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Graduation Stories

MSE senior Katie Shaffer helps make STEM fields more inclusive, diverse

Shaffer has been a key part of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering since her first year at NC State.

Katie Shaffer wearing face mask while working in lab.
Katie at scan electron microscope (SEM) observing a housefly

By Niki Jennings

Katie Shaffer is a fourth-year undergraduate majoring in materials science and engineering. Katie learned about MSE early: in high school. “Materials science and engineering was something I discovered in high school,” says Katie. “I have always liked understanding why things work on a fundamental level and chemistry was my favorite class. MSE seemed like a way to combine both into a study that applied to everything. I entered NC State with MSE intent and did my CODA in the winter of my first year. Once I was in the major, I found enjoyment in studying materials on the nanoscale; they seemed to break all the fundamental science rules I had learned so far.”

Katie has been a key fixture in the MSE department since her first year, starting in spring 2019. “I became an undergraduate researcher in my second-semester first year under Dr. Cuomo. He was able to introduce the world of MSE research before my first MSE class,” says Katie. “There, I studied nanoparticle growth and logged many hours on the scanning electron microscope (SEM) in the undergraduate lab. I left Dr. Cuomo’s lab during my second semester a second year to study abroad at the University of Wollongong in Australia. My advisors at the time, Dr. Balik, Dr. Cuomo, and Dr. Yingling, assisted in rearranging my MSE courseload to accomplish this goal.” Learning that Australian university semesters begin in March instead of January, she had an extra-long holiday, being able to backpack in New Zealand and travel across Australia before class started. 

Katie Shaffer

However, like so many of our graduating seniors, Katie felt the direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on her study abroad. “Two weeks into the class, COVID was declared a global pandemic, and everyone traveled home and resumed virtual studies,” says Katie “I still took my Australian classes via Zoom on their timezone from my parent’s basement in Bethesda, Maryland. The next semester, I joined Dr. Dickey’s lab for her final semester at NC State, where I assisted graduate students in grain boundary analysis,” shares Katie. In 2021, Katie was a PDP analytical chemistry intern with BASF in Wyandotte, Michigan, working in R&D analyzing microplastics. Initially assigned to work on water contamination, Katie had to pivot to extracting microplastics from sediment due to broken machines with her colleague, Jessie Garcia. This pivotal role shift enabled Katie to establish a method for deriving microplastics from sediment, and as a result, her first paper will be released soon.  Katie is currently the first Undergraduate Researcher in Dr. Balke’s Research Group, where she works under Dr. Balke to study the piezoelectric properties of materials using atomic force microscopy (AFM).

This is fun for me. It looks like a lot of work, but I am fulfilled by it. I am not working a typical 9-5 job, but I am able to accomplish many things that I wouldn’t be able to do in other areas.

Katie confesses that her favorite professor is Dr. Jones. “It is very clear to the students how much time and energy he puts into developing his curriculum and teaching style. Even though my interest in his class topic was not as high as in other classes and it was 8:30 a.m., I looked forward to his class the most because he was such an engaging teacher,” shares Katie. 

On top of her schoolwork, Katie has served as the NC State MSE Lead Student Ambassador since fall 2020. This honor allows her to participate in and manage MSE student outreach events as well as educational videos for Open House. “That first semester I joined the MSE ambassadors in 2020 under Dr. Yingling, I created virtual programs using Zoom for current and incoming students who were unable to visit campus.” Katie’s favorite event with the ambassadors is the College of Engineering Open House. “This is where we get to do our fun live demonstrations that include liquid nitrogen and ferrofluid,” says Katie. “A hands-on approach has always been my favorite way of learning. It is no surprise then that my favorite classes were lab classes. The lab was a way to apply the fundamentals we learned in previous classes and an opportunity to learn characterization and analysis techniques.” And while the lab reports may not have been Katie’s favorite task when she was writing them on a Thursday night, they exponentially improved her technical writing skills, something she is very thankful for today.

Katie’s favorite thing about MSE is how interdisciplinary it is. “Depending on what you study, you pull on physics, chemistry, biology, math, and many more disciplines,” says Katie.  While there have been many victories along the way, she is most proud of her work to develop communities at NC State. “My goal while in leadership positions has always been to create more diverse and inclusive environments for students to shine,” says Katie. “Outside of MSE, I am president of NC State’s chapter of oSTEM, a national LGBT+ organization for students and professionals in STEM fields.” In her role, she facilitates workshops, industry chats, and community bonding activities. A great joy for Katie has been organizing oSTEM events over the past three years. 

Katie at her BASF internship (pictured with Jessie Garcia)

During her time as a freshman at NC State, Katie volunteered with the WISE Village, as well as Girls Engineering Change, a program geared to middle and high schoolers that present challenges that younger kids can try to solve. A little-known truth about Katie is her passion for pre-K-12 STEM education. “I considered becoming a preschool teacher when I was in high school. I worked in aftercare after my high school classes and was a teacher for the summer program for 2 and 3-year-olds, where I taught kids to learn how to share, how to be a member of society, and to be curious about the world around them. While I ultimately decided that career was not for me, I still enjoy teaching all ages about STEM and MSE whenever I can,” says Katie.

Katie at Symbio Wildlife Park in Helensburgh, NSW, Australia with some local grey kangaroos at their petting zoo

For fun, Katie enjoys getting her vitamin D by being outside, whether it is hiking, sitting by a lake such as Lake Johnson, or traveling. “One fun fact is that I hiked up and down the Tongariro Crossing volcanic mountain range in New Zealand,” says Katie.

After her spring 2022 graduation, Katie will begin graduate work on a Materials Science and Engineering Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She will pursue a career in materials characterization, a passion that has been developed through her experience in undergraduate research. 

If you would like to learn more about Katie, she can be reached on LinkedIn.

This post was originally published in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.