If engineering still seems like a male domain, you wouldn’t know it by talking to Amber Meeks. While she says she was “that one girl” growing up in Gaston, Oregon, with three brothers, she has plenty of female engineering peers at Oregon State. They run the gamut from chemical and biomedical to electrical and civil engineering. “They all have the same mindset of studying and moving forward in their work,” she adds. “I feel completely at home here.”
The first-year student in civil and construction engineering has already helped to design a water filtration device that took second place at a regional competition in Idaho. When not in class, she works in Oregon State professor David Hurwitz’s driving simulation lab. Among other things, she is helping to analyze traffic patterns at the intersection of Circle Ave. and Hwy. 99W, one of Corvallis’ most congested crossroads. And she is developing research skills through the OSU STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Leaders Program, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation.
This summer, she is looking forward to continuing her work on water filtration at Intel in Hillsboro, where she will work as a mechanical facilities intern. “I was really surprised, first by an invitation to interview and then when Intel’s Hiring Services called to offer me a position,” she says.
Burned Rice and Potato Peels
Safe to say, burning rice was not part of her plans either. Last winter, Meeks and other students in Oregon State’s American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter were preparing to participate in a regional competition at Idaho State University in Pocatello. Teams from across the Northwest were charged with designing and building a water filtration device without the standard ingredients: sand, gravel and activated carbon. Carbon is critical because it can absorb dissolved metals (copper, zinc, lead and so forth) and other pollutants.
So with guidance from Oregon State environmental engineer Tyler Radniecki, the OSU team got creative. They assembled materials — cotton balls and potato peels to remove clay particles in the water and recycled coffee grounds to counteract the alkalinity of the clay — and tested them in the lab. And they decided to make their own carbon by burning rice in an oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. “It smelled terrible,” Meeks says, wrinkling her nose.
In Radniecki’s lab, the students layered their materials like a club sandwich and tested prototypes by dousing them with water mixed with clay.
At the competition in Pocatello, the Oregon State team came in second behind a team from the Oregon Institute of Technology. Although water moved through the OSU device well, says Meeks, the filter didn’t reduce suspended particles and dissolved materials as much as the students hoped. Nevertheless, the team earned points for a well-designed poster and for following the competition rules to the letter.
Prepare To Be Challenged
Meeks’ interest in engineering stems partly from her mom, who studied the subject at the University of Colorado and suggested that Amber, who enjoys mathematics and architecture, might do the same. In high school, Meeks spent a day job shadowing City of Hillsboro engineers working on street maintenance and water system renovation. At Intel, where Meeks’ dad works as a gas technician, she met an industrial engineer, Myra McDonnell, who invited the student to meet other Intel engineers and to apply for a summer internship.
“I really look up to her (McDonnell),” says Meeks. “She keeps moving forward and helps everybody along the way. She’s someone who will always be there for you. When I got the internship, I asked her what I should be thinking about. She said, ‘Just be yourself. Be prepared to be challenged.’”
Meeks says she feels amazed by all that she has done in the last few months, but her experience is becoming a more common path for motivated students. At Intel, McDonnell created “The Amber Project” to link the children of Intel employees with internship opportunities. And at Oregon State, Meeks is one of 40 undergrads in the OSU STEM Leaders program, which provides peer mentoring, workshops and a research experience. The goal is to help students succeed and to increase diversity in STEM fields.
What does Meeks expect to do with her skills? She aims some day to develop more efficient and environmentally friendly transportation systems for Oregon. But in the mean time, she will have her hands full. “I never expected,” she says, “to have so many opportunities here.”
Research gives undergrads a boost, says Kevin Ahern, director of OSU’s undergraduate research program, in this interview.