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When Laura Stegner entered the University of Cincinnati as a first-year, she had one thing in mind — to make a difference in the world around her.
Five years later she has founded student organizations, shared her engineering skills around the globe and is receiving a 2019 Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence award. The honor is given by the university each year to graduating students who exemplify scholarship, leadership, character and service — ideals upheld in UC’s Next Lives Here strategic direction.
As a university honors student earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Stegner revealed signs of leadership right from the start.
“I never limit myself to what is already there or what is traditionally done,” says Stegner. “If I see something that can be better, I find out what is needed and I help make it happen.”
Right from the beginning, Stegner looked for positive resources all around her — qualities for which UC is abundant, she says.
“While I found it a challenge to relearn to play the viola after years of inactivity, joining UC’s Symphonic Orchestra became one of the highlights of my week,” says Stegner as she ventured from one project to another.
Before long she had organized UC’s first astronomy club, became president of UC’s taekwondo team and helped tutor high school girls in basic programming skills as part of the “Girls Who Code” club.
It was in moments like these where Stegner knew she was making a difference.
The girls from the inner-city high school were smart but unsure, Stegner says. So she drew diagrams, gave feedback and helped them turn abstract concepts into tools.
“It is important to support fellow women in STEM because, while it is not easy, engineering is a highly rewarding field,” says Stegner. “Each time I saw the girls ‘get it’ I knew it was worth it and was I filled with even more inspiration to mentor them.”
Expanding her leadership skills even further, Stegner joined the Eta Kappa Nu Honor Society for electrical and computer engineers, quickly starting a pilot program to create tutorial videos that address challenging engineering topics for students who struggle.
While blossoming as a university honors student, Stegner reached out looking for ways to engage with the broader community. Her first study abroad was to a country where she knew little about the language.
But Stegner accepted the challenge to study in South Korea where she learned to read Korean, spent time immersing herself in their culture and most notably caught the traveling bug.
A year later, Stegner and a few of her classmates spent a few weeks in China experiencing Beijing, Xi’an and eventually connected with their Chinese engineering peers in Chongqing.
Under the guidance of faculty and staff in UC’s Joint Engineering Co-op Institute — a unique UC engineering curriculum exchange to Chongqing University in China — Stegner co-created an engineering student group back on campus.
The “Engineering Diplomats,” as they call it, was designed to raise awareness of and welcome the Chinese engineering students who spend the fifth year of their exchange on UC’s campus. Through Stegner’s efforts they now hold a welcome bash, movie nights and attend local events such as Blink in downtown Cincinnati.
I'm often asked what the secret sauce is for the UC Novel Device Lab when it comes to competing and winning on a global research stage, and the answer is super simple: It’s about providing an environment, resources and inspirational problems where talent like Laura’s can thrive.
Jason Heikenfeld, assistant vice president of the Office of Innovation-Technical Transfer and Commercialization in UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub
In no time, Stegner’s eagerness to build technology that could change lives led to a research position in UC’s Novel Device Lab under the direction of Jason Heikenfeld, assistant vice president of the Office of Innovation-Technical Transfer and Commercialization in UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub.
As she helped design, build and test real-time sweat sensors she witnessed firsthand how engineering and technology impacts people’s lives.
“They called us the gadget people and said this could be a game changer for them,” says Stegner, talking about study patients involved in research on a device designed to measure sweat rate continuously over many hours to depict actual sweat patterns.
"Laura is a shining example of what we already know — we have exceptional student talent at UC,” says Heikenfeld. “I'm often asked what the secret sauce is for the UC Novel Device Lab when it comes to competing and winning on a global research stage, and the answer is super simple: It’s about providing an environment, resources and inspirational problems where talent like Laura’s can thrive."
Seeing the potential for how engineering can change lives, Stegner went on to spend a summer as a research scholar in Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems building a simulation framework for testing autonomous car controllers. Her work was showcased at the RISE Germany 2018 conference in Heidelberg, Germany, and a publication is in the works.
Stegner’s stellar 4.0 GPA led to several internal and external scholarships, including being named one of 300 RISE Germany scholars from around the world by the German Academic Exchange Service.
In addition to working with “Girls Who Code,” encouraging high school girls to consider STEM careers, Stegner adds to her passion for outreach by volunteering for the Little Sisters of the Poor assisting elderly residents with physical therapy.
In her fifth and final year, Stegner spent the fall semester as an exchange student at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. While there she enhanced her engineering and computer science studies and enjoyed the picturesque winter countryside.
During UC’s Commencement ceremony in May, UC’s President Neville Pinto will present Stegner with the Presidential Leadership Medal of Excellence award along with five other deserving undergraduates: Kendall Cappel, Andrew “Scottie” Emmert, Rahul Sandella, Rickey Terrell and Mariam Elgafy.
Continuing her passion after graduation, Stegner plans to take a fully funded graduate study offer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in their interactive robotics program. But not before spending the summer in Germany on another internship working in software systems in simulation environments.
“My time at UC has transformed me from a curious student to a force to be reckoned with. I learned to see the best in the world around me and how to be an effective facilitator of change when the best was yet to come,” claims Stegner. “The truth is, we all get better together. The more I invested in the community around me, the more we all seemed to thrive.
“And as they say to a child, ‘Leave things in better condition than you found them,’ I hope I certainly have.”
Featured image at top: UC electrical engineering student Laura Stegner leans proudly on the sundial at the Herman Schneider Quadrangle and Memorial Bench in UC's Baldwin Quad. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services