Claire Wilson '21: 'a clear standout'

April 26, 2021

Claire Wilson

Claire Wilson in the lab.
Claire Wilson in the lab of Professor David Foster. “His unabashed enthusiasm to be a professor and to impart his wisdom on my generation is inspiring to me,” she says.

“I truly believe that college is what you make of it,” says Claire Wilson ’21 of chemical engineering.

Wilson has certainly made the most of her undergraduate experience at the University of Rochester. But she had to make an adjustment early on to make that happen. 

“I’m a naturally laid-back person,” she explains, “and this characteristic made it hard for me to get involved when I entered college. I regretted not branching out more during freshman year.

“So, I changed my mindset.”

For example, as a sophomore, Wilson started participating in club water polo, despite no previous experience. She also joined the Computational Fluid Dynamics research group of David Foster, associate professor of chemical engineering.

In both instances, she was welcomed to close-knit groups that gave her opportunities to make new friends and learn from supportive peers. And this has made Wilson’s college experience “so exciting and rewarding,” she says.

Later she participated in a REU (research experience for undergraduates) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She has also served as a teaching assistant (TA) for first-year lab students and for courses in Chemical Process and Analysis and Fluid Dynamics.

And throughout her undergraduate experience, she has excelled academically.

In recognition of her accomplishments, Wilson received two awards from the Department of Chemical Engineering.  The Donald F. Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellence Award is given  to a junior who compiles the highest scholastic average in the first two years of study. The Albert K. Ackoff Award is for academic achievement by a third-year student.

No wonder Foster describes Wilson as “a clear standout amongst students.”

Setting an example for others 

Wilson was born and raised in Wisconsin, near Madison. Her parents, both medical doctors, “always encouraged me and my siblings to be well-rounded with activities like sports, music, and academic clubs,” she says.

Wilson took up swimming and participated in orchestra at school. She spent summers camping in northern Wisconsin, “where I came to love the lakes, forests and the outdoors in general. My love for the environment that I gained as a kid has stuck with me and influenced my career goals.” 

Her father has been especially influential in Wilson’s academic career because of “our like-mindedness,” she adds. “He was a chemical engineering student before deciding to become a doctor. He still retains a creative spirit and a scientist’s excitement about learning. For example, he does woodworking as a hobby and has even built a guitar and a harp. His creativity inspires me to be as he is: fluent in many pursuits and passionate about his work.”

As a child, Wilson says, she was “always building with Legos and making elevators and contraptions for my stuffed animals.”

But her first active interest in STEM occurred in sixth grade when she joined the Science Olympiad team. She remembers competing in an event “where we had to design a box to keep a beaker of water hot for as long as possible,” Wilson says. “This was the first time I really took the reins on an event and did the background research and prototyping independently. Working at this problem for hours on end and forming my own creative solution gave me a sense of satisfaction I will pursue for the rest of my life.”

As is often the case when young women become interested in taking STEM classes in school, Wilson experienced what it was like to sometimes be the only female in the room.

 “It can be daunting to be the only woman in a discussion amongst men, but I didn't't’t let this discomfort stop me from achieving my goals,” Wilson says. “Instead, I take the underrepresentation of my community in STEM as a source of motivation. I may feel out of place at times, but my uniqueness will only help others like me feel comfortable in the same field down the road. If I can stand out as a woman in STEM, other girls like me can, too!”

‘A great place to grow as a scholar’

She chose to attend the University of Rochester because of its curriculum. “The cluster degree requirements and the diverse strengths of the school were an appealing aspect for me as an incoming student,” Wilson says. “I had already pretty much decided on a major, but I didn't't’t want to be stuck taking only engineering and math classes for four years. Rochester offered me the opportunity to branch out into other fields like music and language.”

The Department of Chemical Engineering, she adds, “has been such a great place to grow as a scholar. I am happy to be a part of a close-knit community of chemical engineers, both within my grade and research group, but also with the students in the grade below me who I have served as a TA. The atmosphere of this department is collaborative and welcoming, and it made even the most challenging academic periods manageable.”

She has also appreciated the opportunity to work in Foster’s Computational Fluid Dynamics lab. “His unabashed enthusiasm to be a professor and to impart his wisdom on my generation is inspiring to me,” she says.

When she joined the group, it wasn’t engaged in topics she was interested in pursuing that stem from her love of the outdoors, such research involving environmental preservation and sustainability.

However, Foster was “not only willing to start work in my area of interest but thrilled to extend his reach into a new domain.” Wilson says.

 As a result, she has been working on a project modeling the St. Lawrence River. “The motivation of this work is to aid with flooding on Lake Ontario, an issue close to home,” Wilson says. Increasing the flow through the St. Lawrence River would help alleviate flooding. However, this would cause cross currents at certain sections of the river, making passage of commercial ships dangerous. “This project is interested in modeling these areas to find a way to manage cross currents while raising the flow rate through the river,” Wilson says.

A leadership role in water polo

“I’m an enthusiast for many things,” Wilson writes on LinkedIn.

When not studying, working in the lab, or haunting the stacks of a University library, she has been teaching herself to play guitar in her spare time. She is also a member of both Tau Beta Pi (an engineering honors society) and Phi Beta Kappa (a liberal arts honors society).

But most of her involvement for the last three years has been with the club water polo team.

“I came in with no experience in this sport, only swimming, but the team has such a welcoming atmosphere that I fell right in with the group,” she says.

In a normal year, the team practices a couple of times a week and plays in a few tournaments throughout the year.

“Through these practices and weekend trips, I got to know the team well and improved my water polo skills. Now, I am a member of the e-board as the business manager and love filling this leadership role amongst my closest friends on the team,” Wilson says.

Although the COVID pandemic has curtailed the club’s activities, “we were able to petition for practices this semester,” she says. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to play before I graduate from the team.”

PhD, professorship are her goals

This fall, Wilson plans to enter a PhD program in civil and environmental engineering, specifically with an interest in hydrology and environmental fluid mechanics.

“I have always been a very outdoorsy person and love spending time near water. I hope to do research that allows me to be outside and contribute to our understanding of climate change and the environment,” she says.

Her long-term goals are twofold--to help people who are affected by climate change by researching prominent environmental issues, and to become a professor.

Experience as a teaching assistant, Wilson explains, combined with the love of engineering she’s gained as an undergraduate “has inspired me. So, I want to be in a position to help other students feel the same excitement about the environment and engineering.”