In this installment of Senior Member Insights, OPN talks with Ingrid Scheel, a project instructor at Oregon State University. Scheel completed her master’s degree in 2018 in industrial engineering with a focus on engineering management. She holds bachelor’s degrees in electrical and computing engineering and English with a minor in writing.
As a project instructor, Scheel uses experiential methods that incorporate and innovate best practices for design through an engineering lens. Her work includes sensor and system design, prototype development and deployment, instrumentation, data acquisition and analysis, and reporting. Scheel has supported efforts to develop fiber optic sensors and sensing systems in industry since 2010. Scheel is president of the OSA Columbia Section and works to forge strong connections between industry and academic research.
What first interested you in pursuing science?
My parents. I grew up in a small business—Dad was the nerd and Mom was the facilitator. I was told I took apart everything I could find in the house (clocks, tools, toys), but my first memory of really loving signals and systems is when I was eight years old. My dad brought home a “build your own radio” kit from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and I was stoked to tinker. We meticulously followed the instructions and with wires all over it, I listened to music on that very static-y radio, fascinated that I could put something functional together rather than just dismantle things.
What aspect of your current work do you find the most interesting or exciting?
My niche in industry is fiber Bragg grating sensors, specifically at extremely high speeds, pressures and temperatures. Data acquisition is beyond fun in those circumstances, and pushing the edge of what a material can do is always exciting. The privilege of being in a small-business environment is participating in every stage of a project’s life cycle—from the fuzzy front end to a product on the shelf.
With travel restrictions in 2020 severely limiting my access to customers, I took on a teaching role at the local university. I engage with hundreds of brilliant young people each year, ready and willing to change the world. I chat with them about optics and photonics, their career aspirations and how cool sensors are in general as often as possible. That is keeping me on my toes as I continue independent research on a small scale.
What tips for successful networking do you have for early-career professionals?
Stop being intimidated. Go up to someone at a professional event and introduce yourself, be polite, ask questions. When in doubt, ask what someone’s research can do in the real world. Example: “That is so interesting! What application do you see [insert research topic] being useful for?” You can gather a lot of information about a topic from how it will be implemented (and a person from how they would use their work). People mostly want to know what young people think and young people want to learn. The person you might be hesitating to approach is likely there to talk to you.
What professional resources do you rely on to stay active and engaged with your field?
I attend international conferences and help run a local OSA chapter. That involves work with students and professional OSA members. I aim to engage with the traveling lecturer program at least once a year. The Columbia section of OSA sponsors a yearly workshop that brings students at local universities (Oregon and Southwest Washington) and industry members together to give pitches about their research. It is a low-stakes environment where students can gain presentation experience, and industry folks can market their company and see what student groups are up to.
Basically, I talk to people as often as possible. Half of my success is hard work, and the other half is diligently bugging folks (and, of course, luck). LinkedIn is helpful as a repository. I have been in meetings where I say, “Let’s be friends! I will find you on LinkedIn,” and often, it is well received. Again, people are on these platforms to make connections.
Continuing education is another big one. Always be learning something, hopefully, but not necessarily applicable to your current position (or, even better, the future job you want!).
What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a career like yours?
Communication, concentration, perseverance and open-mindedness. I firmly believe anyone can learn anything—it’s just the timeline that varies (and the interest/patience level of the person pursuing the career).
What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made, and why?
Starting my own company, hands down. That was probably the best and worst decision I ever made. I finished undergraduate studies in 2009 during a harsh recession where jobs were few and far between. Having been raised by entrepreneurs, I started a small baking company while I figured out what I wanted to do and eventually redirected to a high-tech company that was more in my field. I am very glad I started my first company with something low stakes (I literally made and sold cookies out of a commercial kitchen) because I learned how to apply the basics of small business on my own and was able to apply all those lessons to Multnomah Falls Research LLC.
Work hard, network, keep working, repeat and delegate eventually/when you can afford it.
What advice do you have for young scientists who are discouraged about their current work or career path?
Stay technical. I started as a technician, became an engineer, and now I am teaching. That is a very weird trajectory. But at the end of the day, I am doing electro-optic projects and teaching fundamentals. The present moment does not define your future, and you have the power to work toward a new normal or a new goal. But you end up where you are heading, so if you do not like the view, change directions.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you were given as a student/early in your career?
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth repeating. Try, try again—I know it’s cliché, but it’s so real.
What habits do you frequently rely on that help you to succeed?
I have a couple of people in my life who are excellent listeners, and I am a planner addict (basically, I journal a lot). Getting my thoughts out on paper helps me clear my head. I also buy planners way in advance and write notes to my future self on dates when I think I will need to anticipate problems or meet deadlines that recur. When all else fails, I exercise to move energy from my brain into my body.
If you weren’t in the sciences, what would be your dream career?
Probably education, which is hilarious since that’s where I ended up. It turns out teaching the sciences is as cool as doing the science.