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Debbie Senesky: I tell students, you made it. You belong.

This aerospace professor found that a supportive family, a gift for math, a solid work ethic and strong mentors were the formula for her success that she now shares.
"Nobody in my family had gone to college," says Debbie Senesky, now an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. | Photo by Rod Searcy

Debbie Senesky was roughly 10 years old when the cassette player her grandfather had given her quit working.

Listening to books on tapes had been her favorite pastime, and knowing that the family couldn’t afford a replacement, she took the player apart and studied its puzzling innards. She noticed that a belt had slipped off a pulley that drove some gears, and put it back, then screwed the case closed and hit the play button. It worked! She recalls that aha moment as the first time she recognized her knack for tackling the unknown. Today, as an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and, by courtesy, of electrical engineering, Senesky’s lab develops electronic devices that can operate despite high temperatures and instruments designed to explore extremely harsh environments such as found on Venus. Drawing lessons from her own academic odyssey, she tries to help her students discover in themselves the resources and talents that enabled her to feel certain that, regardless of any differences that set her apart from the typical engineer, she belonged.

First-gen college student

My family was always supportive and encouraging, particularly my mother. From her we learned that even if we didn’t have money, we had value because of our creativity, talent, intelligence and work ethic. We moved around a lot, which meant I was the new girl in eight or nine schools over as many years. In retrospect, that sense of inherent value helped make me confident in new situations and comfortable standing out. I was always good at math, often catching the eye of my teachers. Sometimes they’d move me up a class level so that by the end of high school, I had finished calculus, even though I’d never had an AP course or even knew what they were. By then, I knew that I wanted to apply for college. Nobody in my family had gone to college, but I saw it as a way to escape our socioeconomic status. We were living in Las Vegas at the time, but we had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area before that, and I dreamed of going to UC Berkeley, but I didn’t get accepted and the other out-of-state schools that did accept me were too expensive. But thanks to financial aid through the Pell Grant, I was able to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).

A calculated, professional risk

When I got to UNLV, I looked up different majors that used math. I was considering architecture until I saw that engineers had better salaries. I got A’s in all my engineering courses and professors began to notice me. At one point, when I thought about changing majors to psychology, my engineering advisor, Professor Jacimaria Batista, looked at me and said, “No. You’re an engineer.” Having her affirmation was crucial and I began to think of myself as an engineer. UNLV offered me a generous scholarship, more than I needed for tuition, which meant I could provide my family with an additional income. But I was beginning to understand that transferring to a more prestigious school would be a strategic career decision, and I got myself into the University of Southern California. That prompted a big conversation. Going there meant taking out student loans instead of contributing to the family. But in the end, they recognized my determination and supported me. I couldn’t afford the dorms, so I rented a teeny-tiny room off-campus for $300 a month.

Occasionally, my older sister, who’d gone straight into the workforce, sent me money for living expenses. I studied a lot, sometimes all night. My mechanical engineering homework kept getting harder and harder, and I knew that I had to go to office hours, but was intimidated. When I finally did and got comfortable talking with professors, I found another great mentor, Professor Firdaus Udwadia. He wrote letters of recommendation to help me apply to several top graduate schools, including Berkeley. I had already done one summer of undergraduate research there, building a small robot that walked with the gait of a cockroach. Although I was accepted to more than one university, I chose Berkeley. Finally, I was at my dream school!

Discovering creativity at Berkeley

At Berkeley, a research assistantship covered my tuition and paid me a salary, which was a big financial relief. When I entered the program, I found Professor Albert P. Pisano, whose team was developing small-scale sensors for extremely harsh environments. He was an incredible mentor. When I told him that I wasn’t sure I wanted to complete the PhD and might leave with a master’s, he encouraged me to take the qualifying exams and helped me study. I didn’t pass the first time, which lit a fire under me, because you only get two chances. I studied over winter break that year and passed on my second try. I remained in his lab working on a DARPA program. One milestone was testing sensors in temperatures that reached 600 Celsius, or roughly 1,115 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of Venus. We were trying novel materials and doing experiments no one had ever done, building and testing and failing, and staying up all night. I was hooked by the freedom to explore the materials.

Flirting with industry

Although I thrived in the academic environment, I turned down a postdoctoral position with Professor Pisano to earn the industry salary that had drawn me to engineering in the first place, and which would allow me to help my family. I worked with an amazing team to develop sensors for healthcare and automotive applications, but the research felt so different from the work at Berkeley. Industry labs are product-oriented, and more concerned with reducing costs and increasing volume than with discovering new materials. I realized that I had fallen in love with the academic pursuit of the new and novel. So, after less than a year in industry, I talked with my family about switching to a postdoc. It would mean a severe pay cut, but by that point, they accepted that I loved academia and wished me well. When I called up Professor Pisano and asked if the offer for a postdoctoral position was still available, he said, “Come back, and I’ll teach you how to be a professor.”

Finding my way to Stanford and space

Back at Berkeley, I taught classes, wrote grants, mentored students, and found that I enjoyed it and was great at it. With Professor Pisano’s support, I spent what turned out to be two years searching for faculty positions. The first year, I got no offers, though I was short-listed for positions. The second year, Stanford Engineering’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics sent me an email inviting me to apply for a position. To prepare for the interview, I spoke with NASA researchers about the work I had done at Berkeley with silicon carbide, an experimental semiconductor material that has the potential to work in harsh environments that swing quickly from hot to cold. I began to get excited about building a lab that could test silicon carbide as a material useful for space exploration technology. The interview went well. I really liked the people in the department, and they were excited about the work I could do here. It felt like — and has continued to feel like — I belonged.

Mentoring the next generation

Even when I’m the only woman or person of color in a room full of engineers, I’m comfortable because moving from school to school in my childhood cultivated resilience, adaptability and determination. I try to develop those qualities in my students. I’m a role model for students who look like me, and I want to show them we can be successful in this field and enjoy it. Engineering is hard. Personally, I’ve had very positive experiences. I’ve gotten the sense that my field wants to see women and women of color be successful, but it’s still challenging. My group is pretty diverse, and when students are having a hard time, I tell them to use the resources around them, even if that’s as simple as office hours, focus on the people who want them to succeed, and speak their minds even when it goes against the grain because I want them to express themselves fully in the way that I was able to. I walk them to the window, and I tell them to look at the view, and I tell them, “You made it. You are here. You belong.”