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'Forty-Three Wrong Turns,' but Laura Becerra is Now on Right Path

“I took 43 wrong turns to get to where I am today,” states fourth-year electrical engineering student, Laura Becerra, confidently. “I came to USD as a business major, but was not challenged and wanted something else to do with my brain — so I decided to become a doctor.”

Or so she thought ...

Originally from Northern California, Becerra has always been the kind of person who has “done her own thing” — always engrossed in her studies. “My mom said I was my own tiger mom; I always disciplined myself.”

Becerra learned a lot about herself when she helped take care of her nephew while in high school. It was “late nights and a lot of work.” She knew she didn’t want this path for herself and that she was going to make personal choices to create a future for herself focused on education.

Becerra earned many opportunities to study in some of the finest institutions in California ... UCLA, UC Berkeley, USC and USD. “I got into some good schools, but decided against the UC’s — they’re too big. I wanted office hours and small classes,” she explains.

 “USD offered me a lot of money and scholarships; the business school is good; and San Diego is beautiful — so I chose to go to USD.”

In her first year, she quickly realized that a business degree was not the opportunity she envisioned. She switched to biology to study pre-med in hopes of becoming a doctor. Becerra attended her first biology lecture and immediately knew this was also not the area of study she desired.

Steadfast in her quest to follow a path that challenged her intellectually but also offered something she could be passionate about, Becerra added a math class. “I was good in math in high school.” She switched gears, again, and majored in math, only to find that math, too, was not her passion.

She talked to her Living Learning Community (LLC) advisor, Dr. Jane Friedman, who tried to encourage Becerra to stay in math. Friedman soon realized it would be in Becerra’s best interest to explore engineering. She connected Becerra with Dr. Susan Lord, who served as the chair of electrical engineering at the time.

“Dr. Lord convinced me to study engineering. She enrolled me in ENGR 101 (Introduction to Engineering) and I really liked it. It was fun.” But with this newfound area of study came yet another question — which discipline to study?

Becerra considered mechanical engineering, but again heeded sound advice from Lord. “I suggested she take circuits over the summer or she would be behind. I have offered this path to many students over the years and few have pursued it. Laura had the tenacity to make it happen.”

Becerra had to jump through many hoops to coordinate the summer class. “I loved it!” raves Becerra. “It is the hardest class I have ever taken, but I was up for the challenge.”

After many twists and turns, those 43 “wrong turns” were, in fact, never wrong — merely a string of fateful choices that led her to the place in which she was destined to excel.

“Laura is driven — an independent thinker. She is not afraid to share her perspective even if it may differ from others, or the popular consensus,” says Assistant Professor Odesma Dalrymple. “She sees engineering as a career that will allow her to make a positive difference in the world.”

Becerra is now only one year away from completing her undergraduate degree and is on an impressive road to success. She has served on numerous professional honor societies, including vice president of SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), house building trip chair of Global Engineering Brigades, Secretary of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) and co-president of Project Mathigami.

Since Fall 2015, Becerra has been traveling monthly to Tijuana, Mexico as a student volunteer with Dalrymple to teach bright, young disadvantaged students about the engineering design process and how it can be applied in a collaborative environment to transform simple ideas and materials into complex multi-disciplinary systems.

In 2016, Becerra was encouraged to attend the SACNAS national diversity in STEM conference. “When I got there, I saw a whole new world of academia and research I didn’t know was possible for me. It was then that I realized that I could do research and even consider grad school.”

Becerra then set her sites on research work. She applied and was accepted to multiple summer research programs. “Most students would be happy to be accepted to one program, but Laura was accepted to several,” recalls Lord.

“In summer 2017, as a McNair Scholar, Laura was invited to participate in a prestigious research internship program at MIT. As part of this program, she worked on a project to investigate an alternative method to save copious amounts of energy by monitoring the use of chemical fume hoods in MIT laboratories,” explains Dalrymple.

Fast forward to Fall 2017 where Becerra presented her fume hood research project at SACNAS 2017. Towards the end of the conference, it was announced that she had won the coveted undergraduate research award in electrical engineering. She was the only student from USD to receive an award.

“There were thousands of students presenting. I didn’t even realize they called my name,” confesses Becerra. “After that, I went to sit down and a man in a suit congratulated me. He asked if I had ever heard of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, he was the head of their engineering division. Ironically, I did an internship for them the year prior. He invited me to come back next summer and said the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. I was in shock. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt.”

Following up on her research project, Becerra is currently working with her MIT research supervisor, Dr. Daniel Preston, now a post-doc at Harvard, on a paper that will be submitted in the coming weeks to the Joule – Cell Press.

Looking back fondly over the journey that led to her electrical engineering studies, Becerra recalls a nickname her family had once given her — the atom splitter. “They don’t really know specifically what I study at school, so they assume splitting atoms could very well be what I do.”

“This is not an easy road for Laura,” explains Lord. “Electrical engineering has few women overall and even fewer women of color. And for Laura, in particular, there were no engineers, nor scientists in her family. When she got into MIT her own father was unfamiliar with the prestigious institution. She grew up in a different environment.”

Even against such odds, Becerra has a “deep interest and passion for engineering and the work ethic and intellectual maturity to be very successful in her pursuits of a career in this field,” explains Dalrymple.

“She is fabulous!” boasts Lord. “Anything she puts her mind to, Laura can accomplish.”

— Michelle Sztupkay

Engineering student Laura Becerra stands with her research poster that she presented at the recent SACNAS National Conference in Salt Lake City.Engineering student Laura Becerra stands with her research poster that she presented at the recent SACNAS National Conference in Salt Lake City.

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