Grad programs in engineering offer a springboard to specialties
Today�s grad students want to make an impact on the world and future generations. Grad schools are responding with unique opportunities
Schools and students agree: the pipeline needs more diverse STEM talent
By Claire Swedberg
Colleges and universities are working to diversify their graduate-level engineering programs. Schools benefit in many ways when they enroll a broad spectrum of male and female graduate students from a variety of backgrounds, school deans and diversity leaders believe.
Diversity, university representatives say, enhances innovation in the research and development done at their facilities. And research attracts grad school students who are looking to do cutting-edge work in their chosen fields and find solutions to the world�s pressing problems.
Iowa State focuses on diversity and
Iowa State University (ISU, Ames) offers a wide variety of programs in eight engineering departments, reports Sarah Rajala, College of Engineering dean.
Seven percent of ISU�s graduate students are members of underrepresented minority groups and 23 percent are women, percentages the school is working to raise. �We recruit through specific underrepresented minority and women-associated engineering groups. ISU and the College of Engineering offer financial aid and awards for U.S. citizens who are members of underrepresented groups,� says Rajala. The targeted groups include women, African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics.
�We are also one of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) universities where students come for paid summer internships and graduate financial assistance, funded by GEM member corporations. We offer a variety of summer research programs where students interact with faculty, post-docs, graduate students and industry pros.� Iowa State�s interdisciplinary research activities cut across a diverse range of industries.
One ISU research project with transformational possibilities is in nanovaccines. �Our researchers believe developing nanovaccines using a systems approach can revolutionize the prevention and treatment of disease,� Rajala notes. ISU has assembled a team of university, medical school, research hospital, national laboratory and industry researchers to design nanovaccines to offer protection against diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, cancer and even biodefense pathogens.
Impressive diversity statistics at FIU
The graduate engineering department at Florida International University (FIU, Miami) is very diverse.
�Our graduate student body is seven percent African Americans, three percent Asian Americans, thirty percent Hispanics/Latinos and about forty-nine percent international students,� says Amir Mirmiran, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing. Last year, the college reached a new milestone, graduating fifty PhDs from its six units.
FIU offers a �bridge to the doctorate� program and a number of diversity initiatives for its graduate programs. �We recruit from our own pool of diverse undergraduate students as well as from other institutions.�
The college�s faculty is engaged in research in the areas of artificial retinas, prosthetic limbs, nanomagnetic drug delivery to overcome the blood-brain barrier, the treatment of brain tumors in epilepsy patients, accelerated bridges and cybersecurity. Annual research spending is from $15 to $20 million.
Grad school options
�Selecting a graduate program is a key decision for an engineering student,� Mirmiran says. Many students pursue an advanced degree in their undergraduate technical field to deepen their understanding. Other engineering graduates pursue an MBA, especially after a few years of work experience.
�Today, a better choice than either of those degrees is a masters degree in engineering management, which prepares students to transition from engineer to manager. This program operates at the cross section of engineering, business and law, with courses in marketing, project management, labor law and leadership,� he says.
Carnegie Mellon seeks potential leaders
According to Jelena Kovacevic, David Edward Schramm professor and electrical and computer engineering department head, Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) looks for students who not only have knowledge about their fields, but also interview well and have solid presentation and public speaking skills.
Kovacevic says diversity in the engineering field could be better. Carnegie Mellon works to increase diversity through groups such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. She worries, however, that many future engineers can be lost as early as middle school, when educators may focus on technical knowledge and lose sight of the excitement of engineering accomplishments.
�If you want young people to dream of becoming engineers, you have to give them something to dream about,� Kovacevic says.
For prospective students who may be wary of the school�s competitive reputation, she says, �Get out of the mindset that you can�t get into Carnegie Mellon.� She points out that many factors are considered. �We consider GPA, but the recommendation letters and personal statements can be even more important. The school wants to know, �What really drives you?��
University of Washington�s grad engineering and research enjoy steady growth
The College of Engineering at the University of Washington (UW, Seattle) includes ten different graduate programs with another, molecular engineering, launching soon.
According to Anthony Salazar, outreach and recruitment officer for UW�s graduate school, the value of the programs transcends the classroom. He notes, �We emphasize the collaboration and true interdisciplinary research at the graduate level. Those are concepts that researchers and employers value.�
Building a diverse base
In fall 2013, 1,841 full and part-time UW graduate students matriculated into the College of Engineering. Of those students, thirty-one were African American, seventy-one were Latino, eight were Native Americans, and six were Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. More than 20 percent of the engineering faculty is female.
UW graduate program advisors and coordinators work closely with the UW Graduate Opportunities & Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP) as they work to recruit and retain diverse grad students. GO-MAP staff members have worked with UW departments for more than forty years to help increase diversity, and work to create a sense of community for underrepresented graduate students. GO-MAP also partners with professional organizations to coordinate diverse student participation in research conferences.
�Engineering is all about problem solving, and working on diverse teams leads to better and more creative solutions. A diverse student body prepares our students with the skills they need to live in an interconnected world,� points out Michael B. Bragg, the university�s Frank and Julie Jungers dean of engineering.
UW graduate student experiences, both in the lab and in the real world, are unique, Salazar says. Through the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders, students are active in Guatemala, building a fish hatchery program designed to provide communities with reliable food and income sources.
�Graduate students in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington are successful because they�re trained to think with real-world innovation and community in mind,� says Salazar. �They know that the world will look to them for meaningful contributions.�
The university has attracted $107 million in research funding, including a recently created Center on Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, which builds integrated systems that use neural signals collected from implantable, wearable and other interfaces.
UW grad student and NSF Fellow Keon L. Vereen does research in plasma science
Keon L. Vereen, a graduate student at the University of Washington, grew up in Orlando, FL. He says he chose to attend the University of Central Florida (UCF, Orlando) for his undergraduate degree because of its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center.
At UCF, he participated in the NSF-funded Excel program, which supports STEM majors through the crucial first two undergrad years. �Excel was the catalyst for all my future endeavors. As an Excel participant, I was able to participate in UCF�s Research and Mentoring program and other research.� His success at UCF won him a place in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement program.
He earned his BS in aerospace engineering in 2010. His extensive research background allowed him to complete his masters via an accelerated thesis track, and he got his MS in aerospace engineering in 2011.
�As a McNair scholar, I was well prepared for doctoral studies and the demands of graduate school,� he notes. Based on his experience with engineers and scientists from NASA, he decided on a PhD specializing in advanced spacecraft propulsion.
�I chose to attend the University of Washington because it has a strong faculty and curriculum. The research facilities give me opportunities to learn about plasma physics and fusion energy for space applications from a multitude of great professors.�
As an NSF graduate research Fellow, Vereen is a fulltime, fourth-year UW grad student. He works as a research assistant in an experimental plasma physics group investigating astrophysical jets and space propulsion. He plans to complete his PhD by June 2017.
�My long-term career goals are to work in industry,� he says, �or conduct research at NASA or a national laboratory. I plan to continue my outreach efforts to increase the involvement of underrepresented and disadvantaged students in STEM disciplines.�
Vereen got to this point through hard work and dedication. �From my outstanding parents and teachers, I learned true grit and perseverance. I would encourage undergraduates, whether you�re interested in academia or industry, to plan, prepare, and plan some more,� he advises.
USF partnerships enhance the experience
The University of South Florida (USF, Tampa) was among the top five schools conferring engineering doctorates to both African American and Hispanic students, according to the June 2013 Diverse Issues in Higher Education, reports Bernard L. Batson, associate director of engineering student services at USF�s College of Engineering.
The school has partnered with the National Science Foundation�s Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Florida Education Fund�s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program. �These efforts have resulted in nationally competitive funding to attract a diverse pool of applicants and professional development activities to enhance the graduate experience,� says Batson.
Recently, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded USF a grant to create a campus University Center of Exemplary Mentoring. The center will support the school�s recruitment and retention efforts among minority doctoral students in the College of Engineering and the College of Marine Science.
Keys to success
�We focus on academic and social integration of students in their graduate programs,� Batson says. �Success in graduate school is often dependent on students� relationship with their department, research advisor and peers,� Batson says. He says willingness to receive mentoring or constructive feedback from others is important, but the key to success comes from within.
�I would rank self-motivation and persistence at the top of necessary qualities that help a graduate student succeed.�
USF�s Pablo Cornejo-Warner is becoming a globally engaged scholar
Pablo Cornejo-Warner is a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering at USF. He got his bachelors degree in civil engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
As an undergrad, he explored his options through a variety of internships. �One summer, I combined a service project through Engineers Without Borders with research to study the microbial effectiveness of ceramic water filtration systems for water treatment in rural Nicaragua,� he says.
After graduating, he worked for environmental engineering consulting companies designing wastewater treatment systems. He reflects, �Those experiences influenced my decision to return to graduate school.�
Collaborating on international teams
Cornejo-Warner selected the civil and environmental engineering (CEE) program at USF because he was interested in researching water issues in South America. The CEE program offers opportunities to become a globally engaged scholar, he says, while working on multidisciplinary teams.
During his second year of graduate school, he traveled to Bolivia to look into the sustainability of two wastewater treatment systems. He worked with a multidisciplinary team of USF grad students and students from Bolivia.
Discovering new viewpoints
�Research and coursework are two completely different types of learning,� Cornejo-Warner says. �In graduate school, one must learn to be an independent researcher and project manager, while also taking coursework,� It�s also important to learn how to multitask, he adds.
�A masters or PhD is definitely worth it. It�s difficult, but in the long run will put you in a better position to get a good job and pursue your dreams,� he says.
He would like to teach and do research at the university level. �Eventually, I�d like to conduct research in the developing and developed world on the sustainability of water and wastewater systems. I enjoy working with students in collaborative teams on interesting research projects.�
University of Minnesota uses diverse faculty to draw diverse students
At the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (Minneapolis), the Program for Women works to recruit and retain women in both the faculty and student body in the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, says Christopher Cramer, associate dean for academic affairs.
The University of Minnesota seeks diversity among its faculty, says Cramer, in an effort to mirror the diversity the school hopes to see among students. �We pay attention to that. We want to present a welcoming message to everybody,� he explains.
The efforts are beginning to pay off, he says, although the number of women, minorities and LGBTQ graduate students is increasing slowly. �Many places struggle against history,� he points out. �A school may not look attractive to students of color because its diversity is low,� yet, he says, it cannot increase its diversity without attracting more of those very students.
Cramer recommends that students planning their graduate program selection should interview with prospective colleges and ask faculty about diversity. �It�s helpful for students to ask. They might be surprised at the enthusiasm of the response.�
Yasir Tajeldin focuses on energy at the University of Minnesota
Yasir Tajeldin, ME graduate student at the University of Minnesota, earned a masters degree in May. His focus was on embedded controls and dynamics applications.
Originally from Sudan, he grew up in Oman. �My relationship with engineering began when my father brought a PC home when I was in second grade.� He started playing games on it and eventually �began to mess with the operating system.�
Next he discovered physics. By his last year in high school, �it was clear that engineering was my choice.�
Tajeldin earned his undergraduate degree in mechatronics in Oman. He interned at the local department of planning, which was responsible for generating and transmitting electricity to remote areas.
After graduation, he says, �I worked on a research project to develop a mathematical model for a water desalination plant. The model is used to optimize the operating conditions for the plant, resulting in increased water production and energy savings.�
He decided to attend graduate school in the U.S. and applied to the University of Minnesota. �The mechanical engineering department was addressing pressing energy issues with an internationally recognized faculty in research.�
Tajeldin�s long-term career plan is to pursue a position in product R&D; and eventually go back to school for his PhD.
UT supports women in engineering
At the University of Texas-Austin (UT), the Women in Engineering Program (WEP) is directed by Tricia Berry. It supports six student organizations focused on graduate women in UT�s Cockrell School of Engineering. A WEP faculty committee supports the graduate women in a variety of ways, such as bringing female guest lecturers to the school.
WEP also offers Graduates Linked with Undergraduates in Engineering (GLUE), a program that provides women grad student mentors to female undergrads.
Wendy Okolo: aiming for her aerospace PhD at UT
Wendy Okolo is working on a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas-Arlington. She expects to finish in May 2015.
Okolo grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to the U.S. for her undergraduate studies. �My parents convinced me I was going to be an engineer even before I fully understood what engineering was.�
Her favorite classes were always math and science. In third grade, she recalls, �we had to tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. When I said I wanted to be an engineer, my teacher said, �You want to be an engineer? You want to fix ceiling fans and such? As a girl?�� Feeling dejected, Okolo recounted the incident to her mother, who was able to re-ignite Okolo�s passion for engineering �by telling me all the cool things engineers made, things like planes and spaceships.�
She went to the University of Texas for her undergraduate degree and earned a bachelors degree with honors in aerospace engineering. She completed two internships with Lockheed Martin, first as a systems engineering intern in the requirements management office for Orion, NASA�s next-generation spacecraft, then on the mechanical design team, where she helped create fixtures in preparation for testing and verification.
She says her internship experiences showed her how much she didn�t know. �I realized I wanted to learn it all, and I started to seek additional independent learning outside the classroom environment.�
Okolo has done three summer internships with her research advisor, Atilla Dogan, at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (OH). Meanwhile, she worked on her dissertation research. She simulated different formation flight configurations using different pairs of aircraft, and published the results.
�The internship experiences at the AFRL gave me the chance to connect with researchers in my field of aerospace modeling, simulation and controls.�
Ideas taking flight
Okolo�s current research involves simulating aircraft flying in formation to find the best fuel savings. Studies, inspired by birds traveling long distances in formation, have shown there is a �sweet spot� in the wake of a leader aircraft where a follower aircraft experiences upwash. This upwash leads to reduced drag for the follower, she explains.
�Unfortunately, the follower also experiences induced aerodynamic moments, which require drag-inducing control surface deflections.� Her research involves using alternate methods to trim these moments, which could result in enormous fuel cost savings.
Following completion of her PhD, Okolo hopes to work at a national lab or research branch of a company, pioneering aerospace solutions. After a career in industry, she would like to return to academia as a faculty member in engineering to share her knowledge and experiences.
Life guides Vanderbilt PhD student Thushara Gunda to the water
Thushara Gunda is working on her PhD at the department of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN). Originally from southern India, she moved to Alexandria, VA at the age of nine. �From an early age, I had an interest in science and math, and engineering combines the best of both,� she says. �In high school I was able to take advanced classes in science, math and programming.�
Gunda earned her bachelors degree at the University of Virginia (UVA, Charlottesville), with a double major in environmental sciences and environmental thought and practice.
During her summers at UVA, she did an internship at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA) studying algal blooms, and an internship at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where she studied blue quartz. �My last summer, I worked on my senior thesis project, which looked at mercury distribution in the Shenandoah National Park leaves and soils.�
After graduation, she wasn�t sure what to do next. �At one point, I was looking at applications to graduate school, to law school, and to business school.� A professor encouraged her to experience life first.
Swayed by the weather pattern
She took a job as an environmental consultant in Austin, TX. Meanwhile, the region was experiencing one of the hottest and driest summers on record, �so we were really conscious of water scarcity issues, and questions about effective water management were always a focus in the local news.�
Gunda was interested in studying the physical properties of water, but also wanted to focus on the role that humans play in using and managing this resource. �That�s what attracted me to Vanderbilt. When I applied to my graduate program, I was offered the opportunity to join an interdisciplinary team studying adaptation to drought by rice farmers in Sri Lanka.�
Gunda recently finished her second year in graduate school and is developing a dissertation proposal that focuses on the state of water resources for agriculture in Sri Lanka. She will construct two hydrological models that capture how irrigation water is distributed in the country. �The models will provide insight into how water is currently managed and identify areas for improvement.�
In the future she will study climate change projections and their impact on rice production. Gunda spent six weeks last year in Sri Lanka, meeting government officials and farmers and becoming familiar with the study area. She hopes to get her PhD in May 2017.
Gunda urges students to �follow your passion. Don�t settle on a field if you are unsure what your passion is. As my professor suggested, experience life: explore different options before you choose.�
PhD student Adeola Oluyemisi Adebiyi works in cell production at Vanderbilt
Adeola Oluyemisi Adebiyi grew up in Starkville, MS. Her father, a retired mechanical engineering professor, told her, �Anything you want to do, you could accomplish with a degree in engineering.�
�So engineering was always my path,� she says. Adebiyi received her BS in chemical engineering from Mississippi State University-Starkville.
She knew a PhD was �the way for me to conduct my own research.� Her interest is in the field of metabolic engineering: altering or optimizing the metabolism of organisms to increase a cell�s production of a product or byproduct. �I chose Vanderbilt because, as a medical school, it connects with my dream project � to engineer simple organisms, such as E. coli, to produce pharmaceutical drugs at a high yield to lower their cost.�
She�s in her second year in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Vanderbilt. Her research is focused on a specific method for metabolic flux analysis of cyanobacteria. �Using math modeling techniques, we will be able to create a traffic map of the material flow through the main biological pathways of the cells to determine where there is a bottleneck,� she says, �or find a natural pathway we can exploit to increase the yield of our product of interest.�
Adebiyi is on track to finish her PhD in May 2017. She hopes to work in industry and eventually return to a university to teach.
PhD student Niaja Farve works in human computer interaction at MIT
Niaja Farve is working toward her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge). As an undergrad, Farve went to Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD), where she studied electrical engineering.
She interned with two different government contractors, conducting work at NAVAIR in Patuxent River, MD. She also interned with the Army Corps of Engineers in Wiesbaden, Germany. In Germany, she recalls, �I spent my weekdays working as a program manager and my weekends traveling to different countries by train. It was a great experience.�
After graduation, she went directly into a masters program in electrical engineering at MIT. Her thesis focused on the design, fabrication and testing of a motor for a robotic cheetah. �The project was very enjoyable and helped my decision to stay at MIT for a PhD.� She spent two summers while working on her masters interning at Brookhaven National Lab. For her PhD project, she worked on human computer interaction and behavior change. She has been working to develop tools that will help improve human well-being and induce positive behavior changes. �I think how we interact with technology is a very compelling area to study. New technology is always emerging, producing new platforms to develop on.�
Farve has been active in several diversity-focused organizations on and off campus, including one that helps prepare minority students for grad school. �I think the wide range of activities I�m involved in adds to the sense of community,� she says.
Her academic career has not been without surprises. �It would have been great to know that graduate school is full time: no spring break or summer vacations.�
Kyle Morrison specializes in wireless communications at UMass
�Curiosity is your ticket to success,� says Kyle Morrison. He received his PhD in electrical and computer engineering in September at the University of Massachusetts (UMass, Amherst).
Morrison�s family is originally from Jamaica. He grew up in Brooklyn, NY in a family of six. Math interested him. �In middle school I was at the top of the class in algebra and geometry. That success led me to look at a career in a math-related field.�
He got his undergrad degree in computer systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY). While there, he held two summer internships, one at General Electric and the second at Intel.
�I chose graduate school for many reasons,� he says. �I felt undergraduate education was just the start of my career, and graduate school was a necessity if I wanted to be an expert. I like the area of wireless communications because of my success and enjoyment in my signals and systems undergraduate course.�
Love at first sight
He fell in love with UMass Amherst after a visit and some good conversations with faculty members. As a graduate student, he interned at NASA�s Goddard Space Flight Center and worked as the resident assistant for summer research students at UMass. He also served as the advisor for the National Society of Black Engineers UMass Amherst chapter.
Morrison�s dissertation topic focuses on receiver design and security for low-power wireless communications systems. He has two projects underway. �The first is in ultra-wideband, where I provide a comprehensive framework for low-to-moderate data rate reference-based systems,� The other, he says, focuses on new secrecy outage formulations involving jamming and automatic request retransmission techniques, designed to help improve reliability and security in wireless systems.
Inspired to impact
Morrison hopes to serve as a senior staff member of a research and development laboratory and �have a long-lasting impact on humanity, empowering and helping as many people as I can.�
And he wants to pass on his passion to the next generation. �I plan to serve as a resource, mentor and voice for youths from underrepresented groups, getting them excited about STEM-related fields.�
Mack Jones: CU PhD candidate and Fellow in aerospace
McArthur (Mack) Jones, Jr focuses on aerospace. Jones is a PhD candidate at the Ford Foundation and a predoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU-Boulder).
Jones earned his 2010 BS in meteorology at Millersville University (PA), with minors in mathematics and physics. He went to CU-Boulder and earned his MS in aerospace engineering sciences in 2013, then began working on his PhD in aerospace engineering sciences.
As an undergrad, Jones did three summer internships at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, through Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS). In addition, he worked in a weather center making weekly weather forecasts for the Millersville area, and was a before and after-school counselor in Lancaster County.
Jones also participated in Minorities Striving and Pursuing Higher Degrees of Success in Earth System Science (www.msphds.org), a professional development program that aims to facilitate increased minority participation in Earth system science fields.
He chose CU-Boulder because the school offered research he was interested in and an advisor he admired. He�s in the aerospace engineering sciences department. �I am studying lower atmosphere-upper atmosphere connection processes with a specific emphasis on atmospheric tides,� he reports.
Sharing the passion
Jones believes that giving back is important to every student�s success. He helps underrepresented undergraduates at CU, and has served as a coaching mentor in the SOARS program.
He expects to finish his degree in May 2015, then work in a national lab for several years. �My ultimate goal would be to transition back into academia and teach at an institution like Millersville.�
He recognizes the importance of good role models, particularly a student�s graduate advisor. In graduate school, he says, �The person you work most closely with is your advisor. You must like both what you are researching and the person you are working with.�
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