Profile with Carolyn Seepersad

Carolyn Seepersad (West Virginia & Balliol 1996) is Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.  She received her M.A. and B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford.  Her research involves the development of methods and computational tools for engineering design and additive manufacturing, simulation-based design of complex systems and materials, and environmentally conscious design of products and energy systems.  Carolyn holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech and BS in Mechanical Engineering from West Virginia University.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite childhood memory?

Carolyn Seepersad: I grew up in rural West Virginia and a lot of my memories revolve around doing and building things outside.  I clearly remember there was a small creek that ran next to our house, and when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old I tried my best to dam up the stream, collecting clay and rocks, building it up and getting a nice little collection of water behind it.  I also remember trying to build my own garden by transplanting wild flowers from other parts of the woods – it didn’t last very long because all of the wild flowers died when I transplanted them.  I also invaded my dad’s garage once in a while, and in one instance built a boat out of scraps of wood that were available.  At the time, I was probably 12 years old or so and didn’t understand what makes a boat stable, so I remember building it as high as I could – it probably had 4 or 5 staggered layers of wood.  I remember taking it up to the stream to launch it, and it promptly capsized on me.  I went back to the garage and revised it several times.  Those are the types of things I enjoyed while I was growing up on our farm. 

Rhodes Project: What was the last book that you read for pleasure?

Carolyn Seepersad: The last book I read was And the Mountains Echoed, the newest book by Khaled Hosseini who wrote The Kite Runner.  I loved it; I thought it was great – it’s a really poignant story of family, love, commitment and sacrifice.

Rhodes Project: What lead you to pursue academia?

Carolyn Seepersad: Academia is a great place to balance a couple of strong interests of mine.  I love engineering and applied sciences, and I have ever since I was a child, but I also enjoy teaching.  I love working with young minds, whether they’re high schoolers at outreach activities, college students or graduate students, many of whom may even be an equivalent age to me.  I just love teaching, I love sharing knowledge, and so being a professor is really an opportunity to combine those two interests.  If you love research and you love discovery, but you also love to share that passion with other people then being a professor is really the ideal job.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Carolyn Seepersad: Teaching is my favourite part of the job.  I particularly enjoy teaching on a really motivating topic that really excites and interests the students, and I love seeing that spark in their eyes when the light bulb goes on and they realise “This is really cool, I can really use this” or “As a result of this class I’ve accomplished something I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish otherwise”.  Those are really heart-warming moments.  It’s a really great part of the profession, I think.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Carolyn Seepersad: I think that as a professor, the most challenging part of the job is also the part that attracts a lot of people to it.  It would be difficult to find a job that allows you to be more independent than being a professor.  I arrive at work in the morning and no one tells me what to do that day or that week or that month.....  At the same time, I am always balancing many different tasks, such as publishing papers, securing funding, teaching classes, and performing service activities.  As a professor, I think the hardest part is managing your time, not only in the short term but also in the long term.  If you love to teach it can be very tempting to spend a lot of time preparing for classes, for example, but you have to be careful not to ignore your longer term deliverables like writing papers, which isn’t always the most exciting activity in the world.  Balancing your time in academia is the hardest part for me, but the freedom has also really drawn me to the profession – to have that kind of personal freedom that you don’t really get anywhere else.

Rhodes Project: According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, only 13% of engineers in the United States are female. What is your opinion on this, and as a professor, do you see this trend changing or continuing?

Carolyn Seepersad: It’s a challenge that we struggle with all the time.  Fundamentally there is no reason why there shouldn’t be more women in science and engineering.  Engineering is about creating things.  That’s what distinguishes us from science, where the goal is to better understand things – as engineers, we create things, and a lot of kids are drawn to that.  I see kids – boys and girls – drawn to that very early on.  I have a daughter who is five years old and I can really see that tendency in her.  She loves to create things and understand how things work.

Engineering has an image problem, and it is particularly true of mechanical engineering.  When people think about mechanical engineering, the images in their minds are of cars, and grease monkeys, and people working on engines in their back yards.  Some mechanical engineers do that, and some love to do that, but the majority of us don’t do that on a day to day basis.  Mechanical engineering is one of the most general engineering disciplines you can enter, and it’s really about designing and creating things.  On a day to day basis, mechanical engineers are solving renewable energy problems, designing many of the cool products all around us, and even improving our understanding of biomechanics.  People of all backgrounds and genders are interested in the types of problems that mechanical engineers solve, but many people simply don’t connect those problems to mechanical engineering.

Part of reversing this pattern of females in engineering has a lot to do with making sure that they realise that engineering is a profession that does help people.   I think females in a lot of cases are drawn not just to the excitement of making something – a new computer code, or an engine that is more efficient than the previous one – they really want to know that they’re helping people, and tend to be drawn to those types of professions.  Engineering can help people in important ways--creating products, devices and services that make people’s lives easier in many ways, and that message needs to be communicated to young people.

I think another part of the issue is also that young people need to have mentors; they need to be able to see themselves in a profession.  A lot of engineers my age may have gone through engineering school without encountering a female faculty member or at most, there are maybe one or two out of sixty or more staff members.  That situation is slowly changing.  There are certainly more female faculty members in my engineering department now than there were 8 years ago when I started my academic career, and I think in my department we’re doing relatively well by national standards, but we need to see more women at all different levels in a variety of schools.  In academia we need to see more women who are faculty, and deans, and chairs of departments, so that people see themselves in this profession.  It’s the same way with industry I think – we need to see more women who are doing technical work.

Rhodes Project: Do you have any role models?

Carolyn Seepersad: All the way through the education system I had fantastic mentors and enablers.  In some rural areas of the country, your educational opportunities can be quite limited.  I currently live in Austin, Texas, where the educational opportunities for my kids are just fantastic.  We have fantastic public schools, and if we weren’t happy with the public schools, there are a variety of private schools we could choose.  In rural areas, like the area where I grew up, that just wasn’t the case.  It was an hour’s drive to the nearest city, Charleston, so we relied on the local public schools.  Although we lived in one of the least wealthy parts of the state, the teachers were very, very good and people placed a very high value on the education system.  As I progressed through school, from elementary school through high school, all of my teachers went out of their way to make sure I was challenged, and I had the opportunities I need.  When I got to my senior year of high school I had completed all of the math classes offered by my high school.  A calculus class did not yet exist.  Luckily one of my high school teachers said “I’ll teach you calculus, that’s fine,” and so I would sit in her tenth grade math class, and once she’d finished teaching her tenth graders, she would come and help me with my calculus. She helped me study after school and on weekends for the advanced placement calculus test, and I scored the maximum score on the test.  That commitment continued right through college in West Virginia.  I had some excellent instructors and mentors.  I remember when I was going through the Rhodes interview process, the president of the university took me aside and gave me a little word of encouragement.  For him that was a small thing, but for me it made all the difference in the outcome.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

Carolyn Seepersad: Ten years ago I might have had a lovely, interesting answer for you.  Now my answer is primarily that my kids are my hobby!  My husband and I spend as much time as we can with our kids.  We really value that time.  I also enjoy cooking, and when you have two kids and a very consuming job, your hobbies have to be a little bit functional, I think.  I cook a lot for the family and like to try out new recipes on them.

Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?

Carolyn Seepersad: My family for sure, I love spending time with them.  I enjoy my job as well.  I’ve often said that you know you’ve got a great job when you wake up in the morning and never think “Man, I wish I didn’t have to go to work today”.  That thought almost never crosses my mind.  I really enjoy what I do, but I also really enjoy coming home and spending time with my family. 

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