Amelia Gandara is a professional ballerina turned turned chemical engineer. She earned a ChemE degree from the University of Louisville and has recently joined FirstBuild, a new platform to bring innovation to home appliances through co-creation.
Why did you choose to study chemical engineering and what was it like working as one of just a handful of women working toward your degree in chemical engineering?
I chose to study it because I have this need to understand how complicated processes work. I always found large production plants, like oil refineries, so fascinating. Looking at a facility, it seems like a complex mess of piping and 60 foot tall towers, but in truth, everything can be broken down into understandable steps.
I am fortunate to have an aunt who is an aerospace engineer, so I didn’t have many apprehensions about jumping into a male-dominated field. I found being one of a few women in my courses firmly motivated me to stay dedicated to my program, one reason being I am in a unique position to have a voice in the STEM community and help initiate programs that will help grow passions for STEM fields at a young age. In terms of challenges, the only issue I have run into consistently is getting past the first impression. Because I chose to dress business professionally, often times in heels, people make impressions that I am not also intelligent.
What are you doing to promote STEM education in Louisville?
I’ve had a range of opportunities to speak with groups from elementary schools to university leadership, but my greatest enjoyment comes from interacting with organizations like Louisville Girl’s Leadership where I get to talk with a collective of girls from area high schools. They have multiple events where future female leaders are exposed to a diverse range of career opportunities. Louisville as a whole is pushing to become an entrepreneurial hub for this part of country with a focus on manufacturing. This means we are going to need a lot of engineers, designers and creatives to fill these jobs!
I’ve co-created Lean In Louisville, where women get together monthly (twice a year city-wide) to lift each other up. This has given me a great opportunity to connect with other women in STEM. I can feel the momentum building for more young women leaders. I’d say this is a developing effort in Louisville.
Tell me about First Build and your role in the organization.
FirstBuild was formed out of a partnership with GE and Local Motors. We are working to bring more innovation into home appliances via co-creation. We have an online community where anyone can post ideas about improving or creating appliances. Those ideas could become real products that result in royalties for key contributors. We also post challenges asking the community to help us answer a specific problem with prizes attached to the top entries. We are in the process of moving into our microfactory (in Louisville, Kentucky) where we will test and build the best ideas that come out of our co-creation efforts.
My role with FirstBuild is community building. I get to use my technical skills to reach out and bring makers, engineers, designers, moms, general home enthusiasts…really anyone interested in contributing to the community and helping build excitement for our projects.
Given your role, I’m guessing that along with your engineering degree, you have strong “soft skills” like communication and teamwork, too. How does having these soft skills contribute to a successful STEM career?
Fine tuning my soft skills was something I gained, if you can believe it, through a few years of pageants! I competed in Miss Missouri and Miss Kentucky through the Miss America Organization to help build up scholarship money for school. Pageants are getting more progressive. So much so that, as of last year, the overall platform for Miss America is STEM education.
Hard skills are typically considered occupational skills while soft skills help someone to interact effectively with other people. The biggest problem I’ve seen has been the division between soft and hard skills in the workplace. I’ve met many talented engineers who struggle to relay their brilliant ideas. I’ve also met wonderfully articulate people managing highly technical divisions who were placed there, not necessarily because they understand the complexity over the divisions they manage, but because they had excellent speaking skills. I would like to find a way to close the gap. Perhaps academia can start to include more soft skills training through a basic communications course geared towards the technically trained, or it could be as simple as including presentations in more courses.
I hear you’re involved in your local hackerspace. What’s that like and what kind of projects are you working on there?
I got involved with our local hackerspace, LVL1, while competing in Startup Weekend Louisville with an idea for sustainable flooring tile that we call EcoHarbor. I channeled my strange interest of energy waste products, like fly ash, to create a flooring tile made of recycled materials. The community at LVL1 has been wonderfully embracing! They have weekly meetings that bring in people from high schools students to adults. Everyone at LVL1 has a willingness to learn and share their expertise. I received quite a bit of assistance when I was learning to construct tile molds from basic safety to wood cutting. I appreciated the assistance, but most of all I appreciated being taught to use the equipment properly so I could become more independent in the space.
Any fun facts you’d like to share?
I trained for 10+ years to be a ballerina. After graduating high school, I took two years off to dance professionally with the Louisville Ballet (Louisville, KY) and Missouri Contemporary Ballet (Columbia, MO) before entering the University of Louisville to pursue engineering. It is amazing what the arts teaching you about dedication!
I was initially recruited for my job via Twitter! One of the biggest things I’ve learned so far is that relationship building within the community you eventually want to be a key player in is essential. (PSA – Watch what you say via social media, because potential employers are probably looking!)
Remember, the Sphero giveaway ends June 22, 2014!
Addendum: I went on a press trip to Louisville a few years ago. It’s a terrific family-friendly destination with museums, factory tours and opportunities for exploration. It’s the perfect place to spend a long weekend or even a full week.
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