How One Can Engineer Their Way in Academia

Network member, researcher, and engineer, Pelagie Elimbri shares her career journey in STEM

What started as a path of uncertainty around choosing a major has now turned into deliberate expertise and sheer determination to earn a doctorate. For this month’s featured network member, researcher, and engineer, Pelagie Elimbri, choosing a career path wasn’t necessarily visceral, but has undoubtedly become very rewarding. Pelagie never had a dream career. She went through 5 majors before settling on Mechanical Engineering in the spring of her sophomore year. This was after she took a product and engineering design course that semester. She has always enjoyed learning new concepts as well as creating tangible products with her own hands. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of California Berkeley, where she focuses on data-driven optimization problems intersecting agriculture.

Pelagie has worked on various thrilling projects throughout her academic career. She is particularly excited about her more recent project because it addresses the fundamental human rights of access to food. It involves developing an efficient model for global food allocation under production uncertainty. The production of different foods is uncertain due to unstable climatic conditions and geopolitical instability. The model factors this randomness in and provides an optimal solution detailing what quantities of each product should be allocated between countries and how much inventory to store during a period.

As an African woman in STEM, Pelagie admits to having a hard time finding peers and mentors with whom she can identify and relate with. She found it challenging to fit into the mold of what she had initially thought a researcher and an engineer should be. In addition is the pressure to be a representative for all Africans in every space she occupies. This is the plight of many Africans who are in a similar space. Even though representation and diversity are crucial for the encouragement and upward mobility of many historically marginalized communities, the onus that is placed on ‘breakthrough’ individuals to represent these groups in their entirety is inherently unfair and usually exhausting.

“This burden was only amplified when I started graduate school,” Pelagie says. However, it is apparent that Pelagie has found a healthy perspective to help her deal with these pressures. “In a world where racing for research funding, and marathoning to the next research finding and performance based on several paper citations, comparing oneself can quickly set in. Through many years of reflecting on open research problems with no clear-cut solutions, it slowly became apparent to me that the only sustainable route for growth was a competition against myself and continuously striving for self-improvement.”

When asked about what excites her the most about the future of engineering in Africa, Pelagie beams about the emerging opportunities on the continent when it comes to scaling technology-backed startups and making use of data ethically to obtain insights that support decision-making for all kinds of systems. The promise of engineering companies and startups on the continent who are providing solutions to tackle some of Africa’s biggest challenges around food, sanitation, health, etc., gives her hope. In the same vein, she notes that a number of these companies fail to scale in their countries and on the international stage.

Pelagie’s career holds the promise of great prosperity. Her goal is to gain experience in using data-driven insights for decision-making for manufacturing systems. After completing her doctoral degree, she would like to join the research team in a global company for a few years. In the long term, she would like to get into teaching and promote higher education in STEM for girls. Additionally, she wants to work on developing technologies that support the scaling of small manufacturing organizations on the African continent.

Pelagie’s story is particularly inspiring because it demonstrates how one can still have a remarkable career without having an initial conviction about the direction that one would like to follow. There is nothing wrong with not having your career planned out to the T, nor is there anything wrong with pivoting at any point. Originally from Doula, Cameroon, Pelagie Elimbri has already left her footprint in academia and engineering and is bound to tread more greatly in the future. We, at AL for Infrastructure, cannot wait to see the impressions of her journey.

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