By Simi Srikanthan
In the following interview, I speak with Cynthia Hampton, a graduate assistant for CEED, about her engineering background, experiences, and career.
Simi Srikanthan: So, let’s talk about your background first. You went to Kansas State University, and you majored in biological systems engineering. Could you just explain a little of what that is?
Cynthia Hampton: Sure, so biological systems engineering, it’s a very broad field. You can go in many different directions with it, but it’s one of those majors that is on the smaller side regardless of what university you go to. So it’s more on the order of MSE, which can be a good thing because the department is pretty close-knit, and you know everyone in your graduating class versus some of the larger programs. So in BSE, we look at everything from a systems perspective whereas in other engineering disciples, you may be designing something for a specific purpose. You do take those considerations into place, like if you were designing a bridge or dam or something of that nature. We look at the upstream and the downstream effects of a system, be it a stream, an ecosystem, or a watershed. So we look at it from more of a systems point of view in order to protect natural resources and improve sustainability. There’s different routes you can go, depending on the university there is an environmental route, which can be water resources. There can also be a biological track, for example biological feedstock, biofuel, things of that nature. A lot of premed students take the biological route.
S: What track did you do?
C: I started out in the biological route, because I was thinking of premed, and then I got more interested in the environment and environmental effects on health and that influenced my choice.
S: After you completed undergrad, what did you do?
C: After undergrad I actually took a year off and I traveled around. I was in Italy for a while, I was in northeastern Italy, I was about an hour and a half NE of Venice. I was there on and off and I was also in Minneapolis for a while. And then I got a position at an environmental consulting firm, for about two years. And then I became a grad student at Virginia Tech.
S: What were your responsibilities as a grad student for CEED?
C: When I first got here, my official title is “Student Support and Program Staff.” We provide support to students but it’s unique because not only do we teach but we also provide support to different programs such as outreach programs, summer programs, etc. For me it was STEP. I helped with STEP and C-Tech Squared coming in. I was Assistant Director for STEP and this past year I was the Director.
S: And you are also on the staff for Hypatia and Galileo, correct?
C: I am one of the seminar instructors, and so for that we teach academic, professional, social, and personal development, pretty much all the things outside the engineering classrooms.
S: And do you think that’s just as important as technical skills?
C: I think that’s definitely something every engineering student should learn. My degree program is engineering education, and that’s definitely important – there are guidelines saying that the engineers of 2020 should have leadership, communication, those types of things that aren’t direct outcomes from the courses you’re taking. So it’s definitely needed because a company can’t really teach you those things, but you still need to know how to do them.
S: When you were an environmental health consultant, what did you do and what skills from college helped you do your job?
C: In consultancy, I traveled a lot, so in my first year, I was probably in at least 5 or 6 other states. I was in program assessments and quality, so I worked directly with companies to figure out how to mitigate and update their environmental issues. So if a company had some type of spill and it caused a fish kill, I would go in and help talk to clients about what plans they already had in place and if there were inadequate plans, I would help revise those. It was very interactive. I had to create a rapport with the clients so they would be honest with me. A lot of times there were design components involved as well. There was a lot of travel, a lot of communication. So in undergrad, I helped with outreach activities for K-12 and college students. That definitely helped to build my communication, my leadership, and my knowledge of how to approach problems in a certain way.
S: Do you have a dream job? If you could work for any company, what would you do?
C: I think my end goal is definitely to get back into consultancy because it’s a completely different feeling to work on your own projects and have ownership of what you do. Even though I was working within a larger company, there was a lot of autonomy involved in the projects that I would do.
S: Did you study abroad in college?
C: I did not, and that’s one thing I would encourage students to do early. I did get to do different things – I did service trips, but never abroad. I only went abroad towards the end of senior year. I think understanding different aspects of the global engineering spectrum is really important.
S: I agree. I know that for chemical engineering, we can go to Denmark or Germany for our Unit Operations Lab course. And I know for other engineering majors they can go to Europe and Asia. I wish I’d done the Rising Sophomore Abroad Program because some of my friends did that.
C: Yeah, and I’ve heard that now they’ve added additional tracks; there’s a China track now too. I think those opportunities, the abundance of them, reflects the need for them.
S: What do you think is the most important skill you learned in engineering that you still use to this day?
C: I definitely think that being required to work in groups and with others is something that never goes away. It doesn’t matter which company, internship, class, or co-op you have – those skills of compromise and communication never goes away and you will work with people you may not necessarily want to work with, but you need to get your project or job done. Additionally, there are so many critical gains you can have from working with others, especially diverse groups. When you’re in the workplace those stakes are a lot higher – there’s money on the line, and time and resources. You have to make sure you’re communicating, that you come to the table with an open mind because we all have our preconceived notions about individuals, about groups, about many things. It’s important that you have the mindset of: we need to work together, this is a give-and-take relationship. So I definitely think those skills of relationship-building, communication, and teamwork are things I’m glad I was exposed to early because they never go away.
S: Thank you so much for your time.
C: Thanks for interviewing me!