By Gabriela Esposito, Student Written Communications Assistant
In the field of Materials Science and Engineering, black women are highly underrepresented. When she graduates this Spring, University of Connecticut MSE undergraduate Brittany Nelson will stand for the less than 4% of black, Hispanic, and Native American women who are awarded a bachelor’s degree in engineering in the United States. She will also be the first generation of her family to earn a college degree.
As a young black woman in a field dominated by men, Nelson has found inspiration to work harder. “I see this as an opportunity for change. I would not be an MSE student without the support of those who invested in me academically, financially, emotionally, etc. I feel that it is my job to return the favor by setting an example and being a resource to those who are interested in pursuing MSE,” Nelson said.
The MSE senior has strived to do that since discovering her affinity for engineering in middle school. “In the 7th and 8thgrade, I attended UConn’s Pre-Engineering Program (PEP) and gained an interest in engineering,” she said. According to Nelson, it wasn’t until high school that she learned about MSE by attending UConn’s Explore Engineering (E2) Program. At the time, she was considering Chemical Engineering (CHEG) and Mechanical Engineering (ME). “MSE was not only fun, but it was a perfect combination of the two fields,” she stated.
Her positive experience with the UConn MSE department impacted her decision to study there. “I was specifically impressed by how informed and passionate the MSE faculty and students were about their work. In addition, I gravitated towards the wide range of lab equipment, the friendly atmosphere, and the numerous options of areas to focus on within the MSE program,” Nelson said.
Since deciding to join the UConn MSE program, Nelson has been mentored by Dr. Lesley Frame and she recently joined the Frame Research Group. Nelson enjoys the sense of community the group has. “All of the group members willingly provide support and advice to each other in any way possible.”
Whether it was her mentorship with Dr. Frame, sense of community, passion, ambition, or a combination of all of the above that motivated her, Nelson was able to pursue research as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar during the Summer of 2020. The McNair program prides itself in promoting talented UConn undergraduate students for doctoral studies in (STEM) disciplines, specifically for those from underrepresented populations in our fields, from under-resourced communities, or who are first-generation graduates in their families.
Nelson has also been honored as a Gates Millennium Scholar, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Scholar, Ronald E. McNair Fellow, and UConn Day of Pride Scholar.
The research that Nelson is currently conducting within the Frame Research group focuses on the effects of tempering processes on the mechanical properties of alloy steel. The results of this research will inform fundamental understanding of phase transformations and changes in strength due to tempering process parameters and will also have direct impacts on heat treatment in a wide range of industry applications.
“Brittany has really taken charge of this project. Even though we were operating remotely for much of last summer, Brittany was able to pick up the project, learn the fundamentals of steel tempering processes, and analyze a very large amount of data to discover new trends and materials behaviors. She is currently working on preparing a manuscript on this project for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. I have been so pleased to have Brittany as a member of our team!” Says Dr. Frame.
Though this project and her undergraduate career will end in May, Nelson’s career in MSE is really just beginning. She hopes to continue doing research and is strongly leaning towards graduate school. “It is a bittersweet feeling. Graduation is a huge accomplishment for me, especially as a first-generation college student with parents not born in the U.S. I am definitely going to miss the great people that I have met within the MSE department and the UConn campus,” she says.
Her future continuing research also holds the potential to continue inspiring young underrepresented girls who are interested in MSE. “To any female students interested in materials science and engineering, I would say go for it! Being an MSE student is extremely rewarding. You will learn so much about yourself and contribute to making a difference in the world of STEM,” she stated.