Heather Byrd: A voice for engineering students

May 11, 2002

by Steven Wright

"My friends say I don't act like an engineer at all, and I find that amusing," she says with a smile. "I think they forget that engineers are people, too. Generally, people have a picture of engineers as these nerds who sit in the lab and study all the time, or they think of us as these pale students with no social skill, but most of us aren't like that."

At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Byrd, a biomedical and electrical engineering double major, will join about 170 other well-tanned engineers at The Pratt School of Engineering commencement. There, she will have a chance to reflect upon the last four years with classmates, faculty and others who have come to respect Byrd for her wit and service to the school.

Byrd, 22, has represented students on a number of Pratt committees, including one that reviewed the engineering curriculum. She also served as the chapter president of the National Society of Women Engineers.

"I tried to pick activities that were important to me like helping plan changes to the engineering curriculum," said Byrd. "The new curriculum is very important to me because I think there are changes that can be made to make our experience even better. Getting involved in that way has always been important to me and something stressed in my family."

Her hard work and service did not go unnoticed. On the curriculum review committee, Byrd was pivotal in helping faculty members understand the complex needs of students, said Dr. Barry Myers, chair of the curriculum committee and associate professor of biomedical engineering.

"Heather's contribution to the curriculum committee has been outstanding," said Myers. "I cannot imagine a student making a more substantive contribution than Heather. She was a clear positive addition to the Pratt School's effort to improve our curriculum."

Byrd wanted to serve in a leadership role in the women engineers' society because the open and respectful atmosphere that she's encountered at Duke has made her stay easier than what female peers experience at other engineering programs, she said.

"I think [women at Duke] start off in a better place. Some women at other schools have had to start off with an 'F' instead of an 'A'; I don't feel that happens here. Sure, there are always going to be those in engineering that are nasty, but at Duke those instances are very rare."

In addition to Pratt's diversity, Byrd said she's also learned to appreciate the community atmosphere of the school -- one of the primary reasons she chose to study at Duke.

"I had a vision of college being some cut-throat environment where students sabotaged each other's projects just to get ahead. When I visited Duke, I learned college didn't have to be like that."

After a brief summer vacation, Byrd will join Capital One Financial Corp.'s Enterprise services in Richmond, Va., a place where she said she would be able to apply her engineering degree with her economics minor.

"I don't want to go somewhere and work where I do nothing with electronics, but at the same time I don't want to be the person who is going to design those electronics," she says. "I have all these options. It's not a bad thing to be overwhelmed by. In a way, it's the best thing Pratt has given me."