Q: Please tell us about yourself and the career path you took. Have you encountered any obstacles on your path to pursuing your studies in a STEM field, and if so, how have you generally handled your challenges and adversity?
Walton-Macaulay: When I was a child, a severe storm ripped through my native Sierra Leone, tearing the roof off a neighbor’s house. My father and I were surveying the neighborhood damage from their car when we saw the neighbor’s child sitting in the street and crying. Her mother had been hurt, and the house was in bad shape, but some nearby houses were unscathed. I realized then that the house’s structure played a role in its inability to withstand the storm, and my interest in civil engineering was born.
As a registered professional engineer with 18 years of consulting experience, I am now extending my knowledge to students as a faculty in civil engineering at Bucknell University. I want my students to know how to pay it forward; in essence, it is the proper application of their engineering knowledge gained from Bucknell that will create safer infrastructure and environments. My research work includes: the facilitation of changing the asphalt mix design process in the State of Arkansas; the assessment and mitigation of water-side attacks on dams; and prediction of strength and small-strain stiffness of compacted clays.
Throughout his career and academic pursuits, “Family First” is his motto. His wife and children provides all the motivation he needs to continue in his lifelong endeavors.
Walton-Macaulay: Two years into my PhD process, I embarked on obtaining the envisioned and designed equipment that was necessary for my experimental research. Eight months later I realized that the manufacturer was not able to build the equipment as specified, but did deliver equipment that only partially does what was envisioned and designed. My options were either cut back on the technical aspect of my research and use the equipment as delivered and in essence, lose no more than 8 months, or go with another competent, more experienced (more expensive) manufacturer but lose an additional 4 months. I chose to stay with the initial research plan, and therefore lost a whole year in my research endeavor. It was a strategic decision which led to a higher technical outcome of research that is now looked on very favorably in my field.
Q: Can you share a few words about your area of teaching and research (please tell us about the importance of your research in simple terms)?
Walton-Macaulay: Today, as a professor of civil & environmental engineering, Walton-Macaulay focuses on unsaturated soil mechanics in his geotechnical engineering studies. “Most of the design and research work that civil and geotechnical engineers undertake has been based on saturated soils, which in general would give a condition of a worst-case scenario. If the soil is saturated and soft, the planned structure may not be suitable to bear on that soil, he says. “Most of the soil in place as foundations such as in embankments, roadways, and below some of our infrastructures are not saturated. Why not better understand and design for an actual condition or conditions instead of assuming a worst-case scenario?” Under this circumstance, he discovers how the soil really behaves.
“To take a line from public safety, civil engineers protect and serve,” says Walton-Macaulay.
“I want my students to know how to pay it forward by creating safe conditions and by passing on what they learn at Bucknell. There will be a time when they are consultants or managers who must teach a process to others. I want them to understand that the knowledge they gain here will enable them to help people down the road.”
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons of the low STEM participation of specific groups such the African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and women in the US?
Walton-Macaulay: Support for minority participation in STEM program is steadily increasing. It has now become a national endeavor. Prior to today, a lack of support from almost all venues such as family, social, college level has been a factor in low STEM participation. The idea that these fields are ‘more’ technical fields and therefore harder has been given by many students as the reason for their lack of participation. We must make efforts to ignite interests in our youths. Inspiration is obtained as the mind develops and that happens at youthful ages, and even younger age groups. Increased efforts are necessary to ‘intercept’ our youths at these ages to instill interests in STEM, but more so to show its necessity in our society.
Q: How can we increase the number of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, women and persons with disabilities in STEM?
Walton-Macaulay: This is a question that needs answers that should be specific to each group listed and even more so, specific to subsets of the groups listed. For example, I can think of one subset group that does not allow girls to enter into a science and engineering curriculum at young ages. If we do assume that the playing field is level for all, then very generally, these are some ideas that could help address increase in numbers:
Encourage early learning in STEM. My interest in STEM was from a devastating event in my hometown. Not everyone is going to have that experience; therefore it must be integrated in early education. The individual needs to overcome stereotypes that only a certain group or person belong in STEM position. These stereotypes have been shown to be mostly unconscious, but yet very significant especially with success of women in STEM by a University of Arizona study.
It has been suggested that a exposing young middle school aged students to just a 20 minute narrative describing the lives of engineers and the benefits of an engineering career can increase the students interest in engineering. In the narrative are encouraging statements about students’ abilities to meet the demands of engineering careers and counteracted stereotypes of engineering as an antisocial, unusual career while emphasizing the people-oriented and socially beneficial aspects of engineering. Take this idea build on it for STEM careers, and include it in a course curriculum over a year, we may be looking at sustained interests.
Q: What recommendations do you have for African-American, Latino, Native American, Alaska Natives Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and female students who want to pursue STEM studies? In addition, what advice do you have for those professionals who are already in STEM careers?
Walton-Macaulay: You are not alone. It could be detrimental to try to go it alone. You need a support group. We all know the story of the initial Posse scholar, who failed to complete his college program in the STEM field. The reason of which he says, that if he had his posse with him, he would have been able to complete. Indeed, it was an eye opener to his Posse mentor and an eye opener to us practicing in the STEM fields. It is almost impossible to bring your ‘posse’ with you when you enter your first year of college; therefore the next best thing is to make relationships. You make relationships by becoming involved. If there is something that tugs at your heart, stand with others on that cause and some of these relationships you make are going to keep you through to graduation.