Q&A with She is ME founder

CSE student Rachel Anderson receives leadership award for building community

November 26, 2018

From the moment Rachel Anderson stepped foot on campus, she knew that she wanted to have an impact on the University. After recognizing that there was no strong community for women in mechanical engineering, she took the initiative to create one.

Through She is ME, a student group Anderson helped start in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, women students have found their voice in a male-dominated industry.

The Women’s Center and the Office of the Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity recently named Anderson as the recipient of the 2018 Sharon L. Doherty Student Leadership Award. The award is given to a University of Minnesota student who has demonstrated outstanding volunteer service concerning women’s issues on campus or in the broader community.

Anderson, a mechanical engineering senior from Viroqua, Wisc., plans to graduate with a master’s degree in May 2020. In this Q&A, she shares how she’s made a difference within the community, what problems she hopes to solve in the future, and important advice for girls interested in STEM.

The Sharon L. Doherty Student Leadership Award honors change makers in our community. How do you feel you've been a change maker?

I’ve been a change maker because I realized that there was a lack of community for women in the Department of Mechanical Engineering to feel supported and accepted. It’s difficult being one of only about 83 women in the department compared to more than 400 males. That’s only about 17 percent women! Last fall, I co-founded the first women’s group for mechanical engineering students called She is ME. Through that group, I can honestly say that we have built a stronger community for women in mechanical engineering. I have met more women from this group than I have met in the three years prior to founding it. She is ME hosts events on numerous topics, such as mental health, career building, and technical workshops.

The biggest change I’ve seen occur is that we’ve ignited a discussion with faculty and others that women are equal in the mechanical engineering department.

Why is this type of work important to you?

I want to see a world where science and research are not impeded by a lack of confidence in a certain gender. We need all of our top innovators and scientists working together to solve the world’s problems. Women can see engineering in a different way than men, and we need to embrace those differences. I want to be confident going into an industry that my ideas will be supported as much as my male peers. I want that for every woman in STEM.

What sparked your interest in engineering?

As a child growing up, I did not have a strong idea of what engineering even was. I knew it involved math, creativity, and solving problems, which checked off every box in my search for a career. I knew I really wanted to help people, and engineering allows me to do that.

What problems do you hope to solve in the future? Why? How do you plan to achieve that goal?

Two summers ago, I had the privilege of working with Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge. That experience exposed me to the problem of food security and many others. Ever since participating in the challenge, I can’t get my mind off wanting to fix the global food crisis, especially in urban populations. I’m very interested in urban farming, and I’d like to see if I can use engineering to bring in food to urban populations. I’d also like to reduce our human footprint through water management, recycling, and biodegradable packaging. On top of all that, I have an interest in robotics for human rehabilitation. I work in the Human Machine Design Lab with Mechanical Engineering Professor Will Durfee, and it’s really inspired me to use my design skills to create a device that’s going to give people their lives back.

I want to design something to give people the ability to walk again or hold things, but also make it in a beautiful way to fuel confidence. 

You’ve received a few other scholarships during your time at the U. What impact have these scholarships had on your undergraduate degree?

The scholarships I have received have been instrumental in funding my college tuition. I am the oldest of four kids, and I was expected to fund my own education. These scholarships have helped fund nearly 100 percent of my tuition during the past two years of my undergraduate degree. Not only that, but I have made a few connections that I cherish through these scholarships. In particular, I have connected with funders from one of my scholarships, Rob and Barb Schaller, on multiple occasions. We have been able to share stories over lunch, and they are both people I admire who support my work wholeheartedly. I am also very grateful for my other scholarships, which include the Gayle W. McElrath Memorial Scholarship, Johnson Brothers Scholarship, George and Margaret Jarvis Scholarship, and the Alfred F. Johnson Scholarship.

What has been your best learning experience while at the University of Minnesota?

My biggest learning experience is definitely starting a student group. I learned how to start something from nothing and coordinate with faculty. Another learning experience I had in the Human Machine Design Lab was coordinating a clinical trial for a device in its last stage. The device was a hydraulic-powered ankle-foot orthosis (HAFO). It’s a really cool device!

What advice do you have for young girls interested in STEM?

Most importantly, I’d tell young girls to know your worth. You and your ideas are worth it. If you do begin to doubt yourself, find a female mentor who can show you how to believe in yourself. Secondly, never be afraid to take the lead. Not everyone feels as confident to be in charge, but it’s really important to try and find an opportunity in your undergraduate career to be a leader. It’s an empowering feeling. Lastly, be confident in yourself. I have Alopecia (an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss), and it’s taken me a long time to accept it and embrace myself.

We all have our differences. To anybody out there who may read this article, embrace who you are.

Story by Sabrina Cynova, student

If you’d like to support students within the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website.