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Senior profile: Wendy Sun, SEAS

  • Elise Guarna for Spectator
    ENGINEERING WOMAN | Wendy Sun said that close-knit communities like SWE are empowering for female engineers.

This senior profile is part of Spectator’s 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

Joining her high school robotics team did more than spark a passion for engineering for Wendy Sun, SEAS ’14—it also inspired her work to combat one of the field’s persistent problems: gender imbalance.

Sun, who attended an all-girls high school in Toronto, said she was surprised at robotics competitions when she saw coed teams in action.

“I would be there kneeling beside a robot, tinkering with it,” she said. “On other coed teams, the guys would be working on the robot, and the girls would be hanging on the sides.”

At Columbia, Sun’s desire to empower women engineers took shape when she founded Engineering Exploration Experience in her first year. EEE is an annual event where female high school students from New York City take part in workshops run by SEAS faculty and compete in a design contest. 

“Our goal is to make every workshop as hands-on as possible,” Sun said. One workshop, for example, tasked students with finding the critical angle of lasers in Jell-O. Other professors have taught workshops on making concrete, Android apps, and alginate beads. Past design challenges include building bridges out of spaghetti, egg-drop devices, and, most recently, catapults—which have proven rather popular.

Sun said the workshops are ways for high school students to see the opportunities available to female engineers and give them a chance to meet working engineers.

“The very first year we had the program, they had tears in their eyes,” she said.

Now in its fourth year, EEE has grown from 40 participants to 90, with students coming from high schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

At Columbia, Sun was also a community adviser in Schapiro Hall and the vice president of Columbia’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Joining SWE as a member of its organizing committee her first year, Sun said that the group gave her a close-knit community, which is crucial for encouraging female engineers. 

“Despite the vast improvement, there is still discrepancy in the numbers,” she said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women accounted for just 26 percent of those employed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs. At SEAS, women account for 37 percent of undergraduate and 28 percent of graduate students.

For Sun, encouraging the next generation hasn’t come at the expense of her personal development as an engineer. Her senior capstone project is a motion-sensing hip protector for the elderly, which she developed with a team of other SEAS students.

“Current hip protectors are like pads, bulky and kind of ugly,” Sun said. Her team’s invention, which inflates when it detects the wearer beginning to fall, is “light and easy to use.” 

The goal of the hip protector is to cushion the impact of a fall, which Sun hopes will reduce hip fractures among the elderly.

This summer, Sun will be doing clinical research in the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s emergency room. Later on, she said she wants to combine her interests in medicine with her passion for working with youth. 

“I’m thinking of becoming a doctor when I graduate, maybe a pediatrician,” Sun said. “I’m a child at heart.”

deborah.secular@columbiaspectator.com  |  @DeborahSecular

This senior profile is part of Spectator’s 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

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