Meaghan McGrath talks to students at the Emily K Center’s Career Exploration Night
US2020 RTP recently started training and placing mentors at different nonprofits, schools, and universities in Durham and Wake County. Meaghan McGrath is one of our first STEM professionals to go through our mentor training and sign up for opportunities on our Mentor Matching Platform.
Meaghan is a North Carolina native: she grew up in Johnston County and attended NC State for a degree in Environmental Engineering. After college, Meaghan started working at RTI International, a Research Triangle Park company that has partnered with US2020 to provide STEM mentors. Through US2020’s platform, Meaghan signed up for Career Exploration Night at the Emily K Center and teaching middle school students about environmental science at NC Science Olympiad. We sat down with Meaghan to talk about being a woman in STEM, giving back, and of course, Harry Potter.
What is your job like at RTI?
I am an Air Quality Engineer within RTI International’s Environmental Health Sciences group. There’s a lot of unique groups within RTI that boast different areas of technical expertise. RTI operates like a college which is great, and almost essential, for working collaboratively. On a day-to-day basis I work mainly on government contracts, aiding different EPA groups with environmental rulemakings by providing supporting calculations and other forms of data analysis and technical support.
Are the organizations like Harry Potter Houses?
I could see that, it could be a little bit like Harry Potter.
So which house is your group?
I would probably go with Ravenclaw. We’re definitely a bit nerdy.
Where does your interest in STEM outreach come from?
Personal experience. NC State did an excellent job of offering outreach opportunities for students. I was a part of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), and that group provided a lot of specialized attention, mentoring and outreach for women in STEM majors. I think the women involved in WISE felt a sense of community since we were going through academically rigorous programs together; camaraderie really helped me personally persevere. I’m actually the first person in my family to go to a four-year college, so there was a lot of hardship in not knowing what to expect from the engineering curriculum and from college in general; these outreach efforts really helped ease the blow. I’m a firm believer in giving back what you have taken, so I’d like to take part in similar outreach efforts now that I’ve become stable in my career.
When did you realize you wanted to work in a STEM field?
I’d always had a knack for math when I was growing up, and I wanted to capitalize on it somehow. My teachers would push for me to be an engineer or a number of other careers that were math-heavy, but I was never quite sure that it was what I really wanted to do until I graduated from college. The engineering curriculum and course-work was so heavy and demanding that there were times when I honestly thought, “Is this really what I want to do with my life?” But talking to a few key people and seeing the impacts of my potential major through social media—seeing how scientists in various fields were doing all these great things utilizing resources and theory—really pushed me to finish. Graduating and seeing first-hand the the real-world applicability to these classroom theories helped me get energized about engineering, math, and science. It’s easy to lose track of a goal when you’re down in the weeds. I think it’s important that we remind ourselves of our long-term goals.
Can you describe what your mentoring experience at the Emily K Center was like?
It was a Career Exploration Night. There were about 60 high school students in attendance from the Emily K Center eager to talk to local professionals about their career and how they managed to get where they are today. I’d say there were just over 20 different professionals representing different fields of expertise—from engineering to medicine to psychology. There were 3 different rotations where the students would come to our table, hear about our day-to-day activities and have the opportunity to ask questions. Kids were assigned to us based on what major or field they’d already started leaning towards for college, but kids were also freely able to go where they wanted after they saw the professionals available to talk with them. So we had 20 minutes to talk to each group and say “Hi, this is me, this is what I do, here are things that I do at work, here are things that I did to get here school-wise or within the community,” and then open the floor to questions. I was able to talk with 13 different students throughout the night, and they came ready with some great questions.
How engaged were the students?
There were two students in particular I remember talking to where I could just see their faces light up when I described what an environmental engineer has the capacity to do in the professional world. I answered their questions and felt like I helped them realize their potential and how they could truly make an impact on their community. If you have the skill set and the drive, you can accomplish more than you think is possible. Sometimes all it takes is one person to ignite a kid’s mind.
That’s awesome. One of our tag lines is “Igniting moments of discovery” actually. What was it in particular that drew you to that opportunity?
I feel like being a young professional, I have a lot to offer to people of that age group. It wasn’t that long ago that I was there in their shoes. I feel like it’s very important to have outreach that hits close to home because it can be a more empathetic mentorship versus a sympathetic one. People really respond to empathy. That’s why I think it’s really important to get friends and other people involved in initiatives like this.
One of the groups that we’re trying to target is girls, because they’re underrepresented in STEM. Does being a female STEM professional resonate at all with you and your experience?
In school it was a bit more prevalent that I was a woman in an underrepresented field. It was very obvious from the get-go that engineering was a very male-dominated field. Thankfully, my environmental engineering class actually had a more equivalent male to female ratio; however I can only remember having one female professor in my core classes. It was a little discouraging sometimes, especially since most of my friends in my class were males and they didn’t really understand the issue. It was difficult for me to see myself as an environmental professional when very few of the professionals I came into contact daily represented me. As far as the professional workplace, I’ve never felt underrepresented at work. I believe RTI is actually mostly female, and that was very surprising for me to learn. The environment at RTI has always been one of pushing for diversity and inclusion.
If you had to offer to a female mentee a piece of advice seeing a young woman who wanted to be an engineer or an environmental engineer, do you have a tidbit that you could give her?
I would say, find a group of people that you resonate with and stick with them. I feel like that was one of the key things for me—finding people who were supportive and nurturing of my career pathway and that could understand what I was going through. Having a support system made the difference. Also, it’s important to admit that you need help sometimes—this was one of my personal downfalls. I thought that needing help equated to weakness, but I later found out that those who ask for help learn so much more than those who don’t—and lead much richer lives because of it.
You also signed up for Science Olympiad. Can you explain more about that?
I’m working with two students at Dillard Drive Middle School. Their Science Olympiad specific topic is green solutions and green generation. We’re talking about a lot of different sustainability and environmental topics such as ocean dead zones, eutrophication, climate change, and population dynamics. I have to say I was extremely surprised at how intelligently the kids could talk about these topics already. I don’t remember being that interested in topics like climate change when I was in seventh grade!
So this opportunity seems to align with the type of STEM that you do because it’s environmental. Do you think in the future you would ever mentor in a different area like robotics?
When I was looking at the opportunities I actually saw the NC FIRST Robotics one and thought it looked cool but hesitated because I don’t have expertise in that field. When I thought about it more, I realized it could be a mentor opportunity not just for kids but also for myself. I could push myself out of my personal comfort zone and learn about a topic that I have an interest in with my students. I feel like that’s a more genuine experience because we’re learning and growing together.
What advice would you give to other STEM professionals interested in mentoring?
I would just say, “Give back.” We’re all part of the community of Research Triangle Park that’s working to bring together all of these diverse companies in the Park and the surrounding universities—it’s important to get involved to sustain these community dynamics. We’ve all been where these students are now, and I think we can all remember a time or two (or twenty) where it would have made a difference to have someone there to motivate and encourage us. These students may be our colleagues some day; let’s begin by introducing them to the community now.
How did you think US2020 is unique?
It’s very community-centered. It’s a national initiative but I feel like it was very important and smart that the initiative started by pinpointing large cities that have the capability to plant a seed and grow roots out into neighboring communities from there.
Nice, you even have a “STEM” metaphor in there.
Ooh, I like that.