Nuclear Engineering Graduate Student Seeks to Increase Diversity Among His Peers

by Luis Ocampo

On January 25, 1999, my hometown of Armenia, Colombia, suffered a very devastating earthquake which not only destroyed a large majority of the city but also led to chaos and looting. The latter caused my father’s business to be completely empty making that whole year very hard for all of us. Given the situation and how devastated the economy was, my parents decided to find a better life and give me a better future by moving to the United States.

Coming to the U.S. was incredible! I was 12 years old and everything seemed really amazing. I came during the winter, so seeing snow for the first time was very pretty and special. I started attending middle school immediately. In Colombia, I had to walk to school, so being picked up by the bus on the corner of the street in the U.S. felt like a luxury. My life changed dramatically with all the education opportunities. I moved out of the English as a Second Language program in six months and started high school like all the regular students. I was lucky that my high school had many after-school activities and even a radio station, so I decided to participate in everything.

I ended up at Penn State, thanks to the College of Engineering’s undergraduate recruitment initiatives. For example, I participated in a program called VIEW (Visit In Engineering Week) where I was given hands-on experience relating to engineering projects, design, and presentations. Part of that week included tours of various labs and facilities around campus. One of the moments of my life that I will never forget was the Thursday of that week when we visited the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor. During the tour they did a pulse of the reactor which is quite an incredible sight and seeing it fascinated me so much that I said, “this is the coolest thing in the world and I want to be a nuclear engineer.” There was never any doubt that I would attend any other university but Penn State because the College’s Multicultural Engineering Program made sure that I liked it here. Upon being accepted into Penn State I was enrolled in the Pre-First Year Science and Engineering program, which gave me a really great experience and made me feel that that I really belonged even before my freshman year started.

One of the main challenges during my undergraduate years was the lack of diversity, particularly in engineering. I joined different clubs and societies to fill the gap and to make new friends; this was when the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers really became crucial to my involvement and my experience. As a first-generation college student, I felt that I was another minority, not because of being Latino, but rather because it felt that everyone’s family had attended Penn State for many generations.

Now as a graduate student and hopefully the first Ph.D. in my family, I am faced with an even greater lack of diversity at the graduate level. This is why we formed the Multicultural Engineering Graduate Association. It creates initiatives that foster the recruitment and retention of domestically diverse graduate students. I am very happy that Dean Elnashai has made this one of his priorities and is starting to take steps towards a solution.

Luis Ocampo was named runner-up in the J.D. Williams Student Paper Competition, based on research he performed at Brookhaven National Lab during the summer of 2013.  (Photo Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Luis Ocampo (right) was named runner-up in the J.D. Williams Student Paper Competition, based on research he performed at Brookhaven National Lab during the summer of 2013. (Photo Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

I think graduating as a nuclear engineer has been my greatest success. However, now in graduate school, I have to say that working at a national laboratory and being recognized by the premier technical organization in nuclear materials feel like the greatest success. I do hope that many more will come and I can contribute significantly to my field.

Luis Ocampo is president of the Multicultural Engineering Graduate Association, vice-president of the Penn State Institute of Nuclear Materials Management student chapter, elected representative for the College of Engineering to the Graduate & Professional Student Association, and a member of the Catholic Graduate Student Group. He aspires to work at a national laboratory as a scientist and eventually work for the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of nuclear materials management and nuclear security. In his free time, Luis enjoys electric remote controlled cars, cooking and baking (lately lots of pumpkin bread), listening to music, and traveling (when time permits).

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Making a Difference as an Engineering Ambassador

by Kelsi McKinley Lester


How many engineering students do you know who would willingly wake up at 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, so they can drive two hours and arrive at a middle school by the time class begins—all to teach students about engineering?

Probably not that many. However, I am part of an organization where the members are not only willing to wake up that ridiculously early—but do so with smiles on their faces. We’re Penn State’s Engineering Ambassadors!

Engineering Ambassadors is a “professional development organization with an outreach mission.” I like to consider us the student-face for the College of Engineering. We give College of Engineering tours to prospective students, deliver “My College of Engineering” presentations that show prospective students and parents the ‘human’ side of Penn State’s College of Engineering, and most importantly conduct outreach visits.

The outreach visits are my favorite aspect of Engineering Ambassadors and the reason that I decided to apply. During my sophomore year, I learned that my friends Julia and Jen had just become Engineering Ambassadors. As I researched more about the organization, it seemed ideal for me. As I learned about the outreach visits and that I could share my love of engineering with young students, I knew I needed to apply.  Not until I had been accepted into the program did I realize the competitiveness of the process—less than half of the applicants each year get a position.

Luckily, I’ve had several opportunities to go on outreach visits over the past year. Even better, two weeks ago, I made a return visit to James Buchanan Middle School—where I had gone for my first outreach visit!


Kelsi McKinley Lester (far left), Kara Slocum, Rachel Perini, Nicole Bernstein, Lola Buonomo, and Teresa Giovannoli prepare for an Engineering Ambassadors visit at James Buchannan Middle School. (Credit: Shane Haydt)

Kelsi McKinley Lester (far left), Kara Slocum, Rachel Perini, Nicole Bernstein, Lola Buonomo, and Teresa Giovannoli prepare for an Engineering Ambassadors visit at James Buchanan Middle School. (Photo Credit: Shane Haydt)



During the outreach visits, we visit individual classrooms and deliver unique engineering presentations such as ‘Engineering Movie Magic,’ ‘Engineering the Olympics,’ and ‘Engineering a More Sustainable Future’. After the short presentation, the Engineering Ambassadors reveal the hands-on project segment where the students get to apply the engineering principles they just learned to a cool activity. The students learn that engineering is creative, and more importantly, how to work in groups.

During our visit to James Buchanan Middle School, two different groups of Engineering Ambassadors delivered presentations.

I, and two other Engineering Ambassadors, presented ‘Engineering Movie Magic’ and then conducted an activity where the students designed a landing pad for their “stuntman”–an egg. There were some very messy spills along the way, but the students learned a lot about design principles and constrictions such as time, budget, and materials that engineers face in the real world. More importantly, the eighth graders had a complete blast and learned that engineering is definitely fun!

The other group did a presentation on prosthetics which taught the students more about the humanitarian side of engineering. While engineers get to solve fun problems and make lots of money, at the end of the day, the greatest purpose of engineering is to improve the health, happiness, and well-being of the world. In the project section of the class, the students applied the design principles they had learned in the presentation to create their own prosthetic leg using a toilet plunger and a variety of other materials.

Engineering Ambassadors is not only a fun way to express my love for engineering, it has provided some great career opportunities. Engineering Ambassadors has exceptional sponsors that help fund our amazing outreach activities, and some individual Engineering Ambassadors, such as myself, have industry partner companies. As ‘industry designated Engineering Ambassadors,’ we get additional networking opportunities with these companies. Last year, my industry sponsor was Phillips66, and this year I am sponsored by another oil company, Williams. Moreover, all Engineering Ambassadors must take ENGR397A: Advanced Communication for Engineers, and the communication learned in this class proved extremely beneficial when I interned last summer.

Engineering Ambassadors is a huge time commitment and sometimes requires me to wake up at extremely early hours; however, simply knowing that my fellow Ambassadors and I make differences in others’ lives provides a satisfying reward.


Kelsi McKinley Lester is a senior majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in English. The Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, native has served as an Engineering Ambassador for a year and a half. She is also actively involved with the International Engineering Envoys, the Cross Country Club, and the Outing Club. In her limited free time, Kelsi enjoys running, rock climbing, hiking, and reading. After graduation next May, she hopes to pursue a career in industry.

Want to learn more about the Engineering Ambassadors? Visit and follow them on Facebook!



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Penn State Engineering: A Leader in Scientific Communication

by Katie Kirsch (’11, ’13g ME)

Imagine yourself in this situation: you go to a presentation (at work, in a class, at a conference) and you’re determined to learn something new. You’re with the speaker at the beginning—he (or she) introduces himself and mentions his affiliation. Maybe you even understand the title of his talk. So far, so good. Then, before you can even prepare yourself, he launches into the core of his talk, complete with full paragraphs on his slide (of which he reads every word), charts with axes at size 2 font, out-of-control laser pointing, acronyms you don’t understand… And you start thinking about all of the less painful things you could be doing with your time. Death by PowerPoint—we’ve all been there.

Penn State professors Michael Alley and Melissa Marshall are actively changing the stereotype that engineers and scientists are poor communicators. Termed the “Assertion-Evidence Approach,” their advocated slide design employs the use of two simple concepts. On each slide of a presentation, determine the most important message (which is a full sentence) of that slide and put it at the top, where the audience can readily see it.  Then, support that assertion with visual evidence.  Professors Alley and Marshall regularly travel worldwide giving lectures and communications workshops, and are sought out by both industry and academia alike.  At Penn State, they devote their time to training their students, ensuring that their legacy carries on.  Their students develop as confident speakers and, as they transition into their roles beyond Penn State, continue to spread the Assertion-Evidence message.

A revolution in scientific communication is coming and it has its roots in Penn State.  As the Assertion-Evidence technique spreads, the important messages from our scientists and engineers impact a continually widening audience. The benefits of strong scientific communication never end; one day, perhaps even in the near future, poor presentations will be in the strong minority and we can all be prepared to learn about the new, exciting, innovative developments our scientists and engineers make every day.

For more information on The Assertion-Evidence slide design, visit


Katie Kirsch is a Ph.D. student in the Experimental and Computational Convection Laboratory (ExCCL) at Penn State. Her research focus is on the cooling of turbine vanes and blades in gas turbine engines. She has also conducted research in the area of gas turbine heat transfer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany. Additionally, she is involved with the Engineering Ambassador Alumni Association and the Women in Engineering Affiliated Program Group. 

Katie graduated from Penn State with a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a minor in engineering leadership development in 2011 and an M.S. in mechanical engineering in 2013.



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