MSE Alumna Profile: Theresa Valentine Clark
Hometown: Laurel, MD
Class of: 2003 (B.S.); 2004 (M.S.) (5-year combined program)
We chatted with Theresa to learn more about her experiences at the University of Maryland, and find out what she's doing today.
Why did you choose to study at the University of Maryland?
A combination of factors: highly rated academics (including engineering, but the Honors program was a draw as well), an excellent scholarship, proximity to home, and the "big school" college experience.
Why did you decide to major in Materials Science and Engineering?
I started out as a chemical engineering major because I liked math and chemistry, and my sister and her husband were chemical engineers. During my freshman year I realized I wasn't too interested in it after all and looked at other engineering majors. MSE was the most welcoming of them, with quick responses to my questions from Dr. [Isabel] Lloyd and friendly students. It was an easy choice to switch, and I still got to take plenty of math and chemistry!
What was the best thing about majoring in MSE?
I loved the flexibility our small class sizes gave us. We always had plenty of time for questions, got to participate and not be rushed in labs, and got to know each other well over time. Although we always recruited students to enlarge the program, it was nice to know everyone in my major—not something you can say in the larger programs like mechanical or electrical engineering.
What was your favorite class, and why?
My senior design class was a great experience. Our group worked on a micro-electromechanical system that involved most of our previous materials engineering education. Because we had a small class (6 students, if I remember correctly), we were able to work as a team with our professor and have his full attention. We had freedom to think creatively and drove the direction of the project ourselves with his guidance when we got stuck. I still use a lot of the project management tools that I learned in that class, and the teamwork experience was one of the best I've had.
Were you involved in research, internships, conferences, or other activities while a student?
Lots! I started engineering research after my freshman year, working for a mechanical engineering professor who had taught my freshman statics course. I worked on nickel-titanium shape memory alloys, which kept coming up as interesting materials throughout my education. My senior year I switched advisors to work for [MSE] professor Dr. Gary Rubloff on biomaterials and electronic materials. He was later my thesis advisor for my master's degree.
I had an internship after my junior year at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where I now work. Internships are extremely helpful in getting permanent employment!
I was also very active in both the Materials Engineering Society [a joint student chapter of several materials societies], where I was secretary and president, and the Engineering Student Council. Those activities gave me good leadership experience that helped in the job search, plus I made a lot of good friends. Now I'm chair of the local professional chapter of ASM International, one of the professional societies that underpinned the Materials Engineering Society.
What do you recommend students do to have the best experience here?
Get involved, period. If you live on campus, it will happen naturally, and you'll meet great friends. You should still get involved in something, whether it's related to your major or your sports talents or some niche hobby, because someone on campus is guaranteed to share your interests. It's even more important if you live off campus, because going to class is only a small part of the college experience. You don't tell your kids stories about tests you took! (Although of course class is the main point and you should apply yourself diligently there as well.) Not only will you make friends, but you'll also build your resume, which is going to help out in the very competitive job market.
What have you been doing since you graduated? How have your engineering skills helped in your job or in other activities that you have been involved with since leaving Maryland?
After graduating with an M.S., I went to work for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Maryland, as a participant in the Nuclear Safety Professional Development Program. This program allowed me to do five different jobs over the first two years at the NRC. I worked on risk assessment of materials degradation at nuclear power plants, managed the review process for an international nuclear safety conference in Vienna (and got to go along), wrote news summaries and press releases in the public affairs office, worked as an inspector at a nuclear power plant in New York, and served as the headquarters licensing contact for two plants in Pennsylvania. The program gave me a good overview of agency business and made me more valuable in my permanent position as a reliability and risk engineer in the Office of New Reactors at the NRC. I am responsible (along with a co-worker) for reviewing the risk assessments of design and licensing applications for a new power plant design proposed by Areva for construction in Calvert County, Maryland, and several other locations. It's challenging and interesting work, and my engineering background helps me understand the technical issues, especially when materials issues come up. Even more importantly, the communications and project management skills I learned in my engineering courses serve me daily.