Student Sketches: Sarah Cote

  • Sarah Cote knows a lot more about potholes and parrots than she did before enrolling at WPI.
November 25, 2013

The Raynham, Mass., native chose to attend WPI, in part, for the chance to travel for educational purposes and broaden her horizons. She has not been disappointed.

Her IQP took her to a wildlife sanctuary in New Zealand working with kakas, a threatened species of parrots native to the country. Though the location and subject don’t relate to her civil engineering major, she says that the experience was “more about communication than hard science. That was an education in itself.”

“I feel prepared to work very well with a team, or with non-engineers who have a problem to solve that might require engineering,” she says.

Cote was part of a team of students that worked with the sanctuary staff and residents who live nearby to broker a peace of sorts concerning the parrot population. Sanctuary staff encouraged the birds to fly beyond the sanctuary borders to repopulate the area. But when the birds spread the wings to neighboring land, they often fell victims to residents’ pet cats, particularly since they nest on the ground. Others were vulnerable to malnutrition because well-intentioned neighbors were feeding the birds with unhealthy treats.

The solution, Cote recognized, was to “increase outreach and education” between the two sides. The team hosted presentations on the needs and behavior of the birds and encouraged community members to attend.

They sought common solutions, such as encouraging residents to keep their cats inside—or outside only under supervision. She hopes that the future will be better for the parrots by working closely with both sides.

“It’s up to them to make educated decisions,” she says.

“I feel prepared to work very well with a team, or with non-engineers who have a problem to solve that might require engineering,” she says. Listening to people’s concerns and clearly explaining potential solutions have great value, even among scientists. “You can’t replace that with numbers and equations.”

During her years at WPI, she also learned something about the bane of springtime driving in New England: potholes.

The location of this project was far less glamorous than New Zealand: She helped a grad student with research at the pavement lab on campus.

The state of Maine sponsored the project to try to reduce the number of potholes in that state’s roads. The young researchers considered such factors as the time of day and temperature of the air in an effort to reduce the risk of potholes.

The research involved testing pieces of roadway to determine at what strength they will break, and then adding and subtracting materials to see the impact on the pavement.

Low temperatures can worsen potholes, because water expands when it freezes and stresses already cracked pavement. So no cracks means no water can enter the pavement, which means no potholes, Cote learned.

The project, of course, did not eliminate potholes in Maine. But research, she learned, can take steps, however small, to improving a situation. By tackling a portion of the problem, the door is open to future advances. “It’s all really collaborative,” she says.

The research reinforced the importance of taking situations a day at a time. This lesson helps students juggle academics and social involvement.

She says WPI “drills’’ into students the importance of time management. “You have to pick and choose what you want to do,” she said. “Lots of kids here, when they pick something they want to do, they put everything they have into it.”

By Sandy Quadros Bowles, photos by Louie Despres