and one of Needy's former Ph.D. students. "Through her own actions, Kim taught me the value of professional networking and how to be a servant leader ... skills that have enabled me to be successful throughout my own career."

Kim Petrone met Needy when their sons were in kindergarten together at Root Elementary and says they not only became fast friends and running buddies but campus colleagues too.

"She mentored me as I started a career with the university, helping me understand and appreciate academia," Petrone says. "I've enjoyed countless hours of running/walking (and) conversation with her. She's a great conversationalist, whip-smart, empathetic and insightful."

Needy's impact on campus extends to keeping graduate students on the path to graduation. She established the Needy Family Graduate Student Emergency Fund for students' unexpected expenses that hinder their ability to continue in school.

"There are so many financial burdens that impact their ability to focus in the classroom," Needy says. "The surprising thing is that sometimes it's a small amount of money that is the difference maker ... sometimes just a few hundred dollars."

BASEMENT ACADEMY

Kim LaScola Needy spent her childhood in Pittsburgh as the oldest of her parents' two girls. Since both of her parents were first-born children, her mom the first of four girls herself, she says she took the responsibility of being the elder very seriously.

Sunday dinners were always spent at grandmother's house with the rest of the family, all the aunts and uncles and cousins always together.

"A lot of women influenced me," Needy says -- especially her grandmother, aunts and mother. After her paternal grandmother died, grandpa moved in with them. And although they had a small home and a busy life, Needy says her parents always made time for her and her sister.

"I always had everything I needed and some of the things I wanted," she says. "I always felt like I could do and be whatever I wanted."

Growing up, Needy wanted to be a teacher because that seemed like the biggest influence on a person's life aside from their family members. She would often play school in the basement, where Needy would draw on the chalkboard and give assignments to her little sister, who was her willing student.

"I have always admired Kim and wanted to be like her; she's always been strong willed, independent and generous," says Kathy Feehan, Needy's sister.

Not only was she her first (pretend) academic student, Feehan says Kim taught her life lessons early on by handing over a toy if Kathy's was broken. When they each got a quarter for candy, Kathy would spend hers on one big thing she could she eat on the way home. Kim, however, would buy 25 small pieces so that she could share some with Kathy when she inevitably ran out.

"Kim continues to be my role model and hero as I followed her into an engineering degree, which was particularly difficult for me with dyslexia," Feehan says. "More than anything, she taught me that you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind into it. I couldn't ask for a better sister."

One thing that was instilled in Needy and her sister from an early age was the importance of a college education. Their mother earned a full scholarship to college, but due to her father's struggle with MS, she needed to help financially support her family. After high school graduation, she went to work in the insurance industry and turned each paycheck over to her mother. College was not an option at the time.

Needy's father came from a working class family, too. Of her four grandparents, her paternal grandfather was the only one to graduate from high school, and her father became the first in his family to attend college.

"When dad set off to go to college, it was a big deal," Needy says. He studied electrical engineering, but he ran out of money and came up against other issues, so he dropped out. Her dad went to work as a technician for the U.S. Bureau of Mines and there he was encouraged to go back to school for his degree. He worked all day and took two classes at night. "There was no doubt for us -- we were going to college."

He earned his degree in math and became a research scientist. By high school, it was clear that Needy was exceptional in math and science too.

I'M SURE I'LL SEE YOU THERE

When it came to picking a college, Needy applied only to the University of Pittsburgh, her father's alma mater. She got in -- but the night before her first day of college, she didn't sleep. Instead she laid there wondering "Am I smart enough? Can I do this?"

"I was so excited to be in engineering," Needy says. "It was the cream of the crop. I was at the top of my high school, and everyone else was too."

She couldn't afford to live on campus, so each morning Needy took a streetcar that stopped half a mile away, got a transfer and finally a bus to the university. It evened out to two hours commuting daily.

At first she thought she would study chemical engineering, but as she explored the various disciplines she began to gravitate toward industrial engineering.

"I hadn't even heard about it before," Needy says. Nicknamed "people engineering," it touches on so many parts of life and society: healthcare and transportation, for example, and working to improve it. "Making it faster, cheaper, more cost effective -- everybody needs that."

It was a career with no shortage of need, she says. And as she toured companies, it opened her eyes to the many possibilities. As Needy became active with the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers as a student, it solidified her choice and gave her confidence.

"I knew Kim LaScola as a very bright student in several of my classes and as a very active leader in the student chapter of the Institute of Industrial Engineers," says Harvey Wolfe, Department of Industrial Engineering chair emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. Their strong friendship began to form when he drove her and three other students eight hours (one way) to Kalamazoo, Mi., for an IIE conference.

Going to that conference was life changing, Needy says, as she saw industrial engineers from the entire region.

"I thought, 'This is my profession. This is what I'm going to do.'"

As Needy considered her job prospects, she turned toward PPG Industries. The fact that it was a Fortune 500 company and would allow her to remain in her hometown accounted for a lot. But as graduation approached, a little hallway exchange changed everything.

A professor was running past Kim and her friend. They called out, "Hey wait, where are you headed?" He called back that he was going to review graduate school applications, and he was certain he'd see both Needy's and her friend's in the stack.

It made Kim realize for the first time that she was capable of graduate school, something she hadn't remotely considered yet. And while the salary that PPG Industries was offering her wasn't her highest, it did come with reimbursement for college tuition and books.

A WOMAN IN INDUSTRY

Needy joined PPG Industries following college graduation in the summer of 1984. She was a programmer analyst in the coatings and resins division, a part of the company that makes paint, and she soon began to talk to her manager about that reimbursement program.

"He said, 'Oh but you don't want to do that right away; you'll be busy doing this or something else,'" Needy says, but she pressed on anyway. "I said 'But if it is allowed, I could start right away, right?'"

The graduate program was in the evening, so much like her dad, she worked days and went to school at night.

"I felt fortunate to work at a Fortune 500 that recognized the importance of diversity. They wanted a woman at the table," Needy says. She was placed on a task force to implement quality management in her division and said she got other good opportunities as a result. "It hasn't been until later in my career that I recognized the hurdles and barriers women had because I benefited so greatly from a generation ahead of me.

"It wasn't easy, but I came in at the right time."

She was on a business trip to Milwaukee in late March 1985 when she had her next life changing meeting, a chance encounter with Bill Needy, who was also there on business.

"What initially attracted me to her, in addition to her being attractive, was that she was an engineer, working on her master's," Bill Needy says. "But when she told me she drove a car with a manual transmission and knew how to change her own oil, I knew I had to find out more."

Two weeks later, Bill visited Pittsburgh for the first time, taking Kim to dinner at an exclusive Mount Washington restaurant with a view of the city below. At least, that's what he thought he was doing, until she insisted on picking up the check since he had driven 200 miles to be there.

With him living in Columbus, Ohio, and she in Pittsburgh, the two only saw each other on weekends until they were married in July 1986. After Needy finished her master's degree, the couple moved to Wichita, Kan., where Bill was taking classes. Since he was busy with his education at night, Kim thought it might be fun to keep continuing her education at the same time.

In February 1988, she took a job as a systems analyst for The Boeing Company and was the first woman there to be awarded a PhD fellowship.

ENERGIZER BUNNY

After four and a half years of working and earning her doctorate, Needy was fully expecting to return to Boeing. But having kept in close contact with her former professors meant she was at the top of their minds.

"When I found out that Kim was getting her Ph.D. from Wichita State, I immediately offered her a job at Pitt as an assistant professor," Wolfe says, bringing her back to campus in the fall of 1993. "I might have bypassed a few rules relative to hiring but I knew I was getting a superb faculty member."

Wolfe was proven right, saying Needy exceeded his highest expectations as a wonderful teacher, researcher, doctoral advisor and volunteer for many of the extra responsibilities of the department.

When undergraduate students would ask "Why are we learning this stuff? Will I really ever use this?" Needy was always ready with answers from her real-life applications. Her devotion to teaching, while so many others were more interested in research, set her apart. Later on, Wolfe nominated her for the prestigious Albert G. Holzman Distinguished Educator Award, which she received in 2019.

Needy was happy in her role at the University of Pittsburgh and planned to stay there for the remainder of her career, but in 2007 she got a call from the University of Arkansas, which was looking for a department head for its industrial engineering department.

Kim immediately said she wasn't interested, but the hiring committee was persistent, and it intrigued her that the Razorback campus had already attracted three other Pittsburgh Ph.D.s, including her former student, Heather Nachtmann.

"I encouraged Kim to apply," Nachtmann says. "Although I was doubtful she would ever leave her hometown, I knew she would be an outstanding department head."

Needy came to Northwest Arkansas for a visit and was blown away by the people she met on campus -- and she liked that the weather was similar to her hometown's. But what piqued her interest most was knowing that John White was stepping down as chancellor and would be returning to the engineering faculty, giving her the opportunity to work with him.

She accepted the job and became department head of UA Industrial Engineering in August 2008. Throughout the move to Arkansas and learning the new job, she remained an adjunct professor for the University of Pittsburgh for three more years so she could continue to advise the PhD students she left behind.

"She is the Energizer bunny," Bill Needy says. "She is very good at time management, but she does work a lot of hours and just never stops until she finally conks out in the evening. It has always worried me, but she has been doing it for the 37 years we've been together."

White says that she actually makes the Energizer bunny seem like a laggard.

"Kim is proof that the cream rises to the top. In practically every organization in which she works, she emerges as its leader," he says. "Stated simply, Kim's a winner. We are most fortunate to have her at the University of Arkansas."

Now a year and a half into her tenure as dean of the College of Engineering, a job she was busy learning during the thick of the pandemic, Needy says her primary goal is to help the college grow.

"As we meet alumni and employers and around the state, (we hear that) we're not producing enough engineers," she says. "We need more and we need to increase the diversity of engineers. If we continue and women or minorities are not coming to the table in greater numbers, we have to go deeper."

  photo  Dr. Kim Needy, dean of the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, is seen here March 3, 2022 in her Fayetteville office. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
 
 


Kim LaScola Needy

Date and place of birth: September 29, 1962, Pittsburgh

Family: husband Bill Needy, sons James Needy, 24, Thomas Needy, 19

Fantasy dinner party guests: I would love to have dinner with my sister Kathy, our mom (who is deceased) and both our grandmothers (who are also deceased). These women have all been so influential in my life, and I would love to have a conversation with them.

A typical Saturday night for me includes: My work weeks are long, so on Saturday night I enjoy relaxing while watching a good movie, reading the newspaper or diving into an interesting book.

The accomplishment I’m most proud of is: raising our two children, James and Thomas, who are both incredibly smart, independent and driven.

People might be surprised to find out I: have run the Pittsburgh Great Race supporting amyloidosis research since its inception in 1977, a total of 35 times and counting

The greatest challenge I’m facing right now: There’s just not enough time to accomplish all that I want to do. This doesn’t deter me, however, as I work to make the University of Arkansas College of Engineering the premiere engineering college in the region and the destination of choice.

Something I think everyone should try at least once: I think everyone should travel to a foreign country to gain an appreciation of how others live.

The last show I binged on television: “The Golden Girls.”

My favorite type of music: I love to listen to classic rock.

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I’d have to have: a satellite telephone.

When I have an hour of free time, I call a family member or friend to catch up.

Three words to describe me: energetic, steady and loyal.

 



Print Headline: Kim LaScola Needy

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