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One Girl’s Guide to Engineering School à la française

You are in for a real treat today – my colleague and dear friend, Tamara, is here to write about her engineering study abroad experience in France. She’s a smart and extremely talented woman and I am sure you will enjoy her story as much as I did…

When I took my first French classes in 7th grade, the term “engineer” conjured an image of a suspenders-wearing man who helped drive trains. There are other types of engineers (though driving trains is quite impressive and important, that is not the type of engineering I’d like to tell you about today)…

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Fortunately, thanks to the Penn State Women in Engineering Program’s outreach to high school students, I later learned that engineering is a very broad profession with many disciplines. Engineers can work in many different industries (medicine, food & beverage, energy) across many different geographic areas – including France.

I think I’ll always remember listening to a Penn State engineering student talk about her internship in France. At the time, I was still a high school student trying to decide what major to put on my college applications.  Yes, I liked science and math. Yes, I had fun building robots. However, hearing this student describe living and working in France was different from the typical “sales pitch” to potential engineering students. You could combine an interest in a foreign language with engineering.  Incroyable!

I had loved studying French (as well as math and science, bien sûr) all through middle school and high school. When I heard the engineering student talk about her French internship, the message I came away with was music to my ears. You don’t have to trade your French/English dictionary for a graphing calculator….you can use both.

I think you can compare engineering to a little black dress – great by itself, but even more fun when you can accessorize to your liking with business, law, or even a foreign language.

I accessorized my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering with French classes, an energy industry internship, a pharmaceutical industry internship, and a semester abroad at an engineering school in Nancy, France.

As I had continued to study both French and engineering, I decided that I wanted to apply my foreign language interest and technical skills together. Through online research, I found out about the Global Engineering Education Exchange, and selected three French Engineering schools, including l’Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine (INPL, or National Polytechnic University of Lorraine), located in Nancy, a small city in Eastern France that I knew essentially nothing about beforehand except that 1) It was in France 2) It had an engineering school.

Although I was woefully under-informed about the city I would come to call home for a semester, I would soon also learn 3) Nancy was a gorgeous city full of lovely parks and promenades, architectural treasures, cobblestone roads, and open air cafés in the warmer months. 4) Nancy was also home to many other international students, though far fewer Americans than larger French cities like Paris.

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

Open air café in Nancy’s town square, Place Stanislas

 Now a note on cultural differences and culture shock:

As a foreign exchange student, you may be welcomed by the host country, but you won’t fit in. In my opinion, that’s kind of the point – you step outside of your comfort zone both culturally and linguistically. You struggle to understand and be understood, gaining a new empathy and respect for the international students who face this challenge for their entire academic careers back in the U.S. In facing these often-frustrating challenges, you learn not just about your host country, but about your home country too. The experience will force you to think critically about your own definitions of “normal.” I think that’s a wonderful and powerful personal lesson.

So anyway, engineering school in France. Off to Nancy I went and learned how to perform chemistry lab experiments in French:

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Chemistry lab in French seemed to me fairly similar to lab coursework I had done in the U.S., although there was a pesky difference where they sometimes use commas for decimal points (example: 20.8 is written as 20,8).  Oh, and of course, the rest of the world uses the metric system, so I became accustomed to thinking about temperatures in Celsius and lengths in centimeters and meters.

One of my fondest chemistry-lab related memories actually occurred during spring break. I took a train to the Alps to take a ski lesson (en français, of course) and work on my organic chemistry lab report from my bed & breakfast in the evenings :

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

A study break from organic chemistry lab writing in the French Alps

Yes, engineering classes are demanding and require even more time and energy when they’re in French. However, as in U.S. university studies, I think it is important to make time for the unique extracurricular activities and events available. Enjoy the people, places, and celebrations for their unique character, even if (or perhaps specifically because) you are sans doute an outsider. I was some combination of lucky and open-minded, and had fun participating in French student life.

The school within INPL that I studied at was called l’École Européenne d’Ingénieurs en Génie des Matériaux (EEIGM), which translates roughly to “European School of Materials Science and  Engineering.” One of the events EEIGM hosted was le Tournoi des 4 Raquettes or “The Tournament of 4 Rackets.” TD4R was part team costume competition and part tennis/squash/badminton/ping-pong tournament.

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Studying in Europe is not all cathedrals and alpine skiing – both European and American college students enjoy any reason to wear ridiculous costumes. One of the funniest memories of my semester abroad turned out to be taking French public transportation from my apartment to the TD4R tournament dressed as a zebra.

That being said – the cathedrals were incredible:

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Saint-Étienne Cathedral in Metz, France, nearby Nancy in the Lorraine region

Taking technical coursework in French was challenging, and my semester abroad threw me off-sequence in my undergraduate curriculum, delaying my graduation. It was a time-consuming and expensive accessory to my education. I pursued the experience because it was a very important goal of mine on a personal level, and that made it worthwhile to me.

I emphasize the personal aspect of this time and fiscal resource-consuming pursuit because my message to a student reading this is not “Please take my experience and hit ‘Ctrl+C’.” My intended message is that you can and should seek out opportunities that are meaningful to you on a personal level based on your own values and interests. After all, it’s your little black dress!

Singapore Sights

Beyond visiting the Botanic Gardens in Singapore, we also spent a few days visiting the sights of the impressive, city (well, it’s really a country)! Though it may seem a small country to visit, there is a lot to do and there is always a fun and exciting buzz around the city – it also doesn’t hurt that it almost always boasts the perfect weather to lay by the pool!

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Our first stop was the Merlion which is the symbol of Singapore as it combines the the body of a fish with the head of a lion – it signifies its old roots as a fishing village and its original name which meant “lion city”.

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From the same vantage point, you can see the Marina Bay Sands hotel which we stayed at for a few days while we were there. The other building in the picture (the one that looks like a white Lotus Flower to the left of Ryan’s head) is the Art Science museum – seeing as we are both engineers and love science, you would be right if you guessed that we went there. The building itself is really cool and the dinosaur exhibit was pretty awesome!

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The main reason I wanted to stay there was so that we could go to the infinity pool on top of the hotel. The ship looking structure at the top is where the infinity pool area (called Sky Park) is – it’s currently the highest and largest infinity pool in the world so it was insanely cool to experience that! It’s on the 57th floor looking out onto the city – the views are absolutely spectacular! 

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Singapore Infinity Pool Collage

One of my other favorite activities while visiting was the Night Safari – it’s on the outskirts of the city so it’s easiest to take a cab to get there and it gets pretty crowded, but it’s certainly worth a visit! Seeing as many of the animals at the zoo are nocturnal, what better time to see them than at night when they’re active. You get in a tram and they drive you around the park past all of the animal enclosures. There are several stops where you can get out and take your time walking around. They ask you not to take pictures so you don’t disturb the animals so I don’t have any pictures from the animals, but my absolute favorite part of the park is where you can walk through the enclosure with the Flying Foxes and fruit bats (it’s the “Mangrove Walk which is off of the Leopard Trail) - the bats often whizz right past you! It was awesome! We also caught the otters being particularly playful and it was simply adorable! I’m really glad we spent an evening there!

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One of the other aspects to Singapore that I really liked was the cultural diversity – you are truly in an international city when you are walking around Singapore! You can tell by all of the food options, too – Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Singaporean, Italian, Spanish, Thai…you name it, they have it! We took a walk around some of those cultural areas of town, enjoyed some great food, interesting drinks (fresh squeezed sugar cane juice!), and soaked in the exciting vibe of the city!

Singapore Culture Collage

On one of our days, we headed to the resort hot spot, Sentosa Island. We went to go to Universal Studios because we both love roller coasters! We had a fun day wandering around the park and going on all of the rides. The park areas were extremely well done – Jurassic Park and the huge Egyptian figures were something to see! While that was impressive, I do have to admit that the rides weren’t anything all that special. We were lucky to be there on a day when the lines weren’t too long so it was easy to get onto the rides. If you’re short on time, I wouldn’t put this as very high on your list of things to do in Singapore but it was a fun day nonetheless.

Singapore Universal Studios Collage

In the evening, some of our friends who are living in Singapore, took us out for Chili Crab – it is one of Singapores’ most famous dishes and its delicious! After you messily devour the crab (thankfully, they give you bibs!), you can ask for rolls to dip in the sauce – so good! (we do not have any pictures of us eating chili crab because our hands were too messy to operate a camera – so we just dug in and enjoyed it and skipped the picture!). Be sure and try both Chili and Pepper Crab if you find yourself lucky enough to be in Singapore!

Jumbo Chili Crab

Afterwards, we went to the famous Raffles Hotel which is a historic and beautiful hotel where the fruity drink, the Singapore Sling, was invented. We indulged ourselves at the Long Bar with a classic Singapore Sling for each of us (shock factor, they are about S$18 each!) and had fun in the lively bar area watching the bar tenders make glass upon glass of Singapore Slings (apparently we weren’t the only ones that got the memo that you should stop by there to try it!).

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We decided to walk back to the Marina Bay Sands on our last night and ended up stumbling upon some random art exhibits on the walking path. One of the coolest exhibits was a cloud that was raining – when you walked through it, the water would stop in the area where you were standing. It was really cool because you could stand in the middle and it would be raining all around you but not a drop would get on you. One of our favorite things about traveling is when you spontaneously find fun/interesting things that you didn’t expect…this was one of those instances!

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We also caught the laser light show just in time! What a great ending to a great week!

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 All in all, we really enjoyed the few days that we spent in Singapore – we stayed busy exploring the city, ate some amazing food, and also had some time to relax (with a stellar view on the 57th floor overlooking the incredible city!). I really hope that you get to visit there some day to see all that Singapore has to offer!

Tongariro Trek Triumph!

We were still enjoying the beautiful Lake Taupo area and decided to do one of the Great New Zealand Walks while we were here. These are treks that give you the chance to be among some of the country’s most impressive scenery and usually take several days to complete – while we didn’t have time to do a full one of these walks this trip, we decided to walk most of one of the trails in a one day hike – the Tongariro Crossing.

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People had described this hike as, the closest you can get to hiking on Mars, and I didn’t know what to make of that statement until I was there. The landscape is unlike anything I had ever seen before with all of the lava flow – it was just awesome!

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The main peak (seen in the 2 pictures above) we hiked past is called Mt Ngauruhoe and it was used as Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings. Interesting story – the Maori Chiefs did not allow Peter Jackson to film the peak/interior of the volcano for the movies because they believe it to be sacred so they had to CG the top part. This part of the trail was nice and warm with the sun beaming down on us and lots of volcanic rocks around us – it was a great start to our full day trek!

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The landscapes really did seem to be out of this world – some places were so barren. Ryan couldn’t help but take a picture so it looks like he’s in the middle of nowhere.

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Along the trail, there was another Lord of the Rings filming spot (last one, I promise!) – the valley below was where they filmed Mordor. Can you tell by my expression I thought this was pretty cool?!

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At the top were some great views into one of the volcano craters – you’ll notice we’ve put our jackets on at this point – as you got closer to the top, it got chillier and much, much windier.

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After all the hard work of climbing to get up to the top, we started to head downhill and as soon as we did that, we had a great view of some turquoise colored pools. We ended up having lunch right next to them – a well deserved break after our few hours of hiking.

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We had decided to do this trek through a guided tour because you start and end in two different spots and we weren’t sure how to handle those logistics and we wanted to make sure we stayed safe as this was an active volcanic area (there was an eruption a couple of years ago – in fact, our guide, Tom,  is the one you hear calming everyone down in the video of the eruption) so we thought it would be good to have an expert close by. Being the science enthusiasts that we were, we loved walking through the volcanic area. 

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Here is one of the craters left when the rocks went flying out during the eruption – that would have certainly been an exciting day to be hiking the trail!

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The last bit of the trail is certainly the easiest and the scenery changes again to be more green and there is a great view of Lake Taupo in the distance. It’s a somewhat relaxing way to end a long but wonderful day hiking.

Tongariro Crossing Lake Taupo

We had an absolute blast on our trek along the Tongariro Crossing and highly recommend it if you’re in that area in New Zealand – the scenery is unlike anything you will have likely seen and you feel accomplished after you finish! We finished our tour with some celebratory locally brewed beers!

Beers after Tongariro

 

Marathons, Manufacturing, and Many Adventures!

Today, we have one of my favorite fellow Mechanical Engineers from college – she’s smart, motivated, and super sweet! She’s a great example of how you can still change what area of engineering you pursue regardless of the degree you graduated with. Read on to learn more about my good friend, Megan….

Hi! My name is Megan Prokop. I am a manufacturing engineer working at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When I am not working or traveling, you can usually find me running. I recently ran my first Marathon in October 2013.

My husband and I after finishing the Chicago Marathon

My husband and I after finishing the Chicago Marathon

I love being a manufacturing engineer; it is challenging, exciting and requires decisions to be made quickly – but manufacturing is not the career I had planned when I was at Worcester Polytechnic Institute getting my degree in Mechanical Engineering.

I decided to go into engineering because I enjoyed and excelled in math and science and loved problem solving. I attended WPI and became interested in mechanical design through one of my professors. I was interested in how parts moved and interacted in order to create motion and how products could be designed in order to help peoples’ lives.

During the summers after my sophomore and junior years I interned at General Electric in Connecticut where I performed product testing. One of my favorite tests was using a fire hose to blast an electrical panel with water to ensure it would not leak. When the unit failed, I had to figure out why and suggest improvements to eliminate the leakage.

Product Testing at GE

Product Testing at GE

I graduated in 2007 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Design. I went to work for Raytheon where I planned to put my new design skills to use. It didn’t take me long to figure out design was not where I’d spend my career.

I craved work that was more hands-on, where I could see the immediate impact of my work. I was fortunate to have a great manager who encouraged me to rotate into a manufacturing role where I would be responsible for developing a process for assembling circuit cards. He stressed the fact that a stint in manufacturing would make me a better designer engineer. Manufacturing would teach me how to design items for easy assembly and give me a better appreciation of the work required to build my designs. I was nervous to make this jump to the manufacturing floor since I had no experience with manufacturing or circuit cards, but was excited to give it a try.

Graduation from WPI!

Graduation from WPI!

Working on a manufacturing floor is fast paced and stressful, but it’s also extremely rewarding. You’re able to make changes to a process and immediately see how they affect the cost, quality and schedule of the finished product. I worked closely with people in many different positions who were all needed in order to make sure the process went smoothly – including people from supply chain, operations, test engineering, materials engineering, and my previous role – design engineering.

As suggested by my manager, I found that some of the plans from the design engineers proved very difficult to build. I also worked closely with the technicians who completed the manual part of the assembly. They taught me the differences between a good and a bad process and showed me and how to write a process that was easy to follow. I recently transitioned from circuit card manufacturing to system repair which has given me new a perspective on how the all the pieces of a system interact and the challenges of making all the parts come together to create a single product.

I’ve always loved to travel and continue to do so whenever I have the opportunity. In high school I traveled to my home town’s sister city in Japan: Nobeoka. I lived with a Japanese host family and attended Japanese school for two weeks. The trip was complicated by the fact that I knew almost no Japanese and my host family spoke minimal English, but the experience taught me to embrace other cultures and to learn as much as I can about the places I travel.

Meeting our Classmates and Participating in a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Nobeoka, Japan)

Meeting our Classmates and Participating in a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Nobeoka, Japan)

One reason I chose to go to WPI was the fact that they encouraged the students to go abroad at least once during their education. While at WPI I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark to complete an interdisciplinary project. I worked with two other students at an Open Air Museum, where we developed a GPS guided tour that was aimed at getting middle and high school students more interested in the museum.

Exploring Copenhagen, Denmark

Exploring Copenhagen, Denmark

Since then, I have traveled as much as possible. My favorite trips have been to Costa Rica, Italy, Hawaii and Victoria, British Columbia. Some of the best experiences of my life have required stepping outside my comfort zone, including zip lining in Costa Rica and flying in a helicopter in Hawaii.

Getting ready to take flight (Kauai, Hawaii)

Getting ready to take flight (Kauai, Hawaii)

In front of the colessum in Rome, Italy and a view of the Cinque Terre

In front of the coliseum in Rome, Italy and a view of the Cinque Terre

Orca whale watching in Victoria, BC

Orca whale watching in Victoria, BC

For work and for travel, my advice is to be open to change, push yourself and always go on adventures. You never know where you may end up and what amazing experiences await you.

Megan Costa Rica Collage

Zip-lining in Costa Rica – awesome adventure!

Visit to Hobbiton

I said in my Rotorua post that I thought my day trip to Hobbiton deserved its own post, so here it is! One of the only things that Ryan and I disagree on is how cool Lord of the Rings is…the fact that I went there all by myself for a wonderful day tour should tell you which side of the argument I’m on with this – I love Lord of the Rings and couldn’t go to New Zealand without visiting here!

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We got there and I couldn’t believe how well done the set was – it really brought it all to life! The main area has hobbit holes scattered around the hilly countryside with Bilbo’s house up at the top. I have to admit that when I was reading these books back when I was in middle school,  this is pretty close to how I imagined it would be.

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The tour guide walked us around the grounds and the level of detail that they put into these was particularly impressive. The fences had fabricated lichen on them (you couldn’t have new fences there, now, could you?!) and they told us that students were hired to run up and back from the house to the outdoor clothes drying rack until it looked like it was well worn (wanted to make sure people believed this had been around for a long, long time when they were watching the movie!)…even the chimneys were smoking as if someone were in there – they certainly were making continued efforts to capture the imaginations of the fans.

Hobbiton Collage

They used forced perspective for the LOTR trilogy movies so they had hobbit holes of various different sizes so the actors could stand/walk next to them and look taller or about the right height depending on their character.

Hobbiton Hole Collage

Bilbo’s house was up at the top of the hill…

Bilbo Hobbit Hole Collage

And my favorite one of the tour, Samwise Gamgee’s house…

Samwise Gamgee Collage

At the end of the tour, we all got a drink at the Green Dragon – I enjoyed a cider by the fire and soaked in the atmosphere. The interior of the place was great and I was glad I got to see this place in person.

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If you’re ever on the North Island of New Zealand, this place is definitely worth checking out, particularly if you’re a fan of the movies! 

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Keeping Drinking Water Clean! (Lily – Environmental and Water Resource Engineer)

Today, it’s Lily’s turn to tell you all about her path to engineering and what she’s up to now! She is another great example of the dual passions between the performing arts and math/science and how you can do both. You’ll be able to tell right away that she’s super sweet and certainly cares a lot about learning more and more to impact the world around her…

Have you ever wondered where your drinking water comes from?  How does it get all the way from a reservoir or a well to your faucet? Is the water quality good enough to drink? How does it need to be treated to make sure its safe for you to drink? These are the sorts of questions Environmental and Water Resources Engineers answer every day!

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 If you had asked me in high school what kind of career I wanted to pursue I probably would have given you a whole range of interesting options:

  • a musician
  • a dancer
  • a chemist
  • a biologist

I had always enjoyed math and science, but I also loved music and dance, and spent the majority of my childhood through high school playing in various ensembles, attending daily dance classes, and performing in weekend competitions. My parents are both professional musicians so it’s probably no surprise that a career in performing arts was something I enjoyed and was interested in pursuing!

Lily Career Interest Collage

I applied to music and science college programs as a high school senior and ended up choosing WPI, because I knew the school had excellent science and engineering programs and also a great music program…so I could do both. Let’s face it, I’m also a pretty practical person and I thought I would definitely be able to get a job after school with a science or engineering degree. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be an engineer though because I thought it would mean sitting at a desk all day doing calculations and not interacting with anyone.  

During my first year of classes at WPI, I took an Intro to Environmental Engineering class by recommendation of an upperclassman friend…and I loved it! I became particularly interested in drinking water.  Providing safe drinking water to communities presents many interesting engineering and societal challenges on local and global scales. Water is used for so many things such as drinking, agriculture, and hydropower generation, to name a few. Every living thing on the planet needs water…so how do we balance everyone’s needs in a safe and sustainable way?

At WPI, I was able to study Environmental Engineering and also continue pursuing my love for music by playing my trumpet in many different musical groups. People are always surprised by WPI’s great music program. But music and math actually have a lot in common, so it’s not all that surprising to me to find a bunch of engineers jamming in Alden Hall!

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Me standing with a brass quintet my senior year.

While at WPI, I was able to travel to Windhoek, Namibia in Africa to complete a project junior year. It was one of the best experiences of my life! I chose Namibia because it seemed like a place I wouldn’t normally visit on a vacation…why not try something a little different? Before starting my project in Windhoek, I travelled with some other students to Cape Town for a week. Here is a picture of me paragliding from the top of Lion’s Head Mountain! Birds eye view of the city!

In the air with my guide. He let me steer a little

In the air with my guide. He let me steer a little

Looking down at the beach

Looking down at the beach

We climbed higher for a better view

We climbed higher for a better view

The project I was working on in Namibia was not related to Environmental Engineering. Instead, my group worked in the National Museum of Namibia where we researched and designed touch screen displays for the historical and cultural exhibits in the museum. Designing the displays was challenging because visitors of all different backgrounds and languages came to the museum, so it was important that the displays be easily understood and enjoyed by people with different languages, ages, and educational backgrounds. One of the exhibits we worked on was about traditional Namibian musical instruments…so cool! Working and living in another country was eye opening and a wonderful experience.

The Namibian musical instrument display

The Namibian musical instrument display

One weekend we travelled to the coast and got to try out sandboarding…like snow boarding but on the dunes!

Sandboarding in Namibia…like snow boarding but on the dunes!

Travelling is a great opportunity to take advantage of if you can, either in school or just for fun. It allows you see the world from different perspectives and experience different cultures. My husband Chris, a Mechanical Engineer and graduate of WPI, enjoy travelling together (just for fun) and hope to do lots more in the future (when we’re both not in school)!

Chris and I in Dubrovnik, Croatia walking along the city wall

Chris and I in Dubrovnik, Croatia walking along the city wall

Kayaking in Acadia National Park in Maine

Kayaking in Acadia National Park in Maine

My senior year at WPI, I worked on a senior design project with my friends Rick (a Fire Protection Engineer) and Joe (a Structural Engineer). Our project assessed building and wastewater treatment needs for the extreme weather conditions on the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Wastewater treatment on the top of the mountain is especially difficult in the freezing weather!

This is my senior project team on the top of Mount Washington

This is my senior project team on the top of Mount Washington

After graduating from WPI, I have received my Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass) and I’m currently still in school working towards my PhD.  I just can’t get enough school or homework! But in all seriousness, I really enjoy learning new things and hearing about all the new research happening in the field and that’s what keeps me excited about engineering. Embrace the inner nerd!

Me being a mad scientist

Me being a mad scientist

Since I’ve been at UMass, I’ve been doing research on the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts. I use a model to simulate how water moves in the reservoir and I can use the model to research how potential contaminants (such as an oil spill) from different sources could travel to the drinking water intake. Last spring I traveled to Denver CO to present my research at a conference.

Exploring Denver, CO

Exploring Denver, CO

Sometimes my work allows me to go out into the field and get data or samples from the reservoir.  This is a picture looking out onto the reservoir on a calm summer morning. Beautiful!

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This is the Cosgrove drinking water intake on the Wachusett Reservoir. This is where the water is withdrawn to be treated and then sent to Boston.

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The thing I’ve enjoyed most about being an engineer is applying the concepts I’ve learned from class to solve problems that are really important to society, like providing safe drinking water. Engineers do so much more than calculations sitting behind a desk!!! We create solutions to challenging problems…and that makes for a really rewarding career in my opinion.  : )

My advice to aspiring women engineers is to talk to other female (and male!) engineers about their experiences! It’s a great way to hear stories, learn about the different types of engineering careers, and figure out which field of engineering is best for you. There are so many!

Thank you to Lily for sharing her story! I have been featuring many wonderful females within the STEM fields to show the wide range of interesting opportunities you can have. If you’re in one of these fields and want to share your story, too, I’d love to feature you – just drop me a line and we can get started! 

We jumped out of a plane in New Zealand!

There is only one word to describe this experience: Awesome, absolutely awesome. It was quite possibly the most amazing adventure we have had yet – skydiving from 15,000 feet in Taupo, New Zealand! We jumped over Lake Taupo where the scenery was spectacular –  from the plane right before we jumped, we could see the eastern and western points of the North Island of New Zealand – fantastic view! It is truly hard to put into words just how great it was so I’ll let the pictures do it for me…

We headed up in the plane on our way to 15,000 feet on an absolutely beautiful day! Part of the way up, they had us put on oxygen masks (that’s how high up we were going) but it was all smiles from both of us…

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 When it’s your turn, they have you sit down at the very edge of the door of the plane with your feet dangling outside…there’s no way to go but down from here…

Ready to JumpAnd down you go…Ryan jumped first and his guy did a barrel roll right out of the plane…

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There was a lot more screaming when I exited the plane…the free fall feeling was crazy!

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Don’t worry, we got to smiles eventually during the free fall…

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This was my favorite picture – it was such a rush! Check out the plane from over my shoulder! I was having a blast! I promise those are screams of pure joy! IMG_0030Ryan was equally having a great time during his fall…

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The views the whole time were absolutely stunning – what a remarkable place to do our first sky dive!

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Erin’s Skydive

Ryan Skydive Collage

Ryan’s Skydive

And after about 60 full seconds of free fall, they pull the parachute…

Parachute Pull CollageAnd then it’s a smooth ride down where you are happy to have your feet back on firm ground after an unforgettable experience!

Ryan Landing Collage

Ryan is clearly the more bad ass of the two of us….he landed on his feet and they made me slide back to land on my bum.

Erin Landing Collage

We absolutely loved this adventure and will keep it as one of our favorite memories! Not sure if or when we’ll go again but we’re certainly glad we’ve been once! We HIGHLY recommend this adventure so I hope you will be able to experience the rush of skydiving at some point in your life! I’m sure you will love every minute of it just like we did! If you find yourself in Taupo and want to Skydive, Skydive Taupo is a great place to go! 

Math + Malaria: Correlating Passions

I am very excited to have Amanda on the blog today – she is a great example of someone who pursued a degree in one of the STEM subjects that have not yet been featured on the blog – she was a math major! She has a really interesting story because she was able to combine her aptitude for math with her desire to help people. I have no doubts you’ll really enjoy reading more about her and I hope you can find a way to do this yourself – combine your passions and pursue a career in that direction! 

My name is Amanda Brown Marusiak and I am currently a Public Health Associate at a large oil and gas company. My day to day job involves helping to develop programs to protect our workers from and educate them about infectious disease risks, from malaria to the flu. Our team monitors current outbreaks of disease worldwide to be prepared for what potential illnesses could come into our work facilities located all around the world. We also collect and analyze data about e effectiveness of our prevention and response programs in all our locations. You may wonder exactly how I ended up in this role, and it wasn’t the most straightforward path, but I have enjoyed every part of it, and have found a unique way to blend my passions and skills to benefit others.

Amanda Intro Collage

Although I knew I liked math, mostly because I was good at it, I entered Elon University in North Carolina as an undecided major. A couple of my professors helped me settle on mathematics, but I honestly had no clue what I would eventually do with my degree. Most people who found out I was a math major would ask me if I was going to be a teacher, which was not my ideal career path. Little did I know, I would have a seemingly un-math-related experience that would change everything.

My freshman year, I was accepted into a global service organization where I found my passion. It was a group of students working to build a health clinic in rural Ghana, west Africa, for people who had little to no access to health care. This was accomplished not by simply just raising money, but by learning about the culture of the people and understanding their needs and how we could best help them help themselves. It was a “teach a man to fish” sort of philosophy.

Amanda Ghana Collage In my sophomore year, I had an epiphany moment where a faculty mentor of mine proposed an idea that would combine both my skills in STEM and my interest in global development. I began a three year grant-funded research project to mathematically describe how malaria spreads between people and what prevention methods were most effective at protecting the most people. I felt like I had found the ultimate way to combine my skills to make the world a little better.

Amanda College Graduation, Reserach Cert

I ultimately decided my next step was to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in epidemiology (the study of disease patterns) at the University of Texas in Houston. While studying there, I secured an internship with the company I currently work for and was able to write my master’s thesis using data from the company’s malaria control program. After graduation, I dreamed of working for a non-profit to do some type of information analysis that had to do with infectious disease. Though I still have this hope, I have been lucky to be able to work in a similar role having an impact on a large amount of people in the private sector.

malaria-2014-infographic

My advice to aspiring women in STEM is that you are not alone if you aren’t sure what you want to do yet. It takes time to really figure out your purpose, and that’s ok. Many people in their 40s, 50s and beyond are still searching. What I do know, however, is that pursuing a STEM degree opens so many more doors for you, because companies want and need diverse employees (women!) who are competent in a technical field, especially in today’s global economy.

Try to seek out ways that you can merge your skills with your passions – I know someone who was passionate about baseball and wanted to pursue a career in statistics, which could make for a match if you think about it. Your skills and passion may meet outside of the office, like for my husband who loves to design and build things as a mechanical engineer, but has a heart for dogs, so has found joy in helping the local dog shelter plan and eventually build a play and training area in their new facility.

Last, but not least, take every opportunity you can to travel. You will learn and grow in more ways than you could ever imagine. One of my favorite quotes is “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” While in college I had the opportunity to go to London, South Africa, and Ghana, which changed nearly my whole life perspective.

Amanda SA & London Collage I have now had the travel bug my entire adult life, because these college experiences inspired me to learn about other cultures and ways of life. Since then I have traveled to Europe and the Mediterranean, Central America, and now Asia. I am currently living in Ulsan, South Korea, with my husband who was also a STEM major, which gave him the opportunity to live and work here, and we enjoy almost every moment of life abroad. We even brought our two dogs with us – check us out at www.minnieandmurray.com!

Amanda Personal Travels

Good luck in your journey!

Living Large in Rotorua!

Our next stop on our New Zealand vacation was the town of Rotorua. We had heard from several of our friends that this was quite the hot spot for adventure. We got there a bit late in the evening, so we checked into our wonderful little hotel and then went for a quick look at the nearby Redwood Forest. The trees were giant!

Redwood Forest NZ CollageWith a full day of fun ahead of us, we woke up early the next day to check out one of the thermal parks. Rotorua is known for being one of the few places in the world with a high concentration of thermal activity. We knew we had made it when the smell of sulfur overcame us – we walked around and saw the colorful thermal pools, including quite a few of the bubbling mud pools.

Rotorua Thermal CollageEvery day in the morning, the geyser in the park erupts so we went that direction to get a good spot to watch. At first I was skeptical that the geyser erupts on such a strict schedule – nothing in nature operates that way. The park ranger walked up and put in some soap to stimulate the eruption, mimicking the way it was found many years ago when people accidentally put some soap in there when going to wash their clothes. So we were right – it’s not naturally that predictable but it was still impressive!

Rotorua Geyser Collage

After a wonderful morning exploring the thermal parks that we couldn’t jump in, we went off for an adventure where we could, called the Squeeze. It combined a Riverjet ride with a walk to some natural hot springs – I know, sounds like the most perfect trip ever…and it was!! We had an absolute blast! The jetboat is a NZ invention – it is basically a water ski in boat form. It is incredibly fast and can do also turn on a dime, so they do plenty of 360 spins during your trip. The icing on the cake is that the scenery around you is to die for!

NZ Riverjet View

After a beautiful ride along the river, our driver told us to get out. So we jumped out of the boat and started following him up onto the banks where we followed the shallow river inland – the longer we walked, the warmer the water became. We also came upon some skinny, mossy passageways that we had to maneuver through – SO COOL! At the very end was a natural hot springs waterfall. Our pictures didn’t come out all that great, but you’ll get the idea even with the blurry photos – it was incredible!

Squeeze Collage

We spent a little while soaking in the pools before heading back for another wild ride on the river. It was an amazing day!

NZ Riverjet Ride 2On our last day in Rotorua, we did separate activities in the morning – Ryan went running/hiking and I went to Hobbiton (which was so awesome I think it deserves its own post so stay tuned!) and then in the afternoon we went mountain biking at this really great park in the Redwood Forest. Ryan has gotten really into mountain biking while living here in Korea and I’m always up for trying new things so we rented bikes and helmets and headed out onto the trails. It was raining, but that didn’t stop us from having a great time! I had a couple of falls but Ryan was always there right away to help get me back on my bike. With this, we fulfilled our mission to go hard in Rotorua!

NZ Mountain BikingThat evening, we got ready for our last activity in Rotorua – this time one where we could learn more about the fascinating Maori culture. The Maoris are the native people that originally settled New Zealand. You may have seen the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team perform the Haka before – this is a Maori tradition. We got to see it performed by some of the Maoris still living in New Zealand – it contained all of the intimidating tongue showing which we did with the chief before heading to dinner. Dinner was a feast cooked in an underground oven and was delicious!

Maori Feast Collage

Just before we left, they took us to one of their sacred springs which has glow worms in it….these little critters were really bright and a really neat sight to see! The Maori feast and performance was the perfect ending of our time in Rotorua – a few days full of adventure and culture…just the way we like to vacation!

Future Chem Eng Professor (Liz – Chemical Engineer)

Joining us today, we have Elizabeth Stewart who is currently pursuing her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Liz and I met in college where we both got our bachelor’s degree in engineering – Liz in Chemical Engineering and mine in Mechanical Engineering. We had all kinds of fun and even got to take a flight over Worcester together in our trustee mentor’s plane to get an aerial view of our campus right before we graduated. She’s done some amazing things while continuing her education and I don’t want to spoil any of her stories, so read on to find out what she’s been up to…

Liz and Erin Flight over Worcester Rev1

Liz and I taking a flight over our college campus right before graduation our senior year!

Why did you become an engineer?

I became an engineer because I wanted to work on solving technical problems that have a big impact on society.  I chose to major in chemical engineering, so I could learn to think in a manner that is useful for solving a large variety of problems.  Chemical engineers work on problems across many scales ranging from the  creation of nanoparticles to the design of large manufacturing plants.

I know chemical engineers who are working in processing plants making chemicals, running nuclear reactors, designing medical devices, manufacturing consumer products, making wine, engineering microbes for next generation fuels, designing novel catalysts, the list could go on and on.  I think it is pretty amazing to be trained in a manner that is so versatile that it can be used to work on so many different types of problems.

Michigan Big House

The Big House in Ann Arbor aka where I have spent many, many fall Saturdays cheering on the team. The enthusiasm for Michigan football is highly contagious!

What kind of research do you work on?

I have always been particularly fascinated by biological problems.  Currently, I am using my engineering tools to research bacterial biofilms.  Bacterial biofilms are aggregates of bacterial cells surrounded by protective matrix materials (polysaccharides, proteins, and DNA) that are resistant to treatment with antibiotics.  Biofilms can form on medical devices and cause patients to become extremely sick.  I look at biofilms as a material and try to understand at a fundamental level how the structure and mechanics of biofilms impact their resilience.  Here is a shameless plug for a paper I wrote, if you want to check out some of my work.

I am also interested in engineering education and the best techniques for teaching engineers.  Engineers are often required to be interdisciplinary when tackling problems, so there has been an emphasis at universities on creating interdisciplinary learning environments.  In addition to my technical research, I have begun doing research to investigate interdisciplinary learning in graduate education.

What do you want to do when you finish your PhD?

My goal is to become a chemical engineering professor, so that I can teach other people the tools to approach the world as an engineer and continue to do my own research on scientific problems.

What places have you lived in or traveled to while studying or working as engineer? 

As an engineer, I have had the opportunity to live in Worcester, MA (WPI), Columbia, South Carolina (University of South Carolina), Bangkok, Thailand (Chulalongkorn University), Rochester, NY (ExxonMobil Chemical Films), & Ann Arbor, MI (University of Michigan).

When you do research for a living, you get to travel to meetings all over the world to discuss your work with other scientists and learn about the work that they have been doing as well.  During graduate school I have travelled to Nashville, TN, Salt Lake City, UT, Washington, DC, Lindau, Germany, Copenhagen, Denmark, Mount Desert Island, ME, Miami, FL, Boston, MA, and San Francisco, CA to learn and discuss research with others.

Here are some pictures from some of the exciting adventures I have had while traveling for work:

Here I am with my friend, Amy,  before the Country Music Awards (CMAs).  Lucky for me, the CMAs were the same week as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting held in Nashville!

Country Music Awards

I took a trip with my labmates, Lilian and Aayush, to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks before our conference in Salt Lake City.

Liz Utah National Park Collage

I attended a short course on fluorescence microscopy at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratories in Maine.  The labs were right on the water, so it felt like summer camp for scientists.  In addition to learning microscopy and discussing science, I was able to use my fine honed New Englander skills to help with the lobster boil on the last day!

Liz at MDIB Labs in Maine Collage

I presented my work in Copenhagen, Denmark for the Eurobiofilms conference.  I saw some famous sights around the city, including Nyhaven (the New Harbor).  The conference attendees were welcomed very warmly with a reception at the Copenhagen Town Hall with town hall pancakes.  They were very tasty!

Liz Denmark Collage

Vinnie (my boyfriend) met me in Scandinavia and we travelled to Bergen, Norway after the conference.  In the pictures below, we are in front of Bryggen and then kayaking in the fjords. The fjords of Norway are one of the most beautiful places I have ever been!

Liz Norway with Vinnie

I went to Yosemite National Park with my brother, Andrew, soon to be sister-in-law, Hailey, and fellow Michigan Engineer, Huanan, before the AIChE Meeting in San Francisco.

Liz Yellowstone Collage

My research group had a reunion with current and past members in San Francisco.  It is great to connect with people with training similar to yours to see how they are doing and where their careers are taking them.

Liz Research Group Reunion

What is an interesting opportunity you have had through your career as an engineer?

One of the coolest opportunities I have had as an engineer was attending the Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates.  I highly encourage all young researchers to apply for this unique opportunity.  Young scientists and researchers from all over the world meet in Lindau, Germany to learn from the Nobel Laureates.  I attended the interdisciplinary meeting with laureates from physics, chemistry and physiology/medicine and it was an incredibly inspiring experience to hear about the scientific journeys of the laureates and my peers from across the globe.  I received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to attend the Lindau Meeting.

Lindau Meeting Collage

Left: NIH funded US delegates at L’Enfant Plaza in DC;
Right: Beautiful Lindau Harbor Entrance in Germany!

The American delegation of young researchers at the Lindau Meeting.

Nobel_Monday209I really enjoyed listening to stories and getting advice from Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto with my roommate for the week, Markita as well as chatting with other young scientists.

Liz Nobel Prize Networking

I also had the chance to check out Lake Constance with Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies.

Liz with Oliver Smithies

After the meeting, I took advantage of being in Europe and went on vacation with my Mom to Italy and southern France.

Liz in Europe Collage

Left: Me and my mom on the Arno in Florence, Italy; Right: Vineyard in Provence, France

Any advice to aspiring women interested in engineering?

  1. Work for people who you consider role models.  I am very fortunate that I am able to work for people who I have a great amount of respect for.  If I am able to teach, mentor and care for students in the way that my advisors work with me and their other students, I am certain I will succeed in my career.  If you don’t have the privilege to control this, seek out other mentors for this support.
  2. Build a support system of people who respect and care for you in and outside your field. Sometimes work is hard.  Research can consist of long days in the lab, analyzing data, or writing up results.  I will be honest.  The majority of your data will not be groundbreaking.  Share your life with people who will be there for you in the ups and downs of your work.
  3. Dream big and work on problems that inspire you.  Personally, I have found that I work best when I am working on problems that could lead to helping people in some way (even if the work may not be used for many, many years).  This drives me to work hard.  Some people are driven by seeing a product made in front of them, making the most efficient process possible, or working to lead companies to success.  Try to reflect on what inspires you to work hardest and pursue a career in that direction.

Thanks for reading this far and thanks to Erin for featuring me on her blog!

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