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Engineers Without Borders, undergraduate research experiences pave career path for CEE students

2/15/2013 4:31:00 PM

One of the trademarks of Engineering at Illinois is its ability to involve many of its students in undergraduate research. The opportunities for significant research projects and applying knowledge from the classroom to help solve real world problems is often the results of involvement in activities like Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

EWB is an international nonprofit organization committed to advancing the quality of life in impoverished countries via socioeconomically and ecologically sustainable engineering projects. Engineering students in the United States conduct many of those projects.

Illinois seniors Jill McClary and Elena Antonakos have both been named to the Knights of St. Patrick in addition to their involvement in Engineers Without Borders
Illinois seniors Jill McClary and Elena Antonakos have both been named to the Knights of St. Patrick in addition to their involvement in Engineers Without Borders

Two of civil and environmental engineering’s brightest students, Elena Antonakos and Jill McClary, have relished these opportunities, feeding their passions to help those less fortunate and make a difference in society.

McClary has just completed her term as president of the Illinois chapter of EWB, helping facilitate the on-going efforts of the chapter’s three primary projects and looking ahead to what the future holds. After completing her bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering this spring, she will begin graduate school in the fall and pursue a PhD in environmental engineering focusing on water disinfectant research.

Antonakos, meanwhile, has played a major part in one of EWB’s initiatives, the Guatemala Water Project. She will take her skills to ExxonMobil Corporation in Houston, where she’ll be working with other countries to make sure they’re following environmental regulations and that their practices are environmentally sound.

“What’s exciting is that the work I’ll be doing will actually get implemented,” Antonakos said.

All of which wouldn’t be possible without the extra experiences gained through involvement in EWB and in working under two of the College of Engineering’s finest in research.

A native of Glenview, Ill., and the daughter of two dentists, Antonakos considered a career in medicine, but was introduced to the idea of engineering as a member of her high school’s Science Olympiad team, which competed at the state finals on the Illinois campus.

“I really love math, science, building and creating,” Antonakos said. “I was drawn to civil engineering and more specifically environmental engineering because it touches my passions of improving conditions for people around the world, specifically the quality of drinking water.”

Antonakos has taken advantage of opportunities within the College such as researching under professor Helen Nguyen, who also serves as an advisor for the EWB Guatemala Project, and serving on Engineering Council, as secretary/treasurer, the awards director and Expo co-director over the past three years.

Although McClary’s role in EWB has been more on the administrative side, McClary spent the spring of 2011 studying in Ecuador and admiring organizations like “A Roof for My Country, ” akin to Habitat for Humanity.

“Seeing this local organization doing this fantastic work in Latin America was worthwhile,” McClary said. “It cemented the importance of the local partners that we do have, not just their value, but also their desire to see this happen for their own communities.”

Active in Tau Beta Pi (the Engineering Honor Society) and Engineering Student Alumni Ambassadors, McClary connected with professor Benito J. Mariñas for undergraduate research. “That, she says, “has entirely changed what I’m doing after graduation.”

Engineers Without Borders has grown on campus since its inception less than a decade ago. It currently has active projects in Adu Achi, Nigeria; Nitisaw, Cameroon; and Socorro, Guatemala. All three involve bringing sustainable, healthy water to communities there. The EWB chapter is currently looking at its capacity to take on another program in another community.

“The interest on this campus for these types of projects is fairly astounding,” said McClary. “We fill two different meetings at the start of fall semester with upwards to 200-300 students who are interested. Hopefully we’ll be able to apply (for another project), be accepted and launch it during the fall,” McClary said. “I’d love to see an electricity project, but they’re hard to come by.”

While each group makes on-site trips about 1-2 times per years, there are plenty of ways for all students to become involved almost immediately, by making Skype calls once a week to the community, helping on committees for events, and serving on the executive board. McClary, for example, worked with sponsorship partners as a freshman, organized health and safety documents for the Cameroon project as a sophomore, helped plan a regional workshop conference in the fall of 2011 and served as the chapter’s president during 2012.

“Water projects attract civil, environmental and agricultural engineers, but we have involvement from other areas,” McClary said. “It becomes less of a representation about what you’re learning in your classes and more of an opportunity to learn something new. It applies general problem solving.  Regardless of your major as an undergraduate, there is so much you can learn. Some of it becomes technical and it really helps to have those mentors or graduate students around you who have that expertise. But the rest of it is a lot of practical knowledge and learning how to apply the basic principles you’re learning in those general statics and mechanics and fluid dynamics classes and attributing them to these water systems.”

One of the initiatives during McClary’s term as president was to create more cohesive inner-chapter relationships.

“We’ve been able to communicate with people even outside engineering,” McClary said. “That helps the cultural, political, and business aspects or our projects and is starting to show in the connections we make on campus, the types of students we attract, and the critical look that we’re able to put on our projects.”

As McClary and Antonakos look forward to the next chapter in their careers, they both convey how much they have benefitted from the extra opportunities available to them at Illinois, such as Engineers Without Borders.

“I had a goal of getting involved, but it has been to much higher levels than I was expecting,” McClary said. “The research experience, for instance, wasn’t in my plans at all. That’s something I owe to the University and to the department.”

“We are a school with so many resources and so many people who want to see you succeed,” Antonakos added. “Even freshmen can do research and be involved in lab.  I don’t think a lot of other universities have that mindset toward undergraduates. Doing these activities helps you can connect what you’re learning in classes to what you can actually do. The lesson is if you take the initiative, anything is possible.”

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Mike Koon, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-1256.