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A Paradigm of Interdisciplinary Engineering

May 2, 2019

Photo: Atalaya Milan Wilborn, left, pictured here presenting her Capstone project with a teammate.

Atalaya Milan Wilborn is graduating soon, but that is just the beginning of her academic career. The class of 2019 BS in Civil Engineering student, who goes by Milan, found out about her acceptance into Harvard University’s Mechanical Engineering and Material Science PhD program while at her desk on co-op. “My friends and I joked because we thought it was a prank at first,” she recalled of her acceptance letter, which came through to her first as an email, and later in a packet through the post. She immediately called her mom to tell her the news, both of them tearing up. After that, “I basically just went home,” she said, laughing at the state of shock in which the surprise of her acceptance had placed her. For those who knew of the impressive interdisciplinary background Milan cultivated while an undergrad at Northeastern, it was anything but surprising.

Milan grew up in Laurel, Maryland, a town roughly halfway between Baltimore and the nation’s Capital, Washington, DC. But being on the Beltway didn’t pull Milan’s interests into politics. Her high school strengths of math and science were pushing her towards engineering. “I liked civil engineering because the entire purpose of the field was to make life better for people and solve problems in communities,” Milan said. When she was applying for college, she knew she wanted the quintessential university experience. Boston was a natural fit. “I was excited to come to Northeastern for the co-op program. I think if I went to a school that doesn’t have it, my path would be very different,” said Milan, reflecting on her time at the university and the program that helped expose her to a wide range of skills and experiences.

Milan has epitomized the interdisciplinary experience typical of an engineering student. Her co-op and research internships have taken her from soil sampling at highly contaminated brownfields to competing in NASA robot design challenges.  She started in the Civil Engineering program wanting to concentrate in environmental engineering. She quickly began to branch out into material science, adding the subject as a minor. Starting her sophomore year, she reached out to Assistant Professor Loretta Fernandez after taking one of her introductory environmental engineering courses. She began working in Dr. Fernandez’s Environmental Organic Chemistry Laboratory, taking field trips to do passive sampling on the abundance of PHPs in waters around Boston. “All the professors here are so welcoming to you doing research in their lab if you are interested,” Milan said. She took advantage of working with Dr. Fernandez from her sophomore year until fall of her senior year.

Her first co-op brought her back to Maryland, where she conducted soil remediation at the largest Brownfield in North America. Her second co-op found her inspecting highways and tunnels in Boston, working odd hours to inspect the Ted Williams, the I-93 highway and roadways under the Prudential Center. “I would go into the office for maybe 8 hours one day, and that night I would come into the office around 11 pm,” said Milan. “I would usually get back around 3-4 am and then next day I would sleep the entire day away.”

In the summer of 2018, she traveled to University of California, Riverside, to work on material science in the Mathaudhu Research Laboratory. She studied ultra-strong structural metals, such as those used in the bodies of cars or in other applications were high strength is integral. When Milan returned to Boston, she took her honed electrical and mechanical skills and joined Northeastern Rover- the university’s team competing in NASA’s robot design competition. She contributed to the rover’s arm and its mechanical components.

When she graduates in May, Milan will take with her to Harvard an impressive interdisciplinary background in environmental, structural, electrical, and materials engineering. Her plans for graduate school indicate she’ll continue to look for novel ways to blend disciplines to create impactful science. “I started off thinking about structural materials. I am looking more at soft materials- self healing technology and other soft materials,” said Milan. She wants to use her skills to help people and leave a positive impact on the world. “It would be cool to create something at Harvard that allows me to start a startup… that allows me to do something more sustainable.”