McNamara Has Earned a Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering with a Minor in Computer Science

Activities at UVA: Undergraduate liaison to the graduate student board of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; founding chair and president of the Material Advantage chapter at UVA; engineering sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon

Q: Looking back to the time when you applied to UVA Engineering, why did you choose this school? 

A:  I was a bright kid in Virginia, and so I knew for a long time that I would be following in my four oldest siblings' footsteps to attend UVA. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

I chose engineering for many reasons, the most noble being that engineering values collaboration over competition. Instead of being pitted against my peers, I wanted to be able to work with them to solve real issues. Although, having a community college transcript full of engineering coursework might have also tipped the scales!

After your time here, how are you different now – how have you grown as a person?

I have grown immeasurably. I was the salutatorian of my high school class. My entire speech at graduation was about remaining open to growth, because you never know where it’s going to hit you. I’ve tried to keep that mindset going as I’ve been in school.

I have a much better understanding of myself and have learned so much about how to learn. I feel that I have become more in every sense of the word. More intelligent, more discerning, more kind, more resilient, more composed, more curious. I came to UVA as a child and am leaving a young adult. I am much more confident in who I am, I’m a much nicer person, I’m so much more equipped to handle life.

What was your favorite or most memorable educational experience at UVA Engineering, and why? Was there someone who helped you along your journey?

One thing that really stands out to me is one of our group lab meetings. It was on Zoom because of COVID. The group meeting was being led by a grad student who was having trouble making sense of her results. She later sent a message to the group chat apologizing for not being prepared. One of the more senior graduate students consoled her, saying, “Sometimes the science is big and that’s okay.” And something about that phrase has stuck with me through the highs and lows of my own research, classes and my work as a teaching assistant. It has been immortalized in a small painting on my wall. I feel it is less about knowledge and more about resiliency and showing compassion.

I have been working with (professor of materials science and engineering) Beth Opila since my second year. One of the coolest things I’ve done was the Double Hoo project with Rachel Guarriello, where I taught myself machine learning to make a predictive model to analyze a thermally grown oxide. I developed an algorithm to automatically segment micrographs based on color. It wasn’t the most successful project because I overfitted my algorithm, but I learned so much in that experience. I’m earning a minor in computer science, so it was really cool to be able to pull those skills in. And it was easy to adapt our research to COVID-imposed closures because the algorithm development could be done online.

Then I started in the reinventing cement lab, a joint project with professor Andres Clarens in civil engineering. I worked there full time during the summer and I’ve been working there during the school year as well and doing my senior capstone project in the lab. The entire reinventing cement project looks at creating a new class of calcium silicate-based cements that have the potential to be stronger, longer-lasting and more durable than conventional cement mixes.

What’s next for you? 

I will be staying here at UVA as a Ph.D. student. I will be joining (assistant professor of materials science and engineering) Ji Ma’s additive manufacturing group, looking at energy materials. I joined this lab because sustainability is so important to me. I’ve grown up with the climate crisis as a constant reality and lived through all of these headlines, which is really daunting as a young adult. But I want to be part of the solution. That’s why I’m here in engineering. Sustainability and promoting more balance with how we interact with our environment is going to be really important. I was really excited when I spoke to professor Ma about his work. It’s cool to marry my interest in research with my interest in sustainability, to know my research is going to do something good in the world.

What positive impact do you hope to make in the future? Is there a big societal challenge you’d like to help solve?

I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. I hope to have two avenues of impact:  I want to research sustainable solutions to everyday problems such as energy conversion and storage, and be a professor and teach young engineers.

TAing through COVID and living through COVID as a college student has really opened my eyes to the fact that we need a lot more compassion in teaching. We need to teach with care. A lot of the professors are much more into the research than the teaching. I really want to be a teacher, to make good engineers who are there to solve problems.

How has UVA Engineering prepared you for your future, for following your dreams or personal mission?

UVA Engineering has made me into a researcher, which I thought would be an impossible task. I have learned not only the fundamental science and engineering principles, but I have learned about the pressing need for real, immediate changes in sustainability. I have learned the importance of doing, and the pain of writing about what you did.

Additionally, I have had the absolute pleasure of TAing computer science 1112, a special offering of introduction to programming for six semesters. We do paired programming. There’s a TA at the lectern typing notes and annotating them, typing up examples as the class codes while the professor talks through the logic behind the programs.  I have served as the head "board" TA for the past two semesters. This semester, I have had the opportunity to take on more of an instructor role because professor Jim Cohoon is on sabbatical. I have seen how to plan a lecture and write exams. There’s nothing comparable to watching someone understand. I fell in love with that eureka moment. TAing absolutely changed the course of my life.

I came into UVA Engineering with no idea where I would end up, and I am "leaving" not only with real, concrete goals but experience and knowledge that I am pursuing a path that will be fulfilling.

What advice would you give to engineering students who are just starting out?

I TA a first-year class so I have so much advice.

Don't take yourself too seriously, everyone is scared too.

You have control over your time and your schedule. You will only be in lecture for 150 minutes a week in many classes. You have to do the homework to grasp the materials.

Someone has to make the group chat for the class, it might as well be you.

Take good notes the first time, but don't copy the slides, as they are probably posted. Focus on what the professor says that isn't on the slides.

If you can take 12 credit semesters, do it. I would not have been able to succeed as a researcher and TA with a larger course load.

Organize your schedule.

Read CourseForum, and find friends in your major/classes if you can.

Don't be afraid to switch your schedule around during the first few weeks of classes.

GO TO OFFICE HOURS! If you're really loving a class, swing by office hours to chat to the professor.

Get some sleep. Professors are generally understanding, and you need to be your number one priority.

Be nice to your Professors and TAs; you never know where you'll see them again.

Don't be afraid of CAPS (UVA Counseling and Psychological Services); they are there to help.

You're in college for YOU so make the most of it. Take classes that interest you. Choose a major/minor that interests you. Do clubs that interest you. it's going to be a lot easier to get through these four or so years if you're doing something that you love. Never be afraid to leave a situation that is not benefitting you. Trust your gut.

Set aside at least an hour each day for you, where you can stop being a student and just be a person.

Finally, and most importantly, take MSE 2090 for your math/science elective.

Class of 2022: Rachel McNamara

Rachel McNamara has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in materials science and engineering with a minor in computer science.