By Mabel Malhotra
In her first ever engineering course at UW–Madison, Gaby Setyawan (‘23) and her peers were presented with a challenge. The class, InterEgr 170, tasks students with building a stool that compresses organic material to produce an alternative fuel source. The product targets a real-world client, making it necessary for students to consider the social, economic, and cultural context of the people who are going to use it. “Our client was in Kenya and we knew that they like to weave baskets, so it’s something they can multitask,” Setyawan explained. “While they weave baskets, they can create this fuel source.” To Setyawan, this holistic thinking is part of what makes a great engineer, and she has taken that skill with her throughout her undergraduate career.
Originally from Jakarta, Indonesia, Setyawan’s interest in engineering began in high school when she saw her older brother enter the field. That said, she’s always been curious about the way things work, according to her dad. He was influential in her path not because he had the answers to her questions, but because he encouraged her inquiry and gave her the resources to answer them herself. “He would give me MIT Technology review magazines… [and] take me to science museums when we visited new cities,” Setyawan said. “It sparked my curiosity on what was happening in the world and just how things work.”
Coming to UW–Madison brought about the opportunity for Setyawan to participate in hands-on projects, whether in class or outside of school. Switching her discipline from Biomedical Engineering to Electrical Engineering highlighted, to Setyawan, how important it is to have “the grit and willingness to learn new things” as an engineer. Beyond working as a Makerspace tech staff member specializing in 3D scanning and electronics, Setyawan has demonstrated a strong willingness to take on several extracurricular responsibilities.
In the fall of 2021, she was an undergraduate research assistant in a sustainable microgrid partnership lab, helping build circuits and “configure the internet of things.” She’s also a project manager for Solar Chapter, a student organization that designs solar powered water pumps for parts of Indonesia where clean water is inaccessible. The organization, created by Indonesian students abroad, has a few chapters across the United States who collaborate with the local government in Indonesia to execute their designs. Four pumps have been successfully installed since its inception.
For Setyawan, engineering is more than just innovation — it provides a problem-solving framework. “Engineers can see a complex problem and then break it down into simple parts,” Setyawan explained. She finds this mindset applicable outside of her engineering work too; “When I approach other problems, it’s like, oh, how can I make this simpler?”
The world of engineering today, in Setyawan’s eyes, is hyper-paced. Big tech companies churn out new innovation every year and, while Setyawan understands the benefits of this scale of production, she’s concerned engineers are losing sight of what is important. “I think we should not undermine that there are people in other parts of the world that still need basic needs like water or electricity,” she said. She emphasized the need for engineers to focus on the best ways to fulfill the basic needs of civilians. “There’s a tendency for people to consume more and to always think, ‘what’s next?’” Setyawan stated. “But sometimes they forget about the simple things they need in their life.”
This philosophy is reflected in Setyawan’s contributions to Solar Chapter, as well as the Electric Free Library Project — a collaboration between the Makerspace and the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps that allows people to charge their electronic devices while using clean energy for free. Among her many projects, Setyawan described her pride for this one in particular, citing the fulfillment she gets, “[seeing] how our project can help people who don’t have access to electricity in their homes.”
To Setyawan, a diverse set of cultural and field perspectives is essential to good engineering. “I think the importance of it is…so that we can see things in a bigger context,” she said. In the InterEgr 170 class, she noted that students were urged to learn about and consider the cultural differences between themselves and the client in Kenya. She also noted that, though they were all engineering-focused, her peers were diverse in their disciplines. The vast range of cultural and field perspectives helped her group produce an optimal stool customized to their client’s needs.
When asked for her advice to engineers just starting out, Setyawan said to “keep following your curiosity…go ahead and try to figure out things.” She also reassures: “It’s okay to not know things…be patient with yourself because you need time to learn and to grow.”