Renata Ramos breaks through barriers in engineering communication

Rice Engineering associate dean and teaching professor works with Tracy Volz to help students improve communication skills.

Headshot of Renata Ramos

Renata Ramos originally pursued engineering because she loved learning how physics impacted and resolved tasks in her daily environment.

“I felt like I’d joined a secret society as an undergraduate because I was learning to solve challenges with tools and processes that could be applied anywhere I would go,” said Ramos, the associate dean for academic affairs in the Geoerge R. Brown School of Engineering and a bioengineering teaching professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice.

She carried that same problem-solving passion into her first mechanical engineering job; but as much as she enjoyed the work, her mind kept straying to medicine. Ramos wondered how she might positively impact the lives of others through a career in healthcare, so she began looking into graduate programs.

“The focus of my degree in Mexico left very little room to explore other courses, so I had no exposure to biology or health science classes. Plus, I was looking at graduate programs in the United States,” Ramos said.

“Not only would my peers come from broader undergraduate programs with strong backgrounds in biology and science, all my graduate classes, research, and conversations with my advisors would be conducted in English. I wanted so much to be in a career to improve healthcare treatments and options that I enrolled in grad school at the University of Arizona despite my fears.”

Ramos’s misgivings were well-founded and her fear of speaking English in public led to a new name. Her family and friends had called her by her middle name for 23 years, but her anxiety about speaking English prompted her to agree when her first graduate instructor asked if she pronounced her first name “Renata.”

“I raised my hand and nodded my head. I changed my name – to the name everyone in the United States now calls me – just so I would not have to speak English in public,” said Ramos.

“In addition to being terribly shy, I had zero technical writing skills in English. Remember, biology was also a new field to me — I depended on translations for everything. For example, I did not know what the phrase ‘blood clot’ meant, words English-speaking kids learn in elementary. To succeed in this career, I realized I would have to learn, communicate, and network in English.”

She persevered, pushing past her shyness and her distress at speaking English to her peers and professors in order to strengthen her communication skills. Although she grew more confident in small group and one-on-one conversations, she did not enjoy presenting papers at conferences or having to continuously write grants and papers, so she looked for careers beyond the tenure track.

“Little did I know my love of teaching would require me to make presentations – to students – over and over,” said Ramos with a grin. “I love the work, the continual learning, the labs, and getting students excited about the possibilities, but I also love to the impact that I have in the classroom. The opportunity to join Rice as a postdoc and then as a teaching track professor was perfect for me.”

Credit for her strength in engineering communication goes to the principal investigator (PI) who mentored Ramos through her Ph.D. She said W. Daniel Stamer, now the Joseph A.C. Wadsworth Distinguished Professor of Ophthalmology at Duke University, is a very strong communicator.

“Dan could explain really complex concepts to high school students or – in my case – a new grad student with broken English and no biology background. He got me interested, passionately interested, in his research and contributing to the work. I may not have noticed at the time how much he was teaching me about communicating with others, but now I realize he is one of the people I mirror. I learned so much from him as a mentor and a teacher.

“As a graduate student, I also took classes and learned how to communicate with larger audiences. At Rice, I began working with Dr. Tracy Volz to teach engineering students how to develop and improve their communication skills. Tracy may think she is coaching me to give better feedback to our students, but really I am like a sponge, absorbing everything she teaches. I sometimes linger in a joint meeting with our students; Tracy will say I don’t need to stay, but I just want to hear what else she has to say about engineering communication.”

Ramos perceives a similarity between engineering and communication. As an engineer, she must understand the problem, be mindful of available resources as well as constraints in order to develop parameters and design criteria, and she has to iterate, iterate, iterate. In communication, she needs to know and understand her audience, recognize her comfort zone, consider her skillset, and keep iterating in order to improve every time.

“If you don’t go through that iteration cycle over and over, learning each time how to better engage your audience with your message, then you cannot improve as a communicator,” said Ramos.

When she was selected as the associate dean for academic affairs in 2018, Ramos began honing her communication skills for a new audience. She said, “When I am teaching students, they have a designated time to listen and learn. When I send email to the dean, faculty members, or other members of the administrative team, I may get one line.

“Perhaps in another meeting, I’ll get to expand my point in 10 sentences, but the biggest difference between communicating with engineering students and engineering faculty is the need to be concise.”

Her role also requires Ramos to supervise and find ways for her team to be effective. She learned quickly that successfully guiding a team of experienced professionals would require a different approach than instructing students who are still building their skillset.

“Working again in a collaborative team of professionals helped me remember why it is so important for our engineering students to learn to be clear communicators,” Ramos said.

“When we are in a learning process, especially in fields like engineering, we think a lot about the technical content. But whether our students are headed for work in a research lab, in industry, or in academia, they have to recognize that their projects won’t see the light of day if they can’t describe the work and its impact to other people.

“We can’t change the world if we can’t communicate outside our team. There is no better time to learn to communicate about your engineering ideas and projects than when you are an engineering student. And at Rice, there are so many opportunities and people who want to help you improve in this area. Pick one.”