Rockets & Robotics

"Even before I knew what engineering was, I wanted to be an engineer," says Cristina Sorice. As a fifth grader, Sorice knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a rocket scientist. Years later, after reading about the courses offered by Penn Engineering's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), Sorice chose to attend Penn. Now a candidate for a bachelor's degree in MEAM and submatriculant in Robotics, she is on track to fulfill that childhood dream.

Support for Women Engineers

Sorice praises Penn Engineering's support programs that target new female engineering students. Prior to beginning classes at Penn, Sorice participated in the freshman pre-orientation program hosted by Advancing Women in Engineering, directed by Michele Grab. This program is designed to increase awareness of and interest in engineering, enhancing the overall academic experience of female engineering students. It was this experience that introduced Sorice to other women in the field, fostering friendships and offering "incredible resources and networking opportunities for women in engineering."

Summer Experiences Shape Career Goals

Sorice's summer experiences have allowed her to apply her academic interests to real-world engineering puzzles. In 2011, Sorice returned to the New Jersey Governor's School of Engineering and Technology at Rutgers University as a counselor, a program she had experienced just two years before as a student. Visiting engineering companies and participating in research in the field, "made me realize that I could do it, that I could be an engineer," she says. "I could come from a big public high school with no engineering classes, attend a school of engineering, and succeed."

In 2012, Sorice was chosen as a Rachleff Scholar at Penn, spending that summer under the guidance of Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor in MEAM, learning about optimization of systems of flying robots accomplishing joint tasks. Summer 2013 found Sorice engaged as a Guidance, Navigation and Controls Intern at Escape Dynamics, an aerospace robotics company in Colorado. There, she created a system that allows a microwave antenna to autonomously track a flying aerial vehicle so that it continually points at the vehicle in order to provide it with a constant supply of energy.

Connecting Learning and Life Skills

Sorice sparkles when she talks about the opportunities in her major. She says she "fell in love with all the cool stuff" in aerospace robotics, only wishing she'd known earlier how much she would love robotics. Sorice found the four courses she took with Bruce Kothmann, Senior Lecturer in MEAM, particularly exciting because his experience in the aerospace industry brought classroom theory to life. When she feels challenged by an engineering problem, Sorice is inspired to work through frustration because Kothmann's examples of industry experience helped her appreciate the connection between the academics of engineering courses and their applications to professional life. She marvels at his ability to "give real-world examples for anything you might encounter in engineering." When she shared her summer project assignment for Escape Dynamics, Kothmann immediately named specific examples of work Sorice had done in class that could apply to the internship work, adding to her confidence in embarking on this opportunity.

Connecting Passions

Engineering is not Sorice's only passion. Interviewed while on the job in Colorado, she cited her current slate of leisure reading: a biography of the poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and Chuck Palahnuik's Stranger Than Fiction. In addition to her wide-ranging interests, she has outreach plans for post-graduation. She is interested in public education advocacy programs, particularly STEM education. Her passion is apparent when she says, "I want to make sure that wherever I work, if there isn't already an outreach program, I can start one. Outreach really matters to me."

Sorice has also been a voice for academic policy as an active member of the Penn Student Committee on Undergraduate Education, a branch of Penn Student Government. She considers herself fortunate to have been accepted for this position and credits this involvement with rounding out her Penn experience.

Sorice is poised to realize her childhood vision of a career in aerospace engineering. Ultimately, she would love to create "the next Mars Rover or science lab, or send people to Mars." The perfect integration of science, engineering and the arts is embodied by her favorite quote from poet Sylvia Plath: "What I fear most, I think, is the death of the imagination...if I sit still and don't do anything, the world goes on beating like a slack drum, without meaning. We must be moving, working, making dreams to run toward; the poverty of life without dreams is too horrible to imagine." It's a safe bet that Cristina Sorice won't be sitting still.

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "Rockets & Robotics" by Stephanie Sayago Bell.

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