A Look at a Few Alumni
“When you get women in roles of leadership, we make things happen. It takes us using our voice, and it also takes us making investments, huge investments, in women and girls.”
- Melinda Gates, co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose singular focus of advocacy is women and girls
Procurement of nuclear fuel. Disney World ride design. Teaching the next generation of Navy and Marine Corps officers. Software design for semi-autonomous vehicles. To be a MechSE alumna means having a career that’s way beyond the “expected,” whether they are ascending the ranks in industry, contributing to future generations with a career in academia, or blazing a new trail through entrepreneurship.
Alumna Melonee Wise (BSME ’04, MSME ’06) is the CEO of Fetch Robotics, which optimizes warehouse operations through two core robots offerings. Both products are autonomous mobile robots that operate safely in commercial and industrial environments shared by people. With a 12,000-square-foot facility in San Jose, 40 robots, and about 35 employees, Fetch Robotics is a fast-growing startup that, in 2017, is looking to grow to about 60 employees. Melonee described the atmosphere at the company as one that’s inspiring and unique. “When you walk into Fetch, you also see a lot of robots,” she said. “At any one time in any one area, we probably have 10-15 robots just strolling around. We also have a secondary site where we do testing, so we have a fake warehouse.” In 2014, she was named to “The 15 Most Important People Working in Robotics” list by Business Insider. She was also one of three MechSE alumni to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award for 2016. After earning her degrees, Melonee worked as manager of robot development at the widely revered startup Willow Garage. She then went on to be CEO and co-founder of Unbounded Robotics, where she and her team were the inaugural winners of the RoboBusiness Pitchfire Competition.
NSF Graduate Research Fellow, multiple-award-winner, and all-around inspirational alumna Ritu Raman (MSME ’13, PhDME ’17) helped develop, with ME and bioengineering researchers, a new class of walking “bio-bots” powered by skeletal muscle cells that can be triggered by an electric pulse. Inspired by the muscle-tendon-bone complex, bio-bots have a backbone of 3D printed hydrogels and living cells. These bio-integrated machines can self-organize, self-heal, and self-replicate in response to a complex array of environmental cues. In 2015 Ritu won the coveted Illinois Innovation Prize, a campus-wide competition for student entrepreneurs. In 2016, she placed first in the Graduate College’s Research Live! competition among the campus’ brightest grad students from all diciplines. She was also a frequent blogger for MechSE, writing about her experiences in the lab and traveling the world for conferences and research opportunities.
Ritu grew up on three continents and studied at ten schools before coming to Illinois. She is passionate about K-12 STEM education and promoting women in STEM. She was active in the Illinois chapter of the Society for Women Engineers and MechSE Graduate Women.
She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, working with Professor Robert Langer. She conducts her research at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
Ritu was also named to Forbes' annual "30 Under 30" list for 2018.
The resume of Oluwami Dosunmu-Ogunbi (BSME ’17) reads like an accomplished career woman. She conducted research on powder-based 3D food printing at the National University of Singapore. As a student in the Hoeft Technology and Management Program, she participated in an international business competition in Brazil over winter break. She interned at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant, taking on two major projects and seven others to improve the testing process of quality checks. She was a Chancellor’s Scholar, and helped influence engineering education—serving as a Student Consultant on Teaching (SCOT); a Resident Project Advisor and mentor to 50 incoming engineering students; and a Lead ELA (Engineering Learning Assistant) for freshmen. Her research experience in the lab of a pioneering virtual reality scientist at Illinois confirmed her interest in pursuing a graduate degree, and she is now a mechanical engineering grad student at the University of Michigan studying mechatronics.
Alumna Patricia Weisensee (PhDME ’16), advised by Professors Bill King and Nenad Miljkovic, studied the interaction of liquid droplets with superhydrophobic surfaces and how this type of surface design can enhance heat transfer. Using a high-speed camera to record the impact of droplets hitting these nano-engineered surfaces, she demonstrated up to two times smaller contact times when compared to rigid surfaces. During her studies at Illinois, she taught or co-taught several courses with her advisors. She also sang in two university choirs. “I believe the more balanced a student’s life is, the better his or her performance will be in every aspect, including more productive research and teaching.”
She is currently an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Washington University St. Louis.
Brittany Miriki (BSME ’16) held several executive roles in the university’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). From this experience, she recognized a need to unify black women in STEM—and the summer before her senior year she co-founded Sistas in STEM, a new organization aimed at creating a support system. Thanks to networking for her public relations position in NSBE, Brittany gained an interest in technical sales, and is now employed in the Sales Development Program for Ingersoll Rand in the industrial supplier’s Chicago office.
Gail Butler (BSME ’15), the sole female team captain in SAE Baja’s recent history, credits her role on the team as a major influence in shaping her career path and enabling her to put into practice all of the concepts she learned in the classroom. After a student practicum at Caterpillar, Gail has been employed at the company’s Peoria, Illinois, facility as a test engineer in the motorgrade transmission development group, assisting with both lab and on-machine testing. Part of her job is to tune shifts to minimize wear in the transmission while also reducing the jerking motion the operator feels during gear changes.
Heidi Larsen (BSME ’81), a member of MechSE’s Alumni Board, uses the analytical approaches to complex problem-solving she learned as an ME undergraduate in her career in high technology. In her role as a manager at SOASTA, a software startup in Silicon Valley that provides solutions to optimize the performance of web and mobile applications with real time, big data analysis, and cloud testing, Heidi helped the company integrate its technology with that of its clients. She now works as a strategy advisor for Atipica. Her interest in enterprise software began when she was a sales engineer at Rockwell Automation assigned to the Silicon Valley territory. “Silicon Valley has great appreciation for Illinois engineering graduates. Employers here know our alumni are ‘battle tested’ with a sound education that can be applied to all aspects of high technology,” she said.
Growing up in Miami, Walt Disney World was Natalie (Reyes) Scott’s (BSME ’13) favorite place to visit as a child. It is the happiest place on Earth, after all. She also discovered an interest in mechanical engineering early on—and found the perfect way to combine these two passions. Thanks in part to several engineering internships at Disney World during her undergraduate career, Natalie is now employed as a mechanical engineer, where she works on a variety of ride engineering projects.
As Director of Nuclear Fuel Supply for Exelon Generation, which operates the largest nuclear fleet in the country, Jeanne (Tortorelli) Shobert (BSME ’85) procures nuclear fuel for the reactors that Exelon owns and operates in Illinois, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Managing a team of five, she is responsible for purchasing uranium ore, along with various ore-processing services, from sites around the world. “In the final step of the process, uranium is made into ceramic fuel pellets, which are loaded in fuel assemblies that go in the reactor core. My team works closely with the reactor core design group and the fuel vendor to ensure safe, efficient operation of the fuel once it’s in the reactor,” said Jeanne, who also earned an MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1991.
Semi-autonomous vehicles are one of the newest ways auto companies are developing technologies to better assist drivers. As a research engineer at Ford Motor Company, Nanjun Liu (MSME ’11, PhD ME ’14), who conducted research in Professor Andrew Alleyne’s group, now works on sensors and software for semi-autonomous features that will perform like a co-pilot, acting as an additional set of eyes, ears, hands, and legs.
Captain Serena Tyson (MSME ’08) graduated from the United States Naval Academy, earning a place in the top 10 percent of her class and a distinction as the top female graduate in the Weapons and Systems Engineering Department. As a master’s student in MechSE, she conducted research and co-authored papers on a pneumatically operated ankle-foot orthotic—a small prosthetic device that uses fluid power to return flexibility of motion to people who have lost muscle control over their feet. She then trained at Vance Air Force Base, earning her Naval Aviator Wings in 2010. Subsequent assignments saw her on helicopter squadrons; deployed to Afghanistan to fly combat missions; as an Attack Helicopter Commander and Functional Check Pilot; and currently as an Equal Opportunity Officer and Quality Assurance Officer for her Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, and instructor in the Naval Academy’s Aerospace Engineering department.