This Community Makers interview is with Rebecca Alcock and discusses Imposter Syndrome, the importance of belonging, and how to create a more accessible environment in Engineering.
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The transcript is available below.
Hello everybody! This is the first episode of the Community Makers Initiative. This is a special one with Rebecca Alcock, a former Makerspace employee. The goal of the Community Makers Initiative is to engage in conversations with unique and creative individuals within the engineering community. To hear their experiences and hopefully give listeners inspiration, we hope to encourage these conversations so that our culture can be more inclusive. So with that, the first question we have for you – just tell a little bit about yourself, maybe your background, your interests, career endeavors, or anything along those lines.
I’m Rebecca and I’m from Decorah, IA, which is a small town in the northeast corner of the state and right after high school, I came to UW Madison for undergrad. And then I’ve been here since! I did my B.S. in biomedical engineering and then I did my M.S. in biomedical engineering as well. Now I’m a first-year Ph.D. student in Industrial and Systems Engineering.
My academic interests are looking at the intersection of global health and engineering. So how can we use our technical skills to increase global health equity? And then personal interests…I mean I love being on the lakes in Madison, ultimate Frisbee, canoe, camping, my dog. I just got a dog. She’s like my number one hobby right now,
That’s awesome. So during your time here, you’ve been pretty well involved in Engineers Without Borders, correct?
Yeah, definitely Engineers Without Borders.
What were the major project you worked on, or you know, what things might have you taken away from that?
I joined the club Engineers Without Borders in the Guatemala Group when I was a freshman and I got super involved right away. I ended up traveling to some of the communities after my first semester of school and I got really involved. When we came back, we started the design for some of our projects and I got involved in the design too, even though I was just learning everything. I dove right in.
And then throughout undergrad, I progressed in leadership roles in the organization and ended up being the project manager of the Guatemala Project for 1 1/2 years. That was for a big water project for the community of Zapote in Guatemala. I think we ended up serving about 600 people, just over 100 families, with a new water system. And that actually just wrapped up in September of 2020, so it was a long project and many hours.
But through Engineers Without Borders – that is definitely the motivation for a lot of my work now in global health. Growing up in rural Iowa, I didn’t have those experiences and I didn’t see the world in that way until joining that organization and being able to travel those communities. Engineers Without Borders has shaped a lot of my education and a lot of my experiences since then.
That’s awesome. Can we hear about your identity and how that’s affected your experience as an engineer? Do you think your identity has affected your goals and how you approach reaching your career endeavors and things like that within the engineering community?
I do think it has shaped my experience as an engineer and just in the field of engineering in general. There have been many times where I’ve been the only woman in the room or I was even the only woman in an entire class once. So it was a whole semester of just me being that voice [for women]. When you’re in those positions, it’s super easy to doubt yourself and to experience Impostor syndrome. You wonder if your ideas are being held at equal value. You wonder if your voice is even being heard. And it creates additional challenges for anyone already experiencing Impostor syndrome because you’re in engineering specifically. You’re already taking a taxing curriculum and doing a lot of hard mathematical work in your classes. When you’re fighting a sense of inadequacy on top of that, you wonder, like “do I even deserve to be here?”.
The more women we can get and the more people of color and the other minority groups that we can get to be represented in engineering the better. The field will only benefit from being more diverse.
Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re aiming to achieve with this Community Makers Initiative. With this type of challenge that you faced or maybe any other challenges you faced with internships, jobs, or school in general – is there anything that you’ve done to go head-on at them or face them?
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think Impostor syndrome really ever goes away. I think even the most self-aware and the most confident people still have this lingering feeling of “do I belong?”. So maybe one day when we do achieve equal representation in STEM or in engineering for women and people of color, maybe then it won’t be as easy to succumb to Impostor syndrome.
But there are things that I do to combat, some of these challenges and this lack of representation, and I think the most important thing you can do, first, is to find a community where you do have a sense of belonging. For me, that was Engineers Without Borders and then in grad school the Makerspace. It was through those communities that I found people with similar interests. I found people going through the same things as me.
Engineers Without Borders actually has a lot of women engineering students who are involved, so I was able to find that sense of belonging in those groups. Once you get it there, it kind of paves the way to the rest of your engineering experience. You’ve got that home base, so it helps propel you through the rest of it and the other hard times. And you can kind of lean on those people when you need to.
So, I would say one is to find that sense of belonging, and then two is to do what you can to encourage other women or young girls to come and try engineering or make this space friendlier and more accessible to those groups. I know a lot of women are interested in global health or in the application of engineering to global health, and so I created a student organization to help bring that community together.
Another example, I, with the help of Lennon and the Makerspace, lead a 170 group where our first-year engineers were going to do projects with clients in rural Kenya. You have to apply as a high schooler to be in the groups, and it’s called a first-year interest group. So, through creating that group, 13 out of my 17 students were women in engineering. So even though you’re [in engineering], what can you do to make the space more enticing and more welcoming to those that follow?
It’s an inspirational thing for the freshman to know [when] they come in. I think that’s something really important that the Makerspace and the 170 classes seek to foster. Define your space, find the people you’re close with, and go from there. Do you want to shamelessly plug the club that you made?
It’s called the Global Health Innovation Club, and it was just something that I felt was missing in the College of Engineering campus. We have the amazing Global Health Institute on campus, there wasn’t a connection between the two for students. I felt like [the connection] could be strengthened basically. We have monthly seminars, or even more frequently than that this semester, but seminars highlighting researchers or practitioners who are doing innovation of any kind in global health. And then we also try to have some educational workshops.
We’ll be having one actually next week on how to be inclusive with science communication and what just doing science communication in English means for indigenous communities or whoever it may be. We try to be inclusive with those things and then also host social events.
Where can a student, find information about your club to potentially join or attend one of these sessions. I imagine they’re virtual.
Yeah, they are virtual. They can find us on the WIN website or they can follow us on Instagram so.
Thank you! The next thing you want to dive into is, is there anything that you’ve learned throughout your life that’s helped you get through a difficult patch? Obviously getting your master’s and now your Ph.D., I’m sure you have had very rough weeks with the classes and your personal life all that coming together and getting really overwhelming. Is there any experience specifically that helped you?
I would say it’s just a mindset that I try to maintain when it feels like everything is piling on you in one week. For example, if you have midterms and lots of homework and stuff in your personal life, whatever it is, I always just try to remind myself, and not always with success, of two things. The first one is remembering that one thing doesn’t define me. If it’s my GPA or if it’s a grade on a midterm or the grade in a class –– one thing hardly defines you. It hardly contributes to who you are. You are actually 1,000,000 tiny things that make you who you are.
The second thing is remembering what the bigger picture is and putting things in perspective. If it is, again, a hard week with midterms and classes. What’s the bigger picture here? I’m getting my Ph.D. so that I can apply engineering to global health, so I can work on global health systems and this one midterm in this one class isn’t going to matter in the long run. All I try to do is just maintain that mindset and like I said, not always with success.
I think it’s really good advice and I’ve heard similar advice before. You have to look big picture and as long as your trajectory is going towards your goal –– you might turn left, it might go right –– but as long as you’re going towards that goal, that’s what matters. We kind of addressed the advice that you’d give to someone, but do you think there’s something or someone specifically that you always come back to you, that’s kind of influenced your life. I know you talked about global health and Engineers Without Borders, but is there maybe someone or something besides that, that’s kind of guided you through everything?
Yeah, I would say that having mentors is the biggest thing that you can do. I think that in my personal experience, Lennon has been an amazing mentor to me and really helped me. When I first came to grad school, I wasn’t even sure 100% what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know what I’m doing now existed and Lennon really helped me formulate what it is that I want, and he asked me the tough questions like “what do you want to actually do?”.
That really was the launching pad for finding subsequent mentors that have continued to champion me. In my master’s for example, Dr. Kevin Eliceiri at the mortgage Fab Lab was another mentor in addition to Lennon, that really believed in me and was a champion. He really tried to set me up for success and he did set me up for success. He wanted to make sure I attended conferences and networked with the right people and he even helped with a trip to Kenya. Then my current Ph.D. advisor Dr. Justin Boutilier has been an amazing mentor. It’s really about finding these champions that you trust and that your goals align. That doesn’t mean perfectly, but kind of on the same trajectory.
It’s interesting because it can be hard to find a mentor and I would say that like a personal mentor, I didn’t really find one until I started Graduate School. Another thing is you have to advocate for yourself so that you can find these mentors. It’s not going to happen out of nowhere. You have to advocate for yourself and network and then also be willing to be a mentor to people who are younger than you. Through 170, these first-year engineering students might not be able to get a personal mentor who’s a faculty member, who’s doing a lot of, but I hope that I was able to be a mentor to them during those formative years of their engineering career so that they could go find bigger and better things and new mentors afterward.
Yeah, I think mentors are super important. I’m in the Business School myself, so obviously networking, networking, networking is what we talk about. You mentioned it can be kind of intimidating because you hear people have these mentors and they say “oh, if it weren’t for this mentor, I wouldn’t have found this or that”, so we can kind of be intimidating. Do you think there’s a good approach to finding a mentor, because I know students might have a professor they resonate with, but how do you take these loose connections and make it into something that’s a little deeper.
I that’s a great point because I think it’s so hard to connect to a mentor and I think it starts with getting really involved in one thing. This was some of the advice I gave my 170 students – it’s really easy and enticing to be a little bit involved in a lot of things and not fully dive into something. You can just attend a club meeting, which is great if it’s something that you’re interested in. But in order to form the types of relationships that you need to have a productive mentorship, you really need to dive into something like EWB.
For example, I dove in right away as a freshman. I got really involved with that one club and I wasn’t involved in any other clubs. I know there are other amazing clubs that I wish I could have done in addition, but I didn’t have the time to fully dedicate myself to more than one thing. Once you’re in that one thing and you’re really working on it and you’re diving deeper and deeper, you form stronger and stronger relationships with those professors or professionals. In the case of EWB, we’ve got local engineering professionals who are mentors that you become close with. But if you are just approaching somebody from, you know, sitting in their lecture in class, there’s a good chance they don’t know who you are.
Like I said, pick one thing outside of your classes and really dive into that one thing. You can really show your experience in one area and one organization, internship, or Co-op. Whatever it is, I think the better off you’ll be.
Yeah, I like that you mentioned vulnerability as you mentioned with EWB. You went in there and you were still learning like the mathematical equations and this and that, but you have to be willing to be vulnerable and go into these situations and express that you want to learn so you can learn from your fellow students from mentors. But I think a big part of it too, is probably just being vulnerable and willing to make mistakes too.
That’s a great point. It’s almost like I was so naive as a Freshman that I was like unafraid to try to be in a civil engineering organization even though I was a BME student and that’s not necessarily a natural fit. But I was willing to put in a lot of hours and a lot of time getting it wrong 100 times before ever even getting close to getting it right, so I think that’s a beautiful point. Being vulnerable is so hard, but the payoff can be huge.
Yeah, thank you for that. Next, obviously something we’ve been dealing with more or less for a year now, the pandemic. It’s really easy in the pandemic to get caught in a routine of you wake up, you turn on your laptop, you sit on your screen all day. Then you’re like “oh I’d love to do this” or go public, but it’s probably not the best decision for health reasons. So how have you been able to keep yourself motivated working towards your goals? Whether their personal, professional, school-related – how have you continued growing to be the person that you strive to be?
Well, I’ll start by saying I don’t always stay motivated. It can be really hard to be motivated. And this goes without saying, we’re obviously in unprecedented times. So I think first and foremost it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re not invincible, that we deserve grace and time off. But it’s harder when you’re at home to take time off and separate your work life from your personal life, and that border can be really important, especially right now. I don’t always succeed at staying motivated and I try to give myself time off. So I guess a tactic is like taking time to relax and rejuvenate yourself. But I think some of the other things that I am doing – I tried to make my work from home space as enticing as possible. I wanted it to feel cozy and comfortable. At the start of the pandemic I was working on a card table that had a soft patch on top, it was the wrong height, and everything about it was so uncomfortable. But in my head, I was like “I’m going to be doing this for like 2 weeks” but nope! Over the months I’ve invested in things that make working from home a much better experience. I think the more you can set your environment up to Foster a healthy work-life, the better you’ll be.
For example, I got a standing converting desk that I can stand up to. That was my big splurge for me. And then the second thing to keep pursuing my personal or professional goals, I think it’s important to take advantage of the virtual environment and other virtual worlds. Before the pandemic, we knew how small the world was and we’ve just seen it shrink since the pandemic started. You can talk to anybody anywhere in the world, and so something that I’m doing is I was able to be connected with a Spanish teacher who lives in Bolivia, and we connect twice a week on Zoom to keep practicing my Spanish. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and with everything being virtual now, it makes perfect sense to call somebody in Bolivia to practice my Spanish 2 hours a week.
Before I would be like “a Zoom call? Nobody does that” thinking I need an in-person instructor or something. So, I think making your workspace cozy and then taking advantage of the virtual environment and how small the world has become.
I totally agree with how small the world has become. I notice too with like clubs and events, in the past, you’d think “I’m all the way at my apartment and have to be on this end of campus” and then you had to get all the way there and back to my apartment for my other meeting. But now you have the ability to go into a bunch of different meetings and call up a friend on FaceTime. It’s really easy to make connections with people. I found probably more than ever, I feel more connected with people that I probably didn’t connect with when I had face-to-face connections. It’s a really interesting change, but I kind of welcome it and I want to keep it up post-pandemic as well.
It’s kind of this paradox. We’re not seeing anybody, but we’re being more connected. I think another thing the Global Health Innovation Club sees is that we’re taking advantage of seminars and speakers right now. For example, we’re having somebody from Copenhagen give us a seminar. We’re having some people from California and all over the place, which would not have happened in the past. We wouldn’t have been able to hear from those people before, so, take advantage of those things if you’re on campus.
Great! This next question might be a little bit more difficult. When you look at your life – all your work endeavors and everything you strive to be – what do you hope will be the legacy you leave? Whether it’s on the Madison community, the engineering community?
I think that on the personal side, I hope my legacy is that I made people feel good when I met them or when I talked to them. I want people to never leave a conversation with me or interact with me feeling worse. I hope they feel better or at minimum feel the same. It’s like having good relationships with people I guess is my personal one and then from a professional standpoint…I think a lot of people envision a very comfortable retirement on a beach in Florida at end of their life, super cool and casual. But that’s not really what I want. I want my legacy to be that I put it all out there and that I put all of my time and resources and skills and everything out into the world. I used those things to make the world a little bit more equitable. I don’t necessarily picture the Florida retirement, but want my legacy to be that I really used all the resources at my disposal to make the world a little bit better.
That’s great too, and I think it’s good to remember that you kind of mentioned before this big picture that you might stray in different directions, but as long as you’re progressing as a person and growing and making small connections with someone on the street or at a bus stop is most important. You said you have goals but those might change. We don’t know. Everything is always changing. Pandemics happened and you obviously make it work.
I was saying earlier it’s not one thing that defines us. It’s the 1,000,000 tiny things that make us who we are. So I feel for the legacy question too, I want those million tiny things to be as good as possible versus like setting myself up to do one big thing.
I think that’s great. The last question we have, do you have any advice that you would give to young creative adults? Whether they’re engineers or anyone else that maybe would utilize the Makerspace or be on campus?
The two things that I think I will share are things that I didn’t learn in undergrad, but these are things that I came to learn in grad school that I wish I had known. The first thing is to say yes to as many things as you can while still being able to dive in. An example is picking one thing and getting really involved in it, but then say yes to like all the opportunities that come your way in that one thing.
So if it’s going on a field trip to some engineering firm, say yes. If it’s applying to this scholarship, but you think your chances are not good, say yes and do it anyway. You’ll be able to reflect a lot on yourself when you’re writing a scholarship application about your goals. Even if you try and say yes to a lot of things and they don’t turn out and you fail, whatever. There are still all of these gains you made in the pursuit of whatever that was.
So say yes to as many things as you can. This is actually advice one of my mentors gives and it’s that you can’t make a career mistake or a life mistake until you’re like 35 or 40. Even if you hate your job, it’s not a mistake. You found out that you hate that thing that you’re doing so, and that’s valuable information, just as valuable as finding something you like doing. Say yes to things that you aren’t even sure about. You don’t even know if you want to do it, or if you like it because you can’t make a mistake. Especially in these formative years. Then the second thing is to slow down, and that’s like something I really, really did not do.
That’s a difficult one, yeah?
I did my undergrad as fast as I could. I took so many classes every single semester because that’s what everybody is doing. It costs money to go to school and there are so many reasons [to go fast].
Including pressures from like the community. I notice that in Business School, everyone’s getting jobs post-grad and I don’t have mine yet. There are all these societal pressures and you just feel overwhelmed.
It’s hard to get out of that cycle. I can like even picture myself as an undergraduate student and I wouldn’t even take my own advice. There’s no way I would have listened to this. But I wish I could stress the importance of it even more because once you slow down and once you have more time for your classes, you’re going to learn more, you’re going to appreciate more, and you’ll also have time for all the things outside of engineering that make you who you are like. If you’re just busy, busy, busy, and rushing through these years of your life, you’re going to miss the chances to make the memories that go along with it. You’re just getting through it, getting through it. To me, that doesn’t seem like enough and that’s what I did. As I said, I didn’t figure it out until grad school, but now I take way fewer credits than I ever did in undergrad. And I really learn the material because I want to learn the material and fortunately in grad school, it’s all topics that you’re interested in.
As much as you can, slow down. Take the time to really learn and really appreciate opportunities. Because once you’re not a student anymore, you lose a lot of opportunities. There are a lot of perks of being a student like you’ll never be in a student organization again or utilize the scholarships to study abroad or to take Spanish classes at the University. All those things come to an end, so you really want to take advantage of those resources you have while you’re there and then be doing them like with enough mental bandwidth to really appreciate them and get what you want out of them.
I think that’s great. Obviously, hindsight Hindsight’s always 2020, so it’s probably hard to look back, but it’s good that you’ve reached that point and again that you can pass it on to people that you connect with.
Yeah, I hope so!