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Student profile: Emily Bonfig, S.B. ’16
As her final year at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences picks up speed, mechanical engineering concentrator Emily Bonfig shares her thoughts on women in engineering, mentoring, and the lack of clean water in Peru.
Why did you decide to concentrate in mechanical engineering?
I have always enjoyed building things and problem solving. Even before I applied to college, I decided to be an engineer because I thought that career path would open lots of doors for me. At Harvard, I gravitated toward mechanical engineering because I like the idea of working in industry.
Were you intimidated to be a woman engineer?
I didn’t really feel any apprehension. A lot of my friends are guys, and I love watching football on Sundays, so that part didn’t really intimidate me. I was definitely surprised by how much more even the female to male ratio is at SEAS than at many other institutions.
What has been your most eye-opening experience during your time at Harvard?
When I was interning at 3M and Ecolab over the summers, I really felt like I was following the right path. At 3M, I worked on composites for dental crowns. It was a really interesting job, but I would come home smelling like toothpaste everyday. At Ecolab, I worked with a team of electrical and mechanical engineers on dispensing systems for industrial laundry machines. Thanks to those experiences, I’ve decided that I want to pursue a career in industry, and particularly the supply chain side. Any time I enter a manufacturing plant, I feel like a kid in a candy store.
Why does a career in the supply chain area interest you?
It is the place where business meets the technical side, and it is a career where I could definitely use my interpersonal skills. What sets us apart, as Harvard engineers, is how well we communicate with others.
Despite your busy class schedule, you’ve been heavily involved in the Harvard College Engineering Society. Why is that organization so important to you?
Harvard has amazing people in the engineering program, but it is sometimes a shame that you don’t get to know them outside of class. I organize events for the Engineering Society and play a community-fostering role. It has been great to meet so many different engineers and bring people together outside of class. Mentoring is critical for effective teamwork. The more people you have supporting you, the more successful you will be. For me, it is a lot more fun to work on my problem sets when I have friends working with me—it makes 10 hours feel closer to seven or eight.
Last winter, you traveled to Peru to conduct a collaborative engineering project with a team of Harvard and Peruvian students. What did you learn from that experience?
Our team spent two weeks working together on a project to address one of the biggest problems Peruvians face everyday: the inadequate supply of clean water. We built an ozone generator, which is generally a very expensive piece of equipment, but we reduced the cost by using parts from an old TV. Ozone will disinfect water so that it can be safely drunk. It was great to work with the Peruvian students on the project, but the most powerful experience for me was the opportunity to go on field visits. We traveled to some of the poorest cities in the country, places where they don’t have a consistent water source or a good way to store their water. It was very powerful to actually see the effects of such a devastating global problem.
With graduation drawing nearer, why has SEAS been a good fit for you?
SEAS has been great because it has allowed me to grow at a pace that fits me. It’s enabled me to hold leadership positions and to get close with my professors and my peers. At first, Harvard was a daunting environment—I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do—but SEAS has been such a welcoming place.