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Senior profile: Danielle Davis

Striking the right chord with engineering and music

Danielle Davis was dead-set on going to Princeton.

It was the summer before her senior year in high school and the New York native was already contemplating her future life on the New Jersey campus.

“But then I started having these dreams where I was at Harvard and the sun was shining and everything was wonderful,” she recalled. “So I decided to apply to Harvard, early decision, because it was literally my dream school.”

Now preparing to graduate, Davis is confident she made the right choice.

Davis performs as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Davis performs as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Davis)

While Harvard may have been her dream school, engineering wasn’t a field she had thought much about pursuing. She had an interest in science and math, but when she arrived on campus as a freshman, Davis knew she wanted to study music.

Classical music thrilled her from a young age; Davis began playing cello at age 8 and immersed herself in mastering the instrument. She later enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music’s prestigious Pre-Collegiate Program and played in orchestras, chamber music groups, and string quartets around the city.

“As I was growing up, there weren’t many classical instrumentalists who were of color, so a lot of times when I was playing in these orchestras, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I was never really bothered by that,” she said. “But as I got farther along, it was so cool to see that little kids who looked like me could see me as an inspiration, and maybe want to play the cello, too.”

At Harvard, an introductory physics course piqued her interest in engineering. After digging a little deeper, she discovered the field could be a good way for her to apply the creativity she enjoyed expressing as a musician. She chose to pursue a concentration in engineering sciences at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, with a focus on electrical engineering because of its auditory applications, and a secondary in music.

Davis performs Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

Davis performs Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Davis)

In one of her favorite courses, “Engineering the Acoustical World” (Gen Ed 1080), taught by Robert Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Davis learned how the physics of waves can be directly applied to human perception of sound, and how we hear the timbre of different instruments.

“The creativity that comes with artistry and performance can help you think about problems in a different way. For instance, when you get a dataset, instead of trying to find the most straightforward way to look at it, there are certain problems that are best understood by going in a non-intuitive way,” she said. “Being a musician definitely helps me be a better critical thinker and apply these different perspectives when I’m trying to solve a problem.”

She faced challenges to balance her engineering coursework with the demands of playing the cello. She would often bring her instrument along when she’d need to spend a few hours in lab before rushing off for a rehearsal across campus.

For Davis, all that hard work paid off when she was able to perform, and each of the campus musical groups she joined offered unique musical challenges. In the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, she enjoyed being part of a large community making music together, while in the Harvard College Opera, playing in the pit was much more intimate.

Davis (left) with classmates at the Society of Women Engineers Conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Davis (left) with classmates at the Society of Women Engineers Conference in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Davis)

“In a pit, there are maybe two or three people playing your same instrument, so you can’t falter. You have to be on point,” she said. “The type of hyper-attentiveness I was honing as an engineer was a great skill to have when you are playing these three-and-a-half hour operas. It was definitely a great stamina builder.”

She also used music as a way to pay-it-forward by volunteering as a mentor through the Harvard and Radcliffe Musical Outreach to Neighborhood Youth (HARMONY) program. Davis taught weekly cello lessons to middle school students to help them develop new techniques and expand their repertoires.

“I think that giving back is incredibly important. Music has played such an instrumental role in my life and I love sharing that joy with others,” she said. “Seeing someone's eyes light up when they finally get the hang of something that they have been working on is just so exciting.”

As she was immersing herself in the musical side of Harvard, Davis was building stronger relationships with her peers through engineering clubs. She joined the Harvard Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and served as the organization’s publicity chair, where she helped to raise awareness of activities designed to encourage women in STEM.

The supportive Harvard SWE community served as a motivating factor for Davis, especially when a mountain of problem-sets or a finicky project prototype started to weigh her down.

The opportunity to attend the national SWE Conference in California was a highlight of her college career. Not only were the tech talks and keynote speeches great learning experiences, but she met a team from Apple and accepted a summer internship as an audio hardware engineer.

Davis and her parents, Olga Davis and Daryl Davis, during Harvard’s Junior Parents Weekend.

Davis and her parents, Olga Davis and Daryl Davis, during Harvard’s Junior Parents Weekend. (Photo by Mary Herlihy-Gearan)

Because her internship was remote, Apple shipped Davis a few hundred pounds of engineering tools and equipment and she set up a desk at home (which, thankfully, was able to bear the weight.) She spent the summer conducting audio-subsystem power measurements and testing the performance of amplifier silicon.

“They were all very supportive of my learning there, in the same way that my professors here were so supportive of my learning. It was great to have that supportive and enriching environment,” she said. “People can feel a lot of pressure to be perfect, but perfect isn’t how you learn. You learn by making mistakes and recalibrating and saying, ‘Oh, this is what I need to change in order to get it right the next time.’”

Being open to learning new things proved to be especially useful for Davis after she left campus in March, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though she has missed being on campus, seeing her friends, and playing cello in Sanders Theatre, working remotely taught her valuable lessons about overcoming barriers to collaborate and communicate effectively.

She knows those skills will come in handy for her future career at Apple, where she will rejoin the team she interned with after graduation. She’s looking forward to work on phones, tablets, and other devices that people use every day.

“I just can’t imagine what more I will get to learn next,” she said. “That is the great thing about it. The learning doesn’t stop when you finish your university degree. And I am so excited by that. I have had an amazing time at Harvard, and while I do remember and cherish everything, it went by so fast.”

Topics: Undergraduate Student Profile

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Adam Zewe | 617-496-5878 | azewe@seas.harvard.edu