A Future Mechanical Engineer who Competes in Professional Cycling
DA grounded Emma Edwards ’08 with a strong work ethic. The math major decided to apply her mathematical background to engineering after researching wave energy, and had never taken an engineering class before she began her Ph.D. work at MIT. Edwards’ love for adventure has taken her to Scotland and Australia, and prompted her to shift from cycling as a means of transportation to participating in national championship races.
Q — What have you been up to since graduating from DA?
A — After taking almost all of the math classes DA offered and participating in the math club, I don’t think anyone was surprised when I majored in math at UNC-Chapel Hill after graduating from DA in 2008. I really enjoyed my math classes at UNC and thought I wanted to pursue further studies in graduate school, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in pure math or switch to a more applied subject (e.g. physics or engineering). When I graduated from UNC, I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. This move was mostly for an adventure and to experience somewhere new (after going only 20 minutes down the road for college), but I also used it as an opportunity to try a new subject area by getting a research position at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Energy Systems in the engineering department. I did research on wave energy, which involves converting energy from ocean waves into electricity as a renewable energy resource. I loved the research right away, because it was a perfect application of my mathematical background to something that could make an impact.
I decided I wanted to do a Ph.D. in wave energy, but had missed any deadlines to start the next year. So I decided to continue traveling and went to Melbourne, Australia. I got a position at the University of Melbourne in the chemical engineering department, doing research on a different aspect of renewable energy: energy storage.
Q — What are your interests away from work?
A — While I was in Edinburgh, I was introduced to cycling as a way of getting around, and when I got to Melbourne I got my first road bike. I trained for the Melbourne triathlon and cycling quickly became my favorite activity. This was largely due to the amazing places I got to visit by bike, including a weekend in the Grampians and a week bike-touring in the Australian Alps.
In 2014 I started my Ph.D. at MIT in mechanical engineering. While initially this was hard because I had never taken an engineering class and I was in class with students who had mostly done engineering as undergraduates, I soon realized that the most important skill in engineering is a firm grasp of mathematics.
It was during this time that I was introduced to the MIT cycling club. People on the cycling team convinced me to try a cycling race, and as soon as I tried it I was instantly in love. I love the feeling of going fast and of giving your everything up a climb, but maybe, above all, I love the tactics involved in a bike race. You never know what is going to happen before the race starts, and learning to read the race is extremely important.
I joined a local club in Boston and started racing over the summer, too. After nearly a year off while taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I got more into racing my third year of my Ph.D. and went to collegiate nationals for the first time. In my fourth year, I won the criterium (“crit”) at collegiate nationals. The crit is an hour race held on closed roads around a downtown city block. I was also getting really into racing outside of collegiate races and raced in a few professional races. This past year, my fifth year of my Ph.D., I got third at the national championship road race (which is a more traditional race that you may see on TV, usually 50–60 miles). I was one of six collegiate women selected to represent the USA national team at a professional race in Colorado, which was an amazing experience, and I raced in other professional races over the summer, too.
Q — What’s on the horizon for you?
A — I am currently finishing up my Ph.D., and once I do that I am moving over to the U.K. where my fiancé has started an assistant professor position. I am honestly not sure what the future holds, but after I finish my Ph.D. I would like to enter more professional races and see how those go. Eventually I think I will settle down in an academic research position and continue doing research on wave energy.
Q — What DA experiences influenced you or helped you get where you are today?
A — Many experiences I had at DA were very influential in how my life has evolved so far. Teachers at DA always encouraged me to pursue math and physics, even though these are subject areas that are largely male-dominated, and often young women can be discouraged from working in these fields. Their faith in me to excel at the subjects that I loved allowed me to develop a strong confidence in my own abilities. This confidence has been invaluable for my success in mechanical engineering, a field which is still heavily male-dominated. DA grounded me with a strong work ethic, which has not only been useful in my academic work, but also in my cycling.