On the surface, Audrey Beattie’s day looks just as pedestrian as almost everyone else’s seems to during the pandemic. Each morning, Audrey wakes up in her Colorado home, perhaps takes a jog or walks her housemate’s golden retriever, then, after a strong cup of coffee, she settles into some long hours sitting in front of a computer screen.
Such is life in 2021.
That prosaic image, however, belies her exciting, decidedly 21st-century research and work: the environmental and economic impact of alternative fuels and their production.
A St. Mary’s alumna (class of 2015), Audrey is in the final stages of completing her Master’s thesis in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. As a contributor to a multidisciplinary, university-wide consortium called the Energy Institute, she is knee-deep every day in stats, figures, dollar amounts, and multi-tab spreadsheets, helping the Institute determine the environmental impact and economic feasibility of converting algae to a usable fuel source. Audrey’s particular role and burgeoning expertise is in building data-driven models to determine the hows, whys, what-ifs, and costs of scaling up fuel-conversion science labs, like one at Arizona State University, a partner school in this ambitious, long term project.
In many ways, Audrey’s work is the embodiment of a 21st-century career. In order to do it well, she’s had to become an expert in big data analytics, not just gathering and scrutinizing data sets provided almost weekly by her partners in Arizona, but then using that data to project what that sort of production would look like on a much larger scale. She then must take the models she has created and distill them to clear, digestible presentations so that they can be understood by everyone from biochemists to economists to writers to future policymakers spread across all nine colleges at the university. There’s no doubt that her work requires critical thought, creativity, collaboration, and communication--the very skills identified as the 4 C’s of the 21st-century workplace and classroom.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Audrey over Zoom. As her former American Literature teacher, I was quickly reminded of just how energetic, intelligent, articulate, and funny she is. She was quick to point out how valuable St. Mary’s was in preparing her for success. In high school, she took an immediate interest in her math and science courses, but not necessarily for the reason one might expect: “Because they were hard,” Audrey said. In particular, she cited Peter St. Onge’s notorious AP Calculus class, and his no-nonsense approach to teaching it, as being instrumental in her development. Audrey put it bluntly: “He demanded a lot and took no crap.” She has long fed off such academic challenges, taking great satisfaction in using patience, determination, and grit to arrive at the correct answer. She shared an anecdote about some of her undergraduate engineering classmates at the University of Portland who claimed they didn’t feel challenged by some of the material until upper level classes in their senior year. She gave a self-deprecating chuckle, and then reminisced, “Oh, really? It’s always been hard for me!”
Audrey indicated that it wasn’t just the St. Onge experience that helped shape her. She said that she learned about working across multiple disciplines, participating on a team, and utilizing a variety of soft skills on Mr. Romer’s popular “Zombie Island” project, which requires AP Environmental Science students to develop a sustainable plan for natural foods, potable water, and rudimentary housing, all the while being hypothetically hemmed in by a salty ocean and under attack by the walking dead. Ultimately, however, she said it is the comprehensive education that St. Mary’s provided that she is most thankful for. She said she wouldn’t be where she is without learning everything from the fine arts to ancient history to American literature.
Although she graduated before St. Mary’s sea shift to a modular schedule and an innovative curriculum based on choice, she is very familiar with both. She heard plenty from younger brother John, class of 2020, who shared all of the program’s benefits, including the framework that allows for annual curriculum additions that respond to an ever-evolving world and reflect teachers’ own personal and scholarly passions.
Audrey was thrilled to hear about St. Mary’s nascent engineering program, clearly articulated programming and coding tracks, CAD offerings, the robotics program, and of course, the practical yet inspiring campus addition of nine STEM labs in the Carrico Center. She is particularly excited about the Women in STEM classes that are being offered. As one of the only women in her master’s classes and lab group, she knows the importance of encouraging women to pursue STEM early and seeing them succeed. "I would not be where I am today if it weren't for an incredible female mentor I had in my undergrad, Dr. Dillon. Her encouragement and guidance is what gave me the confidence to pursue graduate school in the first place." This mentorship is right in line with an idea that Audrey believes to her core: “If you see it, you can be it.” On top of all this, she loves that kids still learn about the beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet and how to write a research paper. She says that communicating effectively is a key skill in any field, including the sciences. In commenting on the school’s role in preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce, Audrey said what we already know: “St. Mary’s is definitely going in the right direction.”
This spring Audrey will complete her thesis defense and then complete a highly sought-after internship with the U.S. Department of Energy this summer. Due to COVID, it hasn’t been determined whether that internship will be in Washington D.C., as is normally the case, or if it will be remote. Regardless, Audrey believes it will be another valuable experience in her professional and academic growth. She has some good leads for employment following her internship--perhaps research, perhaps consulting--but she hopes to stay in Colorado, or at least west of the Mississippi. She doesn’t want to stray too far from the people and places that helped her get to this point...even if “this point” is sitting in front of a computer screen.