Where Are They Now? Catching Up With UVA Engineering Alumnae

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From the highway systems that we travel on daily to the cell phones we use to reach nearly anyone, anytime, anywhere, many of the luxuries that we enjoy today have been designed by the hands – and brains – of engineers.

Though both men and women are responsible for these concepts and developments, historically, engineering has been a male-dominated field. When it comes to training and producing female engineers, however, a recent Washington Post analysis says the University of Virginia is outpacing its peers.

According to The Washington Post, women earned about 20 percent of engineering degrees nationwide. At UVA, females accounted for 33.2 percent of engineering graduates in 2015, earning a total of 552 bachelor’s degrees, the highest percentage of any prominent public school in the Post’s analysis.

Additionally, UVA’s percentage of female students who earned undergraduate engineering degrees in 2015 rose 2.4 percent from 2010, and the presence of females is particularly strong in the fields of biomedical and civil engineering, where females earned more than 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees.

“Solving the technological challenges of the future requires engineers of all backgrounds and perspectives. A diverse community provides a much broader set of viewpoints and approaches, creating more rapid innovation with greater impact,” said Craig H. Benson, dean of the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science. “At UVA, we are proud that our outstanding research and teaching environment attracts women to engineering. We are working diligently to increase the number of students and faculty from demographic groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Upon completing their time on Grounds, many UVA graduates go on to pursue fulfilling and challenging careers that have far-reaching impacts on our society and the world. UVA Today caught up with some of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s alumnae to see where they are now and to learn more about the paths they took to get there.

Sonna Patel-Raman

Hometown: Alexandria

Graduation year: 1998 (B.S.), 2002 (M.S.), 2006 (Ph.D.)

Area of Study: Chemical and Biomedical Engineering

Current employment/location: President and chief operating officer at NuPulseCV in Raleigh, North Carolina

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. I chose engineering because a cousin I admired majored in engineering and I wanted to be just like him. Seriously, I chose it because it gave me an outlet to apply scientific principles to real-world problems. I also chose engineering because I love how it’s a collaborative field.

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. I currently run operations for a medical device company. Our goal is to change the paradigm of treatment for advanced heart failure patients. I get to wear a lot of different hats on a daily basis (engineering, marketing, manufacturing, HR, clinical affairs, regulatory, quality, etc). Ultimately, my responsibility is to make sure we meet the needs of our patients, and this requires good communication between engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, investors, patients and other scientists.

One of the most important experiences in SEAS was the humanities requirement. Writing and communicating technical information to non-technical people is so critical as an engineer, especially if you want others to believe in your ideas or listen to your solutions.  

Q. What advice would you give to other females who are aspiring to find their place in engineering?

A. I wish someone had explained to me that it is so valuable to get to know people in your space. You find mentors in the most unlikely places. Networking doesn’t mean meeting people for the sake of meeting people; it means letting your passion for your field show through by participating in conferences, volunteering on committees, mentoring, being mentored and finding other people who will share their experiences with you. Learn something from everyone!

Vanessa Dyce

Hometown: Ashburn

Graduation year: 2016

Area of Study: Computer Science

Current employment/location: Software engineer at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. As a person who thrives off of reasoning and needs logical explanation for absolutely everything in the world, I’m an engineer by nature. My excitement for lab experiments in high school, love for calculus and my dire hatred of history and English were all hints that I should explore majors in STEM.

I went to UVA the summer before my senior year of high school to participate in an engineering camp called ITE (Introduction to Engineering), where my desire to be an engineer was confirmed. I loved how engineers seemed to be the ones working with cutting-edge technology that had an impact on the world, and I wanted to be a part of that. 

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. My work currently focuses on SQL Server and its many internal components. I have been working with virtual machines a lot recently to run various tests on several versions of SQL Server, but I admit I had no idea what a [virtual machine] was before I took CS 2150. Working vigorously with the command line, understanding databases, writing scripts; it’s all familiar territory because of the curriculum I had.

I am reminded every single day, actually, how much UVA enabled me to be successful. By taking operating systems and computer networks, I see on a day-to-day basis how it has improved my ability to understand my project at a much greater level. 

Q. What are your long-term goals?

A. For me, my goals are simple: I want to learn something new every day and work hard at being the best I can be in my job. I know I’m passionate about supporting women and other minority groups in engineering and I’ve always found value in putting my time into community service. So, my goal has been to figure out how I can integrate my professional career with my passion to contribute to the community. I’m not sure what that looks like yet, but I’m one step closer each day.

Alessandra Grasso

Hometown: Oakton

Graduation year: 2012

Area of Study: Engineering Science - Nanomedicine

Current employment/location: I work for JaRco Consulting (an international development consulting firm) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. Growing up, I fancied math and science. I also had a dream of becoming a doctor. After contemplating the diverse paths to studying medicine, I chose biomedical engineering. I believed that engineering would bestow a solid foundation for critical thinking and problem-solving – skills I think are transferable to any field.

Engineering at UVA was my first choice; I’m from Northern Virginia, and with alumni living in my hometown neighborhood, UVA was a school that I knew almost all my life. The people I knew that went to UVA radiated so much positive energy, which attracted me to the campus. And my first visit to Charlottesville sealed the deal.

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. I am currently living in Ethiopia and working at a local international consulting firm that specializes in conducting large-scale studies and designing monitoring and evaluation systems. In my position, I constantly interact with various clients (U.N. agencies, non-governmental agencies, governmental agencies, etc.) and work across the development field: health, nutrition, agriculture, water, women’s empowerment, etc. I support various projects in the design of M&E research approaches and methods, fieldwork implementation, data analysis and report writing, and assist in the coordination and quality control of all program-related activities. 

My time at UVA prepared me very well for what I am doing now. Engineering prepared me to think analytically, to excel working in a fast-paced and dynamic work environment, to be a team player and to work and communicate with diverse groups. While I was studying engineering, I was involved in many extracurricular activities from Student Council to Global Medical Brigades, which granted me new opportunities and opened my eyes to new territories.

Q. What advice would you give to other females who are aspiring to find their place in engineering?

A. Follow your heart. Although in the end my heart was not in engineering, following my heart during my time in SEAS led me to lifelong friendships, great networking connections and amazing memories.

Elise Poerschke

Hometown: Ligonier, Pennsylvania

Graduation year: 2015

Area of Study: Engineering Science with a concentration in Materials Science and Engineering

Current employment/location: GE Aviation, Cincinnati

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. After looking at many different engineering schools, I chose UVA because of its emphasis on more than just technical skills. It was important to me to get a well-rounded education that would also give me the communication and critical thinking skills needed to excel in the field. Engineering solutions in the real world require not only thinking about technical answers, but also geopolitical concerns, societal impacts and cost.

The engineering program at UVA educates students on these issues through the [Science and Technology in Society] department and opportunities like the Policy Internship Program. I don’t like the stereotype that engineers can’t communicate or think beyond the technical answer, and UVA offered many opportunities to develop those other important skills, in addition to a strong technical background.

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. I work for GE Aviation, where I am a materials science engineer for jet engine hot section components like turbine blades. In my current role, I serve as the materials expert for certain turbine blades and support designers and manufacturing when questions arise.

Having a great female mentor while at UVA had the most impact on preparing me for my future. I worked with Professor Beth Opila on research in her high-temperature materials lab for three years while at UVA. She encouraged me and pushed me outside of my comfort zone to help build the confidence I needed to succeed in the workplace.

A first job out of school can be intimidating for anyone, and I think especially so for a woman entering a male-dominated workplace. It is not uncommon for me to be in meetings where I am the only woman or one of few, as well as the youngest person in the room, and it can be very intimidating. Having great role models like Professor Opila in my life is important and helpful. She encouraged me to challenge myself while at UVA, which has helped me deal with and overcome challenging situations at work.

Q. What advice would you give to other females who are aspiring to find their place in engineering?

A. I’ve found that one of the most important skills for an aspiring engineer, female or male, is to ask questions, and ask a lot of them. Asking questions shows that you are engaged with your work, even if you are still learning and don’t yet feel like you have a lot to contribute otherwise.

Definitely find a good mentor as well. It is important to have someone to go to with technical questions as well as questions about work-life balance and career growth. Look for positive role models around you and ask them what has helped with their success and how they have dealt with obstacles along the way.  

Shavonne Gordon

Hometown: Richmond

Graduation year: 1995

Area of Study: Systems Engineering

Current employment/location: Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Capital One, Richmond

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. I started out as a computer science major because I enjoyed programming. I switched to systems engineering because of the focus on problem-solving and client-facing interactions – the mix of man and machine.

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. Most of my career has been in the technology field, but I am enjoying my time in diversity and inclusion – It’s important not just for Capital One, but also for this country. I am passionate about this work not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I want my two daughters to have the opportunity to be great at whatever they choose to do.

UVA prepared me for the unexpected. I learned how to evaluate and apply a methodical approach to solving any problem. UVA also taught me how to learn and the importance of continuous learning. 

Q. What advice would you give to other females who are aspiring to find their place in engineering?

A. I would encourage women to be resilient and to follow their passions. Don’t be discouraged by the lack of people who look like you – we can change that! 

Rowan Sprague

Hometown: Richmond

Graduation year: 2013

Area of Study: Civil and Environmental Engineering

Current employment/location: Ph.D. student at the Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand

Q. Why did you choose engineering at UVA?

A. I chose engineering because I wanted to help people and also better facilitate how people interact with, and impact, the environment. Engineers, especially civil and environmental engineers, are very much at the interface between people and the environment. I wanted to study engineering so I could learn how we currently use our environment, how we impact and harm it and how we can improve our infrastructure to lessen our environmental footprint.

I chose to go to UVA because UVA offers a more interdisciplinary approach to engineering education. I was able to study Russian language and literature as well as take other courses outside of my engineering curriculum.

I also chose UVA because it encourages and supports undergraduate research. My experiences in undergrad research at UVA shaped my career after university and I am so thankful at how much support I received in my research projects.

Q. What’s your most prominent UVA memory?

A. I have many fond memories of UVA and UVA engineering, so it’s hard to choose one. I suppose instead of choosing one, I might group some together. I have many memories of late nights at the E-School in a civil engineering classroom, and those late nights were made fun and hilarious with great friends. We would work and talk through problem sets, but also would take music and snack breaks.

That really sums up a lot of my UVA engineering experience: being surrounded by brilliant minds and more importantly, brilliant, well-rounded and thoughtful people.

What sets UVA engineering apart for me wouldn’t be the long hours working on challenging problem sets, but rather the amazing people I worked with and learned from.

Q. What does your current work entail and how did your UVA experience prepare you for it?

A. My education at UVA greatly improved and developed a variety of my skills. With engineering, I gained a strong quantitative background as well as experience and confidence at problem-solving. I also improved my public speaking and communication skills, which is vitally important in any career and has allowed me to distinguish myself in my endeavors after UVA.

My education at UVA was also very interdisciplinary, which has helped me a lot later on to form connections between fields that have not been done much before. For example, in my Ph.D. research, I am combining techniques from applied mathematics and statistics to examine an ecological phenomenon.

While my current field is not specifically engineering, this work relies on my strong quantitative background as well as my communication and problem-solving skills – all of which I developed and improved upon in UVA engineering.

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