From Chemistry to Engineering:

An undergraduate’s passion for STEM inspires other women to follow suit

Annie Zhao
Courtesy of Annie Zhao
Annie Zhao, fourth-year materials engineering student

May 13, 2022

UCLA Samueli
Science has long fascinated fourth-year materials engineering student Annie Zhao, who will soon join the class of 2022 to engineer change in the real world.

“I remember when I was 6 years old and my grandma was reading this kids encyclopedia to me,” Zhao said. “That’s when I first learned what an atom was and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that is mind-blowing!’”

Zhao found a deeper passion for the atom and all its wonders in her high school chemistry class, which spurred her to apply for a research program called “Girls in STEM.” A New Jersey native, Zhao commuted across the Hudson River to New York University every day in the summer after her junior year to conduct research in organic chemistry. By the end of the program, Zhao was a published researcher — a year before her high school graduation.

“I think that [program] really jump-started my love of STEM and just made me feel like I have the confidence to be able to do something more than just taking classes,” Zhao said.

Zhao came to UCLA as a chemistry student, but in her freshman year, she began to consider transferring to the Samueli School of Engineering because of the hands-on research opportunities it offered. However, Zhao realized that she didn’t have a true understanding of engineering because it was not something she was exposed to in high school.

“Finding SWE was honestly such a big comfort to me, to be able to have these women that would always have my back,” Annie Zhao said.

While seeking resources to gain a better understanding of the discipline, Zhao came across the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at UCLA. Through SWE, Zhao connected with upperclassmen who helped guide her in her decision to join UCLA Samueli and mentored her transition to the materials engineering major because she liked learning how microstructures affect mechanical properties in every kind of material.

“Finding SWE was honestly such a big comfort to me, to be able to have these women that would always have my back,” Zhao said.

After her freshman year, Zhao served as a UCLA SWE committee member helping to plan the organization’s annual “Evening with Industry” networking event. She later became the director of the event and served as president of UCLA SWE during her senior year.

“When I found that community my freshman year, I just really wanted to give back and ensure that the next year’s freshmen coming into the school would be able to find the same community that I did,” Zhao said.

To help welcome and inspire new students, Zhao participated in many of SWE’s outreach events, including “Wow! That’s Engineering Day!” during which hundreds of local Girl Scouts visit UCLA to learn about engineering from Samueli students. With much of SWE’s executive board composed of women of color, Zhao said she is proud to show young girls that everyone can be an engineer.

Annie Zhao and classmates
Zhao (front row, second from left) with SWE’s other “Evening with Industry” committee members.
“That’s empowering to see that there are so many minorities representing SWE leadership, being the face of women in engineering and representing the school as well when we’re doing outreach and showing young women that you can be of any color to be an engineer,” Zhao said.

As the “Evening with Industry” director, Zhao was faced with the added challenge of hosting the event — which usually connects 400 students with representatives from 40 companies — in an entirely virtual sphere for the first time. She turned to SWE collegiate chapter leaders across the country for input, and through that network, she was able to find a virtual platform that simulated the feeling of a networking event to keep the “Evening with Industry” spirit alive.

“It was really cool that I got to spearhead that movement to ensure that the virtual times were good for everyone,” Zhao said.

Annie Zhao and classmate
Zhao and her SWE mentor working on a beam layup for a competition
Zhao’s love for UCLA and engineering is also reflected in her involvement as a UCLA Engineering Ambassador. In this role, Zhao gives prospective students tours of the engineering school and answers questions about what it’s like to be a Bruin engineer.

“Being an ambassador and getting to shed light on what it really means to be an engineer and how many different types of opportunities and different types of people are at UCLA engineering is really important to me, and I like to bring that out in all of my tours,” Zhao said.

Zhao explored some of the different opportunities she has had as an engineer through research and internships throughout her undergraduate career. Her most recent internship for Medtronic, a biomedical company, made Zhao realize she wants to pursue a career in the research and development of medical devices.

“I wanted to do something that was good for the world, and gave back to the community and made an impact, and I thought medical devices could do that,” Zhao said.

After she graduates in June, Zhao will start working for the neurovascular device research team at Medtronic. She looks forward to being what she calls a “full-time SoCal girl,” working at the company’s Irvine office where she will bring her materials engineering perspective to the team of bioengineers and mechanical engineers.

Natalie Weber contributed to this story.

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