Engineering grads hopeful for the right careers after graduating during the COVID-19 crisis

COLUMBIA, Mo. (June 12, 2020) – Two University of Missouri (MU) engineering students have graduated and are entering the world preparing to put their hard earned degrees to use. 

Finding his home in racing

Les Burke of Carbondale, Illinois, came to MU for a change of scenery. It was far enough away from home to learn how to be an adult but a manageable drive to visit his dad who had been sick. He came to MU to earn a BSME, Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) and minored in Aerospace Engineering. “Engineering is about inventing a problem then figuring out what the solution is and how to implement that solution,” he said.

During his freshman year, his “very first semester” his father passed away. He said he felt older. It took him longer to finish school than the average student since he took a year off after his father’s death. He now has a clear goal of wanting to eventually design space ships if he can. 

While at Mizzou his design skills focused on the Mizzou SAE (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers) Formula One racing team as the vice-president in the collegiate design series compiled by college students who design and race cars. 

The degree has been a lot more theory than he had expected, he said. He was hoping for a more hands on experience. He was able to get his hands dirty building, designing and learning about the concepts when he joined the racing team. It was an outlet for him to get the practical experience that he didn’t receive in the classroom. He was in charge of designing the car’s brakes. The safety of brakes could be a life and death experience, “more tangible than grades,” he said. 

While at MU he found his home when he joined Mizzou Racing. Their car took a year to build, welding it inhouse and then being able to drive it. “It was interesting and a super fun experience,” he said. The racing team members had become his mentors. As a team, they figured out solutions to any problems that arose, making sure it was working correctly. It was weeks away from being driven when Mizzou closed down due to the coronavirus. The team are all engineering students who “design hearts to function.” The project allowed them to think critically. He said he prefers the design side of engineering and it’s cool to test what they built from the design. 

The quarantine has affected his job searches a little, he said. Companies that he would like to work for have told him they have slowed down in hiring and don’t have the funding right now to hire. It’s been interesting, but he doesn’t feel like it has slowed down his options right now. 

Burke wants to eventually “do stuff with space” and work with aerospace companies who are on the edge of engineering. 

Second generation tiger

“It’s crazy, you don’t think it’s going to happen when you are in the middle of it,” Taylor Sass said about graduating. “Where did the time go? It’s still exciting.” To celebrate her graduation during the COVID-19 quarantine, she had a mock graduation with her friends. 

Mizzou was her first choice. Her dad graduated from the university with a Bachelor’s degree in economics (’95). “I had this feeling, it felt like home when I toured the campus and the people that I met and the support that I had,” she said. 

The Chicago native graduated in May with a Bachelor of Engineering in biomedical engineering. She said the degree focuses on developing ways to improve the health of people and animals through biology and medicine. This includes pharmaceuticals as well as creating prosthetics, pacemakers and other medical devices that are implanted. The field ranges from “biologics and biomaterials all the way to the mechanical side.”

During her time at Mizzou, her lab mentor, Heather Hunt, Ph.D., was the first person to take her out of her comfort zone. “You want your college experience to be hard,” Sass said. Hunt gave her the opportunities she was looking for. “She was there to help me with things that I needed to talk through. She is the type of person to tell you what you need to work on and how you can get there. She was an encourager. She is truly a mentor to help me get through things,” she said. 

Engineering is a challenge to Sass. She learned a broad range of information in her biology coursework. “The things that we were learning, they were up-to-date with what was going on in the real world. I felt like I was right there in front with everyone else who was learning the latest research and the new tools that were coming out, that’s pretty cool,” she said.  

Her favorite part of her education was learning about her emphasis in biomechanics, when she learned about orthopedics. She also earned a biomaterials engineering certificate.

Her opportunities have been significant during her time at Mizzou. She worked as a student assistant in the Engineering Leadership Academy, assisting with career fairs, collecting data analytics comparing progress from year to year, and providing great customer service to the students and faculty. “It was great to have the academy in the College of Engineering helping students. Having people that are engineering focused is a unique resource to have,” she said. 

As a sophomore, she was part of a biomaterials lab. “I learned a lot of great things,” she said. She and her lab partner did a poster presentation which was “terrifying and terribly uncomfortable” but it was a “great experience,” she said. 

She has also participated in a study abroad trip, spending a winter break in Peru where she learned the “importance of diversity and inclusivity as an engineer and a global leader,” she said.  Before the trip she took a class focusing on biases and differences in culture that included hard conversations. “It was great since I am always studying technical stuff. It was great to tour Peru. It was beautiful,” she said. They went to an island and stayed in the community, building a local restaurant to increase their visibility with tourists and help their economy. “It was incredible.” The experience taught her a lot about what is out there. It showed her different ways of engineering. “I would go back in a heartbeat,” she said. 

She is in the process of applying for a job as a clinical specialist. The quarantine has had a small effect. A couple of companies have cancelled their internships and have pushed back the hiring process. “The field’s already hard to get into. I am competing with a bunch of different people,” she said, including nurses. After she works for a few years she will decide which master’s degree program would be best for her to pursue. 

Her career goals are broad but she knows she wants to be somewhere helping people, working for a medical device company and helping patients understand the device they have. “My job is out there,” she said. She has to find what’s right for her. 

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