Odesma Dalrymple, PhD, Named Engineering Spotlight Award Recipient

Envision yourself in the southernmost nation of the Caribbean, just off the northeast coast of Venezuela, on one of two lush islands known for their distinctive Creole traditions and cuisines. The capital of one of these dual islands hosts a world-famous carnival festival featuring calypso and soca music. In addition to these music styles, this Caribbean nation is also the birthplace of the limbo and steelpan.

Now combine this tropical and impassioned lifestyle with a nation that, as of 2015, had the third-highest GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity in the Americas after the U.S. and Canada. Paradise and passion combined with a high-income economy … some may call the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago a dream. Others call it home.

From a young age, Dr. Odesma Dalrymple, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, knew her future involved math and science. Not only was it what piqued her interest, she was good at it. Very good. It also helped that her dad is one of the best math teachers in the country.

“Let me tell you a little about the background of the Trinidad education system,” starts Dalrymple. “ You go to elementary school from five to 11. At age 11, students are required to take a national exam and you are literally competing with everyone else in the country for placement into secondary schools.”

Dalrymple received the highest score in her elementary school, which earned her acceptance into one of the most prestigious all-female high schools in the country.

During high school, Dalrymple excelled and proved to be an exceptional student. She was also inspired by her uncle, who started his own cable company and encouraged Dalrymple and other children to tinker and learn about electronics.

“I was curious about electronics, but mostly intrigued by computing and programming,” reflects Dalrymple. “It became my passion.”

By age 13, students in Trinidad must choose a specified path of study. Dalrymple’s decision to pursue math and science was a ‘no brainer’, and it put her on a career trajectory towards engineering.  

After graduating, Dalrymple was accepted to the engineering program in Trinidad. She deferred a year to apply to schools abroad and accepted a full scholarship to Morgan State University to study electrical and computer engineering.

Dalrymple made the most of her time at Morgan State, finding innovative ways to create cultural, educational and employment opportunities for herself and her fellow students — including the organization of an art show, an international food fair and a travel agency.

“Morgan State is a historically black university (HBCU), and during my time there the honors program recruited, and offered scholarships to a number of high performing students from the African continent and the broader African diaspora, which includes the Caribbean. My first year, I met up with a ‘partner in crime,’ another engineering student from Trinidad,” Dalrymple chuckles as she thinks back. “We started an informal travel agency and facilitated cheaper travel for 50-plus Caribbean students to go home during the holidays.”

She also networked her way into an unlikely internship. Shortly after 9/11, U.S. companies were just not hiring international students. Despite this new roadblock, Dalrymple’s resume got into the hands of a representative from a nuclear plant in Tennessee who offered her an internship which she accepted two summers in a row.

“I quickly realized that although it was an incredible experience, electrical engineering wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to pursue. I preferred to engage with people, and my work at the nuclear plant was not capitalizing on this strength.”

In her senior year, she was assigned a software development project as part of an industrial engineering course, using W.E.B. Du Bois’ data on The Philadelphia Negro. For Dalrymple, using her computing and engineering skills in a meaningful way in relation to the world around her was transformative.

She earned her BS in electrical engineering (summa cum laude) with a minor in theater arts and an master's degree in industrial engineering. She went on to get a PhD in Engineering Education at Purdue University, as part of the first cohort of this new degree program. “It was a dream come true for me to combine engineering and education.”  

Dalrymple beams with pride as she explains how her entire family traveled from Trinidad to watch her final dissertation defense.

“To have this big contingent of family and friends rallying for me was amazing because they came so far and got to see the fruition of my time and investment ... it was incredible.”

Dalrymple landed an assistant professorship in the general engineering department at Arizona State University. After 4½ years, in a dizzying turn of events, the college that her engineering department belonged to was disestablished. Dalrymple was no longer certain about the future of the department or her career at ASU.  

“Things in my life have always just fallen into place — I never had a period of waiting for a job or the next big thing,” confesses Dalrymple, unshaken. “I am very fortunate and I don’t take that lightly.”

She reached out to Chell Roberts, with whom she had worked at ASU and who was now the inaugural dean at USD's Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. “After my interview, I knew USD was the place I wanted to be,” explains Dalrymple. “I was totally in love with the campus and community and all of the possibilities being discussed.”  

Since coming to USD in 2014, Dalrymple has accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time. She serves as the faculty advisor for the USD student chapter of SWE (Society of Women Engineers); she was recently asked to join the board for ASF (Advancing Students Forward); and is part of four successfully funded USD Strategic Initiatives.

Dalrymple engages extensively in interdisciplinary projects and collaborative work, both inside the classroom and out in the community. She works closely with Perla Meyers in USD's Mathematics Department and Joi Spencer in USD's School of Leadership and Education Sciences on countless outreach programs.  

“We are like-minded in so many ways, not just our interests, but our work styles — there is just magic that happens. At USD the partnerships I’ve formed have true reciprocal respect. Regardless of age or discipline, we value each other’s perspective. That is unique to find.”

She is also the co-founder of the STEAM Labs program, an outreach initiative that teaches real-world engineering skills with multi-team collaboration. The program has been successfully deployed across nearly 20 sites in the U.S., Mexico and in her native homeland. Trinidad and Tobago is a big part of my identity and is a strong source of pride for me,” she professes.  

Dotting the map from the Caribbean to Maryland, Indiana to Arizona, and finally landing in San Diego, Calif., Odesma has found her home away from home.

“Out of all the places I’ve lived in the U.S., I never felt the community like I do at USD. I love coming to work and interacting with the students. I love the mission we are on and I love the social justice focus — it is something I have always been interested in. And most importantly, I value the advocates I have here at USD. And as I continue to teach, I hope to be that advocate for others.”