Case Study: Emily

My name is Emily, and I am a mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University in San Louis Obispo, California. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school; I’m currently a PhD student at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). My research is in magnetism. One of my projects is geared towards the defense industry while another is for use in the biomedical industry. The latter project is particularly intriguing to me; I like the idea of innovating biomedical devices in order to improve people’s lives. I would like to become a professor after graduation and potentially lead a diverse research lab supporting the future women of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

I was interested in researching with the Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems (TANMS) because of its commitment to diversity and inclusion. I worked at TANMS one summer as part of its Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. The TANMS ERC has been very welcoming and allowed me to grow in many ways. I specifically wanted to work with my advisor because of his leadership style and philosophical nature. He trusts that if he gives me guidance, he then doesn’t need to micromanage, and he is a very open communicator so I know exactly where I stand with him and if my progress is satisfactory. He’s helped me choose my research projects, based on months of conversations about literature I had read and shown interest in. He also supported me in get four years of funding, so I have a lot of freedom in the projects I choose. He openly believes in me and encourages me, so I’ve quickly grown my skill set and have quickly caught up on my projects.

I work in the Active Materials Lab at UCLA, run by Dr. Greg Carman in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) Department. I have several research projects, but my main project is designing, building, and testing a micro-scale antenna to go in a pacemaker. This goal of this project is to create an antenna capable of data and power transfer such that batteries in pacemakers will no longer be necessary, extending the life of pacemakers and reducing their size. My other project is characterizing a magnetic material fabricated by the Naval Research Lab, mainly for sonar applications.

I’ve learned a lot in general during my time as a graduate student, and I have reinforced a lot of what I knew about mechanical engineering. I’ve learned that it is important to reach out for help when you need it and collaborate with others. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned so far is how to learn—i.e., how to efficiently study a concept and cement it into your brain. I’ve also discovered that it’s important to be confident and have faith in yourself, even when things aren’t going well, because you can’t base your worth on other people or research results.

I have generalized anxiety disorder and a panic disorder. I’ve been very open about this with my advisor, who is also the director of my ERC, as well as the diversity and education director. Both of these individuals have been incredibly supportive and kind. When I have had issues because of these disorders, both of them have been respectful and open to have discussions about how to overcome whatever issue I’m facing. There have been instances where my anxiety became so severe that it has impaired my ability to do coursework, resulting in low grades and dropped classes. I suffered from this in undergrad, too, which resulted in a very low GPA. Throughout all of this, the ERC director (my advisor) and the education director have each encouraged me to get help and have supported me. Unwavering support is essential for the success of those with mental health issues and other disabilities.

My advice for other students from underrepresented groups who want to engage in engineering research is that it is important to have a support system in place when you’re going into graduate school and have your resources ready (i.e. know where your counseling and mental health services are). Graduate school is really wonderful but also incredibly difficult, especially for those from underrepresented groups, so it is important to know where to go for help when things get hard. Choosing an advisor who fits your needs is also very important; my advisor is wonderful, but I’ve heard bad stories of advisors who aren’t a good match for their students.

My advice for leaders who want to be more welcoming is to educate yourself on language that can be seen as hurtful or demeaning to those from underrepresented groups, as well as the types of difficulties that they face. Education is a power tool in combating discrimination. Also, work on empathy and patience. Similar to my advice for leaders, I would also suggest faculty members learn about language that could be hurtful. Be aware that some things may seem harmless to you but could have a different meaning to another person due to their different experiences and backgrounds.