Dr. Carolyn SkurlaEngineering
[Story and photo courtesy of Baylor Magazine.]
With plastic safety goggles and earplugs in place, Dr. Carolyn Skurla switches on the fatigue testing machine. Above its accelerating whine, she explains to the seven students in her materials engineering class how to perform the test. She then moves to the tensile tester and demonstrates it. As pairs of students measure at what load bolt after bolt breaks - each with a loud popping noise - Dr. Skurla moves to other students who are measuring their test specimens.
A nontraditional engineer (she doesn't have an engineering undergraduate degree) in a nontraditional profession for women, she looks like she's having the time of her life in this upper-level class. "They're eager for challenges," she says of her students, "and I think this is one of the first experiences they've had with hands-on laboratory work. Hopefully, they're having a lot of fun with it."
After a few side paths in her own career, it's clear Dr. Skurla has found her way. Initially, she planned to be a veterinarian and earned a biomedical science degree (summa cum laude) from Texas A&M. She then spent five years in medical research at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center. After a brief detour into computer programming, she wanted to return to medicine and began exploring her options.
"One day, I ran across biomedical engineering and it just hit me like a ton of bricks," Dr. Skurla says. "I knew that was for me."
She joined the engineering faculty at Baylor as an assistant professor in fall 2002, on the heels of completing her PhD in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University (CSU). She brought with her an active research project in orthopedic biomechanics, specifically related to total joint replacements (TJRs). Her dissertation research involved performing engineering analysis on canine total hip replacements that had been implanted in client-owned dogs and retrieved postmortem. Dr. Skurla's hope is that her research will help improve the performance of implantable medical devices and TJRs in the future.
"Human total hip replacements last an average of 15 years, and they have an amazing impact on quality of life," she says. Her research strikes close to home - her father had two knee joint replacement surgeries last December.
When she moved to Waco, it was a priority for her multidisciplinary research that she find colleagues with whom to collaborate. She thought she'd have to find them at A&M, UT-Southwestern and Baylor Medical Center (BMC) in Dallas. But her first collaboration will be with a Baylor colleague, Dr. Robert Kane, Baylor assistant professor of chemistry, and two BMC researchers.
"As it has turned out, my best possibilities for collaboration are right here on campus. That's been the most exciting part of everything," she says, adding that she works with physicians, veterinarians, biologists and chemists.
One of her hot buttons, as she will tell you, is encouraging increased diversity in engineering, attracting and retaining women and minority students. In the freshman class she co-taught her first semester, 14 of the 82 students were women, she says. "I got into this because I want to be a teacher. I want to have a positive influence on young people."
Dr. Skurla emphasizes to her students the importance of lifelong learning. "Engineering changes so quickly, and that cycle accelerates every year, so the speed with which engineers can become obsolete is dizzying if they don't actively continue to learn," she says. "Even if you wind up in a field where, after a number of years you find it is really not what you want to do, it is never too late to go and try something different."
Admitting she had to get over her "Aggieness" before she could apply to Baylor - she and her three brothers, all engineers, graduated from A&M - Dr. Skurla sought the advice of an academic acquaintance and fellow-Aggie, Baylor electrical engineering associate professor Michael Thompson, whom she met while he conducted summer research at CSU.
"I called him and asked him what it was like working at Baylor, and he said it was the best place he'd ever worked," she recalls. "Based on his say-so, I sent in an application."
Baylor 2012 also was a big drawing card for Dr. Skurla. As a child, she attended a private Catholic school in Houston and learned to treat other religious traditions with great respect. "When I came here and interviewed, it was very exciting for me to get the impression from the faculty in this department that the feeling here was very similar to what I grew up with - tolerance of other views and the ability to discuss differences of opinion in a calm, forthright and respectful manner. I felt like I was almost coming home."
As a scientist, Dr. Skurla has no concerns about Baylor being able to find the Christian faculty called for in Baylor 2012. "There are people who are coming here because of that, that's what they're hungry for, the atmosphere I've found here. When you talk to students about ethics, you have the freedom to openly discuss the fact that your religious beliefs are a basis for your ethics, or should or can be, and a basis for your ethics in the workplace."
Dr. Skurla knows that she's a tough professor but hopes she's perceived as fair. She recalls a former student at CSU finding her several semesters after taking her class and telling her, "I really, really hated your class when I was taking it, but now I'm in my senior design class, and I realized I learned a lot."
"You have to challenge the students, but also equip them for going out and being appropriate stewards of the planet, as well as taking a real interest in the fact that whatever they design has a real impact on somebody's life," Dr. Skurla says. "I want them to learn to make decisions in a manner that does no harm, for one thing, so that they're protective of the people using what they're designing. And, to have fun doing it."