Student spotlight: Renee McVay

So maybe you’ve heard that women don’t succeed in engineering. Don’t believe it.

Renee McVay didn’t. She just graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. The College Station native starts her graduate studies in September at Caltech – after turning down MIT, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She also takes with her a highly selective and prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.  

Photo of Renee McVay
Starting out
Renee says she chose Texas A&M because she wanted to stay in Texas, but she wasn’t sure at first that engineering was right for her. Despite being the daughter of two engineers, she says she didn’t have a very clear idea of what engineering was. In fact, she first thought that she wanted to study liberal arts and also considered chemistry – until her mother, herself an engineer, told her she’d make more money as a chemical engineer than as a chemist.

“I wasn’t really sure what engineers did when I first started college,” she says. “It can be quite an enigma, as there are so many different types of engineering. But the freshman-level classes really helped to clarify those types of engineering.

“I chose chemical engineering because I really liked physics, chemistry and calculus.”

Favorite class
Renee says her favorite chemical engineering class was the plant design course that was sponsored by Fluor. The assignment was to design a chemical processing plant that would convert naphtha into aromatic hydrocarbons.

“I was on an international team, so half of our team was in Qatar,” Renee says. “So we got to see the practical side and apply knowledge while also working on cross-cultural communications. We discovered that we had to be very explicit with everyone on the team about our expectations and what needed to be done when, so it was good experience in terms of project management and organization.”

Undergraduate research
Renee spent some time working with Dr. Victor Ugaz, an associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering. Ugaz’s research area is in microfluidics, and Renee was an undergraduate researcher in his lab as part of a semester-long specialty elective.

“I want to do research,” Renee says, “because I like discovery. I like the new and interesting, and applying knowledge in new ways.”

Campus life
Renee lived in Lechner Hall, the honors dorm, for part of her undergraduate career. Living on campus, she says, was a big help because she made friends and developed her own little community of support. She even found time during the spring semester of her sophomore year to study in Spain for a semester, finishing a minor in Spanish.

“That was my semester off from engineering,” she says. “I highly recommend that experience of studying abroad and immersing yourself in another culture.”

Renee was also involved with Texas A&M’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders and helped the group design a community computer center that eventually became a reality. She also was in the sailing club and volunteered to work with children in elementary schools as part of Aggie School Volunteers.

Helpful faculty
Renee earned her bachelor’s degree in May 2011 and was accepted to all the top graduate schools in the country, including MIT, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley. She chose Caltech and begins her graduate career there in September. She says that Ugaz and fellow chemical engineering professor Dr. Dan Shantz – along with chemistry professor Dr. Dave Bergbreiter – were influential in steering her towards graduate school.

Future plans
Renee says she wants to eventually work in industry, conducting research, though teaching is an option she has considered. After all, it runs in the family: Her mother, Tillie, is a lecturer in Texas A&M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and her father, Dwayne, is an associate professor in the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering.

Advice to prospective students
“Realize it’s going to be hard,” Renee says. “Studying engineering is challenging and it’s a lot of work. But know that it is doable. Don’t put too much stock in the horror stories.”

She says that new students should try to develop close relationships with faculty members who can show opportunities and provide counsel to students who need guidance.