Carolyn Conner Seepersad
West Virginia University, B.S., Mechanical Engineering, 1996
University of Oxford, B.A., Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1998
Georgia Institute of Technology, M.S., Mechanical Engineering, 2001
Georgia Institute of Technology, Ph.D., Mechanical Engineering, 2004
Carolyn Conner Seepersad grew up in West Virginia, where she also attended college. She was West Virginia University’s twenty-fifth Rhodes Scholar. At an early age, she excelled in math and science. She is currently an assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
Tell me a bit about your family life growing up.
I grew up in rural West Virginia. I have two sisters, but they are much older than I am. They were teenagers when I was born, so when I was growing up, I was really the only child at home. I grew up on a family farm. My grandparents had the farm before my parents. My grandparents lived about a hundred yards away. It was very rural. I like to tell people it was an hour to the nearest McDonald’s, which to any city dweller causes shock and horror. But it wasn’t bad. One high school in the whole county. One stop light. It was a great place to grow up. I spent a lot of time outside, playing outdoors.
What part of West Virginia was it?
I lived in Clay County, in a town called Valley Fork. I’m not sure you would call it a town. There was a small, one-room store, an elementary school that I attended a quarter mile up the road, and a one room post office even closer to the house. Often, everyone knew everyone’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. It was a pretty small community. I would usually tell people that I was from Clay County, which they would be more likely to know than the little zip code of Valley Fork. The county had about ten to twelve thousand people I think. The largest town was Clay, which had a population of a few hundred. It still does.
Was your father a farmer?
My dad actually was an NCO in the Air Force for over twenty years and retired when I was very young, about three. When he retired he moved back to West Virginia to take over the family farm. We had about a hundred acres. We had some cattle. We grew lots of vegetables. We had an apple tree, some grape vines. It wasn’t what you would call a commercial farm. When my dad moved back to West Virginia, he worked for the school system. He drove school buses. My mom was a teacher’s aid.
How would you describe yourself as a child?
From everything that I’ve heard, I was probably fairly precocious. I talked a lot and interacted with adults a lot, because few kids lived nearby. I mostly interacted with my parents and my grandparents, so I was probably beyond my age in terms of speaking and interacting with adults. I was also very active, especially as a young child. I would be outside a lot, whether it was wintertime and sleigh riding, or summertime and building dams in the creek by the house. I remember trying to transplant wild flowers to make my own wildflower garden. Of course, that didn’t work. And when I learned to read, I read a tremendous amount. By the time I got to high school and received a reading list from the English teacher, I had already read at least half the books on the list, just because I wanted to read them. So those were my two favorite past times: being outside and reading.
What made you read a lot? Who or what was an influence?
My parents always encouraged me to do that, but I don’t think it was just their encouragement. I just really enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed reading about other people and other places. I probably had a bit broader world view than my background might suggest, because my parents had moved and lived in so many places like Japan, Ohio, and Georgia. And my mother was actually German. She was a naturalized citizen. I had been to Germany as a very young child, around five. And my German grandparents would come and visit. I had a bit broader worldview than most children in West Virginia or any other state I guess for that matter. That probably helped me, motivated me to read and learn more about other people in other times and places. My parents encouraging me to read and to get a good education were the key to having a prosperous and happy future. But I had an inner motivation to do that as well.
What was their parenting style? Tough love? Hands off? Helicopter parents?
That’s a good question and probably something I think about more now, since the arrival of my own first child a couple of months ago. I have to say I was a relatively good child. I didn’t get into trouble very much at all. I rarely disobeyed or talked back. I did have a mind of my own, so you couldn’t always tell me what to do. But I was a relatively well behaved child. Both of my parents talked to me a lot. My parents spent a tremendous amount of time with me. They were my playmates, because there weren’t a lot of kids around. In a lot of senses, they allowed me to decide what I wanted to do and then supported me and gave me a lot of leeway to pursue those interests. Their parenting style was nurturing, although they would have been happy to transition into a little more tough love if needed.
Are there any bits of wisdom they tried to instill in you that you’ve held with you through the years?
In my family, education always came first. If I had homework, if there were contests or social studies fairs or math days, my parents would always put that first. So I was encouraged to do my very best in anything related to school. It was assumed from a very early age that I would go to college and I would get a degree, even though my parents hadn’t gone to college, although my sisters had. I remember hearing on multiple occasions that I could do whatever I wanted to do, I could be whatever I wanted to be. That’s not necessarily something that every kid hears. Sometimes children are a bit pigeon holed. “Oh, you like math. Well, maybe you should be a teacher.” My parents never said that. If you want to be a teacher, that’s great, but if you want to be something else, that’s great, too. If you want to be an engineer, if you want to be scientist, if you want to be a doctor, then you’re capable of doing that. You can do whatever it is that you want to do. That really stuck with me. That’s something I certainly will try to do with my own child. It was special in the sense that it gave you confidence that you can do whatever you wanted to do. It also didn’t pigeonhole you into particular routes, so you never felt like you were bucking the trend by doing what you wanted to do. That’s really important. It’s especially important for young women to hear that they have a lot of options open and available to them.
Is there anyone else besides your parents who believed in you, who were a big influence as well?
My grandparents had a big influence upon me. Like I said, they lived about a hundred yards away. They were your typical grandparents, baking cookies and sitting on the porch. They always enjoyed spending time with me. My parents took the mentoring role as opposed to my grandparents, but my grandparents were very supportive. I remember coming home with good grades or an award. My grandparents were so proud. That has a very big impression on a young kid who can’t wait to come home and tell mom and dad (and grandma and grandpa!) the good news. It’s important to have people who are excited about your accomplishments.
Did you have any role models real or fictional while growing up?
I never really had a specific role model. Maybe, I would take bits and pieces from things I had read or heard, and I would look to my parents as role models more than anyone else. I can’t really put my finger on a specific external role model when I was really young. I looked up to my teachers quite a lot. I had some excellent teachers who really pushed me and motivated me to do much more than I would have done otherwise.
How much did religion influence your upbringing?
My family has always been religious. My grandparents were particularly religious. We’d go to church as a child fairly regularly, so my family’s perspective instilled in me a very deep sense of honesty and loyalty, in terms of treating people with compassion and respect. I still carry those values with me, in terms of honesty and integrity and treating everyone with respect, regardless of their socioeconomic class, gender, color, etc.
What do think made you stand apart from your peers especially in high school?
Looking back, it was never easy to be the smart kid. There is always a little bit of social stigma that you have to overcome. I might not have had the highest IQ in the class or the highest innate intelligence, but I can almost guarantee you that I was the hardest worker in the class. That continued all the way through my education … just a tremendous amount of dedication and commitment. You couldn’t tell me no; you couldn’t tell me that it couldn’t be done; I simply wouldn’t quit. That was probably one of the characteristics that made me stand out from the crowd.
Looking back, it’s hard to view yourself from afar and really assess your personality. I’ve generally been fairly unassuming; I’ve tried not to wear my accomplishments on my sleeve or prove my intelligence. Also, I’ve always been able to relate to other people very well. That combination of a relatively unassuming, friendly personality combined with a lot of really, really hard work is probably the two traits that stand out if you asked someone about my high school years.
Was there any memorable moment while growing up that left a huge impact on you? Was there a big event, good or bad?
I can’t really say there was a defining moment when my life suddenly changed. I’ve always been relatively steady and consistent personally and professionally.
When did your vocation become clear to you?
I knew in elementary school that I had a talent for math, and I really enjoyed it. Also, in high school I enjoyed the sciences. Math and science have always been my strongest areas, and I knew I wanted to pursue those fields.
I enjoyed the practical sides of things as well. As a kid, I enjoyed building dams in the creek, so engineering really came to the forefront for me. If I hadn’t studied engineering, I probably would have studied physics, since I perceived it as one of the more applied sciences.
In high school and also in college, I was always the person who enjoyed helping other people solve math and science problems and sharing my discoveries with someone else. I truly enjoyed teaching and public speaking. It became clear to me that I enjoyed academic life and teaching, so I was en route to become a professor from my early days as a college student. Being a professor allows me to do what I love-engineering-and to be in very people-oriented profession. I wouldn’t have been happy crunching numbers all day.
Did your family travel a lot?
We traveled domestically but very little internationally. As a child, my only international trip was a vacation with my mom to Germany to see my family when I was five years old. Domestically, we traveled throughout the East Coast from Washington, D.C. down to Florida. We didn’t travel broadly, but every year, multiple times a year we would travel out of the state. I’m sure it was far above average for the typical kid growing up in the States in the 1970s and ’80s. My international travel really began when I graduated from college and traveled to England for the Rhodes. That’s when I started to travel frequently.
So you’re saying most of the trips were road trips?
They were all road trips. In fact, my family always had an RV, which we would pull behind our truck, or Suburban. I remember traveling to different historical sites or to visit my sisters. Those trips were our family vacations, and I thoroughly enjoyed them because I could ride my bike, swim and do all sorts of outdoor activities. I rarely stayed in a hotel until I was in high school.
When you went to Oxford and traveled a lot, how did that change your viewpoint or philosophy?
Traveling and living with people from other countries-extremely articulate people with very different perspectives-really gives you an appreciation for the fact that people look at things and events differently. When I was at Oxford, it was the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Some of my international friends viewed the scandal very differently. I would often find myself trying to defend or explain the “American” perspective, and I began to appreciate how citizens of other countries have different perspectives. You really stop taking for granted that everyone looks at problems the same way that you do.
It’s not enough to just travel. It’s something you have to experience by really diving in and immersing yourself in a different culture. It’s not something you can get from a one or two week trip to France or Italy. That’s just not enough time. You’re not immersed enough to really get that experience. You have to live somewhere else for a period of time and struggle through the challenges of signing up for a bank account and navigating the markets and doing all of the tasks that are so easy at home but suddenly so challenging in a different environment.
So, this appreciation for different perspectives really carries over into your professional life. As a professor, I teach students from a number of different countries, and today’s engineering profession is so international with global product teams and supply chains.
Is there anything else that you took away from being a Rhodes Scholar into your present day life?
You cannot deny that it opens a tremendous number of doors. No one ever questions your credentials. Sometimes it’s a little bit daunting, because you’re not the world’s expert on everything just because one day you interviewed well and all of a sudden you’re a Rhodes Scholar. In some ways it’s a heavy feeling, because you think, “Wow, I’ve got all these opportunities. What am I going to do?” It’s also liberating to know that you have all these opportunities and you just have to follow the best path for you-the path that enables you to make the best contribution to society.
Also, it taught me to be more thoughtful. When I came back to the United States, I missed the community that I had at Oxford. Oxford is unique in the sense that you have so many very, very bright, very, very motivated people together in one place from so many different countries. By virtue of the university’s organization, you find yourself in colleges with people from different countries and different specialties. Here in the States, as an engineering professor, I interact primarily with other engineering professors and students, but at Oxford I might have dinner with a fellow engineer, a physicist, and a theoretical philosopher. You have all of these different perspectives living in the same place, eating at the same tables. It teaches you to be much more thoughtful about your opinions, your work, and how you explain them to someone else. As a result of being a Rhodes Scholar and living in Oxford, I am a much better critical thinker and much more thoughtful than I would have been otherwise.
Who suggested that you apply for the Rhodes Scholarship? Is there a story behind that?
We had a professor at West Virginia University whose name was Robert Diclerico-a fantastic political science professor, an expert on the presidency-who screened candidates and searched for good applicants.
One day, he asked me to visit his office to discuss the Rhodes Scholarship. I thought, “I’m an engineer and engineers never seem to become Rhodes Scholars. Why are we wasting our time?” But I decided to speak with him anyway, and he convinced me to apply and helped me develop my applications. As I spoke with various mentors and asked for recommendation letters, many of them were incredibly enthusiastic. It was an attack of positive peer pressure from my friends, professors and mentors. Also the president of our university at the time was a former Rhodes Scholar and he gave me words of encouragement that boosted my self-confidence and made a tremendous impact on my candidacy.
Was that the only time you had issues with your self-confidence?
Looking back, I never would have classified myself as overly confident. In general, I was never quite sure how far I could go, or what I could do. Innately, inside of me, I had this powerful drive. For example, when you grow up in a very small community in a fairly rural area, you wonder what it’s going to be like when you step up to a big, 30,000-person university. And then when you’re there, you’re wondering what it’s going to be like when you step up to a really competitive graduate school. You’re always wondering what that next step is going to be like and not quite knowing how well you’re going to do. In that sense, I did have issues with self-confidence or some fear of the unknown, but I moved forward anyway.
You had mentioned that others were sure you were a great candidate to be a Rhodes Scholar, but you didn’t. What did they see that you didn’t?
That’s a great question. Maybe we should ask them. [Laughs] Again, it’s really hard sometimes to view yourself from afar. I knew I was a good student, but when people win awards like a Rhodes Scholarship, the images that are portrayed in the media can sometimes be a bit daunting. So and so worked for Mother Teresa and so and so developed this wonderful organization that’s going to cure world hunger. You look at that and you think, “Doggone it. I’m an engineer. I’m going to be a professor. I’ve done this. I’ve done that. But I haven’t worked for Mother Teresa and I’m probably not going to cure world hunger, so really, why I am bothering to apply?” It’s easy to build an unrealistic image of the people who receive these types of awards.
I think what they saw was someone who was academically very talented and someone who naturally seems to find herself in leadership positions … and enjoy them.
What kind of leadership roles did you have at university?
When I was an undergraduate, I was the leader of our college honor society, which was the only organization that brought together people from different engineering disciplines. Our main role was to organize outreach activities, to emphasize the softer side of engineering. When I was president, we started a number of new programs such as a shadowing program. We brought high school kids onto campus to follow us through our day. As an engineering student you don’t have a tremendous amount of free time. The course work is pretty demanding, so you’re trying to squeeze your other activities into little bits of pieces of time here and there.
What is your perspective on failure? How do you handle?
Failure is different things to different people. Failure to me is anytime I disappoint myself. It can be a good thing as long as you learn from it.
Did you always have that perspective when you were growing up?
I tried very hard not to fail. I was very much the perfectionist. That was something I’ve had to address throughout my life. I’ve had to learn not to dwell on things and to turn them into learning experiences instead. For example, your Oxford degree depends on a series of exams that are administered in a two-week period at the end of your studies. The exams alone determine whether you get a first class degree, a second class degree, or something lower. I performed acceptably on the exams, but I didn’t do as well on them as I would have liked. But I learned a tremendous amount from the experience; for example, how to prepare for those types of comprehensive exams, how to be disciplined about it and so on. I was able to put it into perspective and say, “Okay, Carolyn, look back on your experience. What was it that you could have done so much better in retrospect?” As a consequence, I learned some important lessons about long-term planning that helped me be more successful later in life, such as when I prepared for my Ph.D. qualifying exams. I did really well on those exams, but it wouldn’t have happened if I’d felt like I aced the Oxford exams. Being able to take disappointments in stride and learn from those experiences is my perspective on failure.
How come you majored in PPE (Philosophy, Politics & Economics) at Oxford?
What I wanted to do was broaden my undergraduate studies, because engineering undergraduates do not have the opportunity to take a broad range of courses. I felt my course work was constrained, and necessarily so, because there are so many things you have to learn to be an engineer. I felt that PPE would offer a totally different perspective that would help me be a better educator, in particular, when I came back to engineering. And I believe that it has. It made me a better writer, a better critical thinker, and gave me a knowledge of ethics and economics that is very helpful in my specialty of design engineering.
What would you say to anyone about going beyond leading a mediocre life and living a rich fulfilling life not just a contented or conventional one?
I consider myself to be too young-at the start of my career-to explain how I’ve led a non-mediocre life. Maybe in thirty years, I can look back and paint a great picture. From my youthful perspective, I can say that nothing comes easy. Living a non-mediocre life requires a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices. It takes a much more long-term view than a lot of people may be willing to take. You also have to follow what it is that you enjoy and not let anyone convince you otherwise. It’s difficult to truly excel at something that you don’t enjoy. You’ll find a way to make that path meaningful and to make an impact on people, but first you have to do something that you enjoy.
Can you name three things that you enjoy about what you do?
I love working with people. I love working with the students. That’s the number one thing. I love to see them do well. I love to see them grow and develop. It far eclipses anything else I would mention. I also enjoy being able to learn new things. That’s part of being a researcher. You get paid to do both of those things, which is really quite a dream job for me. The other thing is to be flexible and to be your own boss in this job. No one tells you what to do from hour to hour. You plan it out yourself. That’s quite nice.
And in layman’s terms what exactly do you focus on?
I do research in engineering design, improving the design processes that people use to create new products. I develop methodologies and computational tools to make the design process easier and more effective.
What kind of specific products?
Most of my work could be applied to a broad range of products, but I do focus on applications in solid freeform fabrication, which is the use of rapid prototyping machines to make products directly from a computerized CAD file. It opens lots of opportunities for customizing products.