Dreamer, doer, engineer: Kandice Pettaway using her success to inspire others

Kandice Pettaway, an incoming industrial engineering student, is focusing on being a successful student with the ultimate goal of helping minorities succeed in STEM fields.  Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you look at Kandice Pettaway’s résumé, you’ll see several things. You’ll see that she’s a Millennium Scholar, an incoming industrial engineering student, and a fantastic academic. You’ll see that she is a proud member of the Engineering Ambassadors, the National Society of Black Engineers, Presidential Leadership Academy, African Student Association, and Women of Color Empowerment Group.

There is a lot to see on Pettaway’s résumé. Yet the most important thing to Pettaway, the thing she feels the most passionate about, is one you won’t find on her resume. That is her desire to change the world.

Currently a sophomore, Pettaway is an engineering student with minors in African American studies and engineering leadership and development. Originally from the Washington, D.C., area, she came to Penn State seeking an education in engineering.

“I actually came to Penn State knowing that I wanted to attend one of the best engineering schools, which is why I'm here,” Pettaway said. “Once I was accepted to Penn State, and then got into the Millennium Scholars program, I knew I wanted to come here.”

The Millennium Scholars is a group of around 25 students in each class that are selected out of high school to participate in a unique scholarship program.

“It’s a program that works to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who attain their doctoral degrees. The whole goal of the program is to foster getting your Ph.D.,” Pettaway explained. 

Millennium Scholars are the best and brightest in their fields, keeping an excellent grade-point average, participating in research both during the school year and the summer, and using their group-learning environment to create a group of motivated, high-achieving students.

Kandice Pettaway with her Millennium Scholars cohort Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Through the Millennium Scholars, Pettaway had the opportunity to spend the summer in the lab at Ohio State studying Taraxacum Kok-saghyz, or the rubber gold dandelion. Rubber gold dandelions have a natural rubber in their roots, which Pettaway explained is very stretchy and an important natural resource.

“I worked on this study because right now when farmers go out into the fields to mass produce dandelions, they spray herbicides to kill weeds but they end up killing the dandelions, too,” Pettaway said. “We are trying to harvest that natural rubber, so we can’t have them dying. My research was to genetically try to mutate the plant in order to make it more herbicide-resistant. So basically I was trying to find a way to help it survive herbicides.”

Plant biotechnology is definitely not a subject that interests your average industrial engineer, and Pettaway said that she was a little dubious when she first landed the research position.

“It was different because I’m an industrial engineer, not a plant biologist, so for me it was completely different. But it was a great learning experience,” she said.

Working in a field completely different from the one she was studying, Pettaway was able to explore the pros and cons of doing scientific research in a laboratory.

It was actually through the Millennium Scholars program that Pettaway discovered her interest in industrial engineering. Originally pursuing civil engineering, she took a trip the summer before her freshman year with the other Millennium Scholars to visit Boeing and the National Institute of Health (NIH). 

“I met two industrial engineers who do very different work. One industrial engineer at Boeing worked on the assembly line for the aircraft, and then the other industrial engineer at NIH worked with children who have walking disabilities, working with other engineers to make tools for them to correct their walking,” Pettaway explained.

When she saw the variety of things that could be done with a degree in industrial engineering, Pettaway was hooked.

More than anything, Pettaway just wants to give back to society. Her list of activities, while long, has been carefully chosen with a special focus on outreach.

“I'm majoring in industrial engineering but I’m also big on public policy, which comes in with the leadership and problem-solving aspects of my major,” Pettaway said. “My main goal, no matter where I end up, is to give back to the community.”

For Pettaway, doing her part in the world has a lot to do with making it a better place for minorities to achieve their goals.

“I feel like in America today, there’s a divide, or a gap. And I feel there’s a large number of minorities that are at a disadvantage, so if I can do anything to help them get beyond and overcome the disadvantages and the blockades, then I’ve done my part in the world,” she said.

By focusing on clubs and organizations that emphasize outreach, Pettaway is already on her way to making that difference. As an Engineering Ambassador, she spends a lot of her time giving tours and visiting schools to explain engineering and encourage younger students to consider it as a career choice.

“We try to get more people interested in engineering and to change the connotation around it. A lot of people think you have to love math and science to be a really good engineer, which isn’t really the case,” Pettaway explained. “Sometimes math and science can be a means to an end. You can be interested in the planning or the designing and not love math and science, but you just have to be able to do it.”

In addition to her dedication to engineering and outreach concerning it, Pettaway is also involved with Penn State’s African Student Association and the Women of Color Empowerment Group, sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center as well as Counseling and Psychological Services.

“I am involved because I enjoy talking to other minority women and women of color, about being at Penn State, being successful, what it means to be a woman of color,” Pettaway explained.

Also on the long list of activities that Pettaway has involved herself with here at Penn State is the Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA). This unique program provides select students with the opportunity to learn about leadership and critical thinking from some of the University’s best and brightest minds.

“Through the PLA, we take a class with President Barron, and we take a class with the dean of the Schreyer Honor College,” Pettaway explained. “But it’s more than just classes, its a program. It’s really focused on fostering critical thinkers and building the next leaders.”

Pettaway applied for the PLA at the end of her freshman year, and was among 25 students selected to participate from a pool of more than 100 applicants. As a member of the PLA, she also has the opportunity to travel to different cities, where they focus on exploring different cultures and gaining new perspectives.

So as a sophomore, with a long list of accomplishments already behind her, it’s no secret that Pettaway has big plans for the future.

“When it comes to leadership, industrial engineering or African American studies, something in one of those fields, that’s where I want to be,” Pettaway said. “I definitely plan to pursue my doctoral degree, whether it will be in industrial engineering or public policy.”

But her dreams don’t stop after graduate school. Pettaway’s top priority is always going to be to make a difference in the lives of those around her — look no further than her carefully thought out list of extracurricular activities. Each one is chosen with a special focus on outreach and giving back. And she doesn’t plan to stop there.

“No matter where I am in my career, whether I have a high-level position or I’m not making that much money, I just want to make sure I’m paving the way for whoever’s behind me, particularly other minority students and females in STEM fields,” she said. “I definitely want to be an inspiration to them, that’s important to me.”

Kandice Pettaway with her research team at the 2016 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated April 10, 2017