Two years shy of her Rice University Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. dissertation, Iyabo Lawal interviewed for a faculty role at Princeton University. Lawal, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, still marvels at how her Rice mentors helped her achieve that milestone.
“As a Future Faculty Fellow (FFF) at Rice, I participated in engineering communication workshops to improve my research pitch and presentation skills,” said Lawal. “Part of that training included the development of our research and teaching statements, and several Rice engineering faculty members were kind enough to share their own statements. One workshop had us talking directly with Rice faculty, and in another, we shared our research pitches. These kinds of activities helped us better frame our research statements.”
While Lawal was developing her research statement, she saw a job opening at Princeton and applied. She was surprised when she received an invitation to interview and reached out to her engineering communications coaches, Tracy Volz and Chris Lipp.
“Chris set me straight on the psychology behind the interview,” she recalled. “I thought of it as asking for a job, but Chris coached me the same way he coaches startup teams pitching investors. He said I would be selling my research and my capabilities by showing the university the tremendous value I would be providing, how much they needed me, and what they would miss if they failed to invest in me.”
Lipp and Lawal continued to practice both the ideology and the pitch, including how to establish her presence from the moment she entered the room or turned on her camera for a Zoom interview. After her successful interview with five Princeton faculty members in Zoom, Lawal was invited to an in-person visit and she sought more coaching for the next phase.
She said, “Everything I practiced with my Rice mentors went very well in Princeton. I gave a successful lecture and was well-prepared for my Q&A session. They said they were impressed, and that I had done a good job explaining my research on interfaces and its importance.
“No one can really prepare you for the stamina and energy you need to get through multiple days of interviews. By the second day, I was emotionally and mentally crashing as I went into the chalk talk. I vaguely remembered touching on chalk talks in one of the FFF workshops at Rice, but I had never practiced sharing ideas for how to build my research team, generate funding - those aspects of becoming a faculty member. So I froze on one or two of those questions.”
Despite those momentary pauses, Lawal was in good spirits as she completed her interview activities and returned to Rice where she recapped the experience for her communication mentors and wrote her thank you note to Princeton. She felt both disappointment and relief when she received the rejection letter. The interviews had helped Lawal realize her research would benefit by further exploration into different types of physics, and she was ready to refocus her energy on research rather than a job search.
Tribology, the study of friction and wear on interfacing surfaces, often focuses on physical forces like applying brakes to slow down or halt motion. Her Ph.D. research studied friction on interfaces. But she had begun pondering the impact of sound on surfaces and used that topic as her Princeton research proposal.
She said, “My current topic focuses on how acoustics can mitigate the passage of energy. As more of us live in urban spaces, we begin to understand that the impact of sound - trains, traffic, noise pollution, etc. - is real. Some studies have found that noise pollution actually affects cognitive behavior in children. So how can we mitigate sound transmission from outside sources to buildings? Studying the interfaces of those structures may be one way to get there.”
“Friction is a different type of physics than the physics of acoustics. I wanted to find the commonality between them as well as how the physics change between interfaces. Building that fundamental understanding was important and I realized that I wasn’t at that point yet during my Princeton interview.”
Back at Rice, Lawal continued her friction research under the direction of her Ph.D. advisor, Matthew Brake. She said, “We found small motions —microslip events— cause friction and when you have friction, you have wear which causes damage to interfaces. Materials may absorb stress but repeated stress over a long duration, which causes failure in component/devices. I used MatLab to run friction models like Coulomb, a Soils-Concrete model and Bouc-Wen to better understand how these models can affect the stress state of an interface subjected to a range of different load conditions.”
She credits Brake and her other mentors for encouraging her research ideas and for building her confidence in the value of her work and contributions.
“The point is, your mentors make all the difference. I would never have crafted a strong research statement at that point in my journey without the challenge and guidance I received from Chris and the other FFF mentors. That research statement is what captured Princeton’s attention, and the additional mentoring is what prompted them to fly me to Princeton for further interviews. The Princeton experience is what gave me confidence in my research proposal. If Princeton was interested, surely agencies like the NSF would also give it consideration.”
When Brake mentioned a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship opportunity, Lawal applied using the acoustics mitigation research proposal she had first pitched at Princeton. The NSF did indeed express interest and awarded Lawal an eFellowship to pursue research on Acoustic metamaterials with Michael Haberman, an assistant professor at UT who researches theoretical and applied acoustics. Haberman was open to mentoring Lawal through both her research goals and the professional development aspects of a postdoctoral appointment.
“Mike was both enthusiastic and quick to respond to my collaboration inquiry,” said Lawal, “and I knew almost immediately that I had found another critical mentor.”
Lawal still misses the relationship she had developed with another impactful mentor, Rice civil and environmental engineering professor Ilinca Stanciulescu. Stancuilescu, who passed away from cancer in March 2021, was a favorite faculty member and mentor to countless Rice undergraduate and graduate students.
“She taught me everything I know about computational mechanics,” said Lawal. “ I took every class she taught, and she was available far beyond the classes. Nights, weekends, she would respond to email. She was generous with her time, always available to respond to email questions. And she approached mentorship with a curiosity and open mind towards her mentees' questions and ideas, which made you feel legitimate and basically took you seriously.
“When I stagnated, she helped me re-channel my focus and push forward. I will definitely feel her loss. Without good mentors, success does not occur, especially for students like me who do not have a great network or support systems.”
In Austin, Lawal will continue to develop her research and her career opportunities but she also hopes to mentor undergraduate students. Recognizing the impact of her own mentors, Lawal intends to get involved in different student groups and begin building bridges with engineering majors who feel the lack of networks or support systems.
“Each mentor brings something different to the table, so don’t hesitate to seek out a variety of coaches. The engineering communications mentors helped me become successful in my presentations, and the faculty members strengthened my research and encouraged my interest in sticking with and solving complex problems,” she said.
“Pay it forward and begin mentoring others. Sometimes students are shy or don’t know whom to ask, so put yourself out there and offer to share your experiences. Let them know you are available. That is the kind of mentor I want to be to the next generation of researchers.”
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.