To Find the Open Doors, I Had to Knock on a Lot of Them
Updated: Jun 27
In one of my last posts, I talked about meeting a connection at the IEEE PES T&D conference in New Orleans who wanted to profile me as a follow up on former PES Scholars and to highlight for International Women in Engineering Day, June 23. I jumped at the chance to share my story, not because I craved the attention, but because I think the transition from student to professional member of IEEE is an important one to highlight. I have benefited tremendously from IEEE and I view this as a small way to give back.
You can read the profile here. The story highlights my journey into power engineering, the impact from IEEE PES scholarships, and my views on the gender disparity in engineering, particularly electrical engineering. The post may make it sound like the journey was an easy one, and everything fell into place, but I know that I worked hard every step of the way to create opportunities and to take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me.
I have my mom to thank as an engineering role model. As an aerospace engineer for over 40 years, my mom was always there to help me with science projects, math problems, and other subjects too. I never felt pressured by her to be an engineer, and I don't think I even started thinking about it much until the end of high school. But looking back now, I can see the clear influence and advantages she and my dad gave me. All through elementary school my mom would take time out of her work day a few times a year to come give science lessons to my class. Even after I was in college and she "retired" (the first time), she would take science lessons to classrooms, and even homeschool groups. My go-to answer for why I chose engineering was always that my mom said she liked math and science in high school so she became an engineer, and I also liked math and science in high school, so I figured engineering might be a good fit. I was mostly considering mechanical and electrical engineering when I graduated high school, because they seemed like the majors with the broadest range of possible applications. I appreciate the Texas A&M designed their engineering program so that everyone's curriculum was the same the first year, and then we got to apply for majors. It allowed the the chance to really learn more about each field and decide that electrical really was the best fit for me.
My dad is the ultimate jack-of-all trades. He can sometimes get bored with a profession, but that's given him an opportunity to pick up skills in electrical work, house building, car maintenance and repairs, and way too many more to list. His formal training is as a diesel mechanic, and as I got further along in my college education, this gave us some interesting things to talk about, as he used to repair large gensets for critical facilities, like hospitals and oil rigs. My mom may have been the obvious influence on my choice of engineering, but my dad was right there with her the whole way, teaching me things about electrical work, cars and repairs (even when I wasn't enthusiastic about learning), and it all came back around in my Master's work and current role, where I study resilience for critical infrastructure, which often involves the exact hardware my dad used to work on.
I also have my dad to thank for my "door-seeking" mindset. When I was applying to colleges, he encouraged me to apply for every scholarship I was eligible for. I was frustrated writing all the application essays, especially the ones I knew that I might not be the perfect fit for. The way he framed it to me was that if I spent even 20 hours working on an application for a $1000 scholarship and won it, then it was like I was being paid $50/hr for my effort, which wasn't a terrible deal. Later on, I looked back on that and thought about the fact that if you factored in my success rate, and I earned say 1 out of 10 scholarships I applied for, then I was really working 200 hours for that $1000 scholarship, and $5/hr didn't sound quite as attractive, but the lesson had already been taught.
In reality, my success rate on scholarships I applied to in the first two years of college was zero. That's right, zero. Now, I had scholarships. I even had merit scholarships. In fact, I had one of the best scholarships Texas A&M had to offer through the Brown Foundation, and Mr. Craig Brown is absolutely the reason I ended up at that school. But the Brown Foundation Scholarship, and a couple others I was allowed to stack on top of that, were all things that I was automatically considered for, not ones I wrote specific applications for.
Still, I knew that the money was out there to support me and prevent the need for student loans, so I kept looking for those applications. In spring of 2017, I finally struck gold. I applied for a scholarship form the Gulf Coast Power Association, which asked what I thought was the most interesting. At the time, I was in a bit of a transition period. I had thought I wanted to pursue microelectronics, but after taking my first semiconductor class I learned that wasn't for me. With six other specialties to choose from, power was not at the top of my list. The power grid had been in place for 50 years. It had well established operations, and I wasn't aware of many exciting challenges in the field. But, I had learned to knock on all the doors to figure out which ones budged. So I did my research, and discovered the power grids could be hacked. Power grids could be hacked? There weren't computers in the outlets, but I learned there were lots of other computers operating the bulk power grid, and those had the potential to be hacked from the other side of the world, cutting power to hundred, thousands, or even millions. I wrote about this in my essay and... I didn't win. But.
But, I was still knocking on other doors. Having been an officer in my student branch of IEEE for a year at that point, and now having a spark of interest in power engineering, I applied to the IEEE Power & Energy Scholarship. I reused some content from my GCPA essay (no law against that, be efficient with your knocking). And I won that. My first scholarship earned via a direct application! But that wasn't even the best part. The best part was where that door led me.
One of the professors on the committee for the scholarship had recently joined Texas A&M's faculty. He took the time to read the applications from students at Texas A&M (he didn't evaluate them, no conflict of interest) and reached out to me over the summer. He told me that there was a new professor joining the department that fall, and that she was looking for more student researchers to join her, including undergrads. *Cue Megan seeing another open door. I knew that I had to conduct a research project to fulfill the requirements of my University Honors program. I also knew that Senior Engineering Capstone projects could be met with research projects. Not to mention I had learned not to turn down potential opportunities before I knew more about it.
I met with the new professor as soon as I was back on campus for the fall. Dr. Kate Davis talked to me about her research in cybersecurity for power grids, and I was hooked. It was only my junior year, but I worked to figure out all the requirements of the University Partnership Program's and Engineering's capstone projects. I worked with Dr. Davis to make sure I could meet those requirements and dove into my first big literature review to get up to speed. I was able to meet all my requirements over the course of the year, and loved it so much I kept working with her my senior year as an independent project.
That wasn't the end of that chain of doors though. The next one came through a visit from Wayne Austad, [TITLE], from Idaho National Laboratory
Meeting with Wayne was great, but nothing stemmed directly from this, I had just learned of an opportunity. I had take action to put myself in front of the next door. The next fall, I attended a graduate student career fair for engineering, even though I was still an undergrad. I wanted to see what they had to offer, and under the list of companies, INL had caught my attention. I met an engineer at that booth, Lindsey, and she worked as a cyber analyst for the power engineer, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. I hadn't heard of anyone outside of academia that combined these two interests I had developed, and she got to do it as a full time job!
Scholarships/Research --> Outstanding Senior Engineer [MORE COMING SOON]
Dr. Davis/Overbye connection to UIUC - new door [MORE COMING SOON]
IEEE --> PES [MORE COMING SOON]
PES/UIUC --> Outstanding Scholar [MORE COMING SOON]
I'm not blind to the fact that some of the "luck" that guided my path was privilege. The privilege of going to a private college-prep school from grades 7 though 12. The privilege of being a white person in engineering.
Even the one I hate most, the "privilege" of being a female engineer, knowing that I am checking some boxes for the folks tracking diversity metrics. I know that I have been well-deserving of all of the opportunities and achievements I've received, but there are plenty of other well-deserving, hard-working people out there, and sometimes I experience the imposter syndrome symptom of wondering if I got something because I truly earned it or if I just checked the box. Plenty of more to say on this subject, but that's for another time.
Winning scholarships is a rush. Achieving goals is a rush. But the grind in between is what gets you to those doors. It's what creates those doors. Builds them where there were none before. I'm still learning what work life balance means (I'm not sure if I ever mastered the school-life balance). So I'm not advocating for working yourself to the bone for the next applause, but my message for anyone out there is that the doors are out there. The materials to build new doors are out there. And you can't be afraid to knock. Per the cliché, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. So do it. Knock.