Pat Sheppard, ‘13
Hometown: Manchester, NH
Degree: BS, International Studies and Environmental Engineering
Why did you choose to attend WPI?
I chose WPI primarily for the academic curriculum. I love independent, self-directed work, and therefore WPI's project-oriented approach suited me perfectly. Also, the international experiences offered at WPI are more diverse and interesting than those offered at any other school I am aware of. As an International Studies major, this was appealing.
Present job title and employer:
I am currently working as an undergraduate research fellow in the Clark University HERO Program.
How do you feel your experiences at WPI prepared you for working in your field?
The program is run by Clark's geography department, so it is not directly related to my major. However, my studies at WPI helped prepare me well for the work I am doing. I am researching the Asian long-horned beetle (ALB) infestation in Massachusetts. Because the ALB is a federal, state, and local problem, it involves a multitude of different stakeholders across many different sectors. I, along with three other undergraduates, am studying how these stakeholders have responded and also how they have interacted. Our research will hopefully yield insights not only for managing the ALB but also for managing invasive species in general.
WPI has helped me in this work because, while here, I have been asked to complete many group projects. For example, during my junior year, I traveled to South Africa, where I worked to address social issues surrounding water and sanitation provision in urban slums. In South Africa, I learned how to better work in a group, to communicate my findings, and many valuable research methods. I have applied all these skills while working at Clark.
How has WPI’s philosophy of Theory and Practice, and working with teams, prepared you for facing real-world challenges?
As I noted earlier, because of WPI’s project-oriented curriculum, I learned valuable skills for working in a group: I learned how to communicate better, hold meetings, and organize tasks. However, I learned a number of other things as well.
First, I learned how to get things done. Prior to South Africa, I had been used to working for grades, not concrete outcomes. If I receive a bad grade on a test, I will be most acutely affected. In South Africa, however, this was not the case--the quality of my work and the decisions I made would have an impact on other people’s lives. Because of this, making a mistake terrified me. In the end, I learned to move past this fear, a lesson that will help me in the future.
WPI’s project program also taught me that many issues are far more complicated than they appear on the surface. For example, as an engineer, I have been immersed in technical courses and projects. Because of this, it is easy to start thinking that technology can solve all the world’s problems. However, because of WPI’s projects program, I learned that a technical solution is not always adequate.
In South Africa, I spent nearly all my time addressing the social issues surrounding water and sanitation provision. I also learned that many great technologies fail because those who implement them did not properly involve the community they were trying to help. Behavior is often harder to change than a toilet design. This lesson can be applied to many important global issues that scientists and engineers will face in the future.
Groups or extracurricular activities you participate in at WPI:
My freshman and sophomore years, I was heavily involved with Engineers Without Borders. I served as this club's fundraising coordinator and as its public relations coordinator. My sophomore through senior years, I participated in Students for a Just and Stable Future, an environmental club on campus. I served as its public relations coordinator and as its president.
In addition to these clubs, I have also written for the school paper, played intramurals, and played club soccer. Lastly, and most recently, I rock-climb in "the cave," WPI's indoor bouldering wall.
Additional comments you would like to include:
WPI is a unique school. It allows you to get out into the world and solve real problems. It makes learning tangible. Take the study abroad program, for example. At most schools, you would just take classes at an international university and, often, you would stay stuck in an American bubble. However, at WPI, you are out doing projects, working with locals, and experiencing different cultures in a way that is totally unique. In South Africa, I got to see a world completely different from the US. The poverty was extreme, and the problems were so real. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it is an opportunity that more than 50 percent of WPI students take advantage of in Project Centers all over the world.
For my Major Qualifying Project, I will be going to another one of these Project Centers, in Shanghai, China. I will be doing research in environmental engineering with professors and graduate students at a Chinese university. I do not know of many other schools where developing alternative sanitation systems in a South African slum and conducting international research at a Chinese university so easily fit in with an undergraduate curriculum.