Natalie the Electrical Engineer & Business Boss

I am so excited to introduce my amazing October guest, Natalie Ownby! Not only is she a superstar PhD student studying ultra low power circuit design, but she also runs her own consulting business, SheEngineered. Natalie's aim is to help undergraduates learn more about what grad school actually is, and how to get there. We had so much fun speaking about her journey, her business, and also her perspective as a woman in STEM. She also shared some exclusive advice, so be sure to check out the interview below!

Why don’t you introduce yourself?

I'm Natalie Ownby. I just finished my first year of my PhD at the University of Virginia. I work in a research group that studies ultra low power circuit design, with the goal of expanding the Internet of Things (IoT) without needing batteries. So the idea is that we would have self powered systems for IoT. I graduated undergrad in December of 2018, and took about eight months off before starting my PhD. I'm really liking it so far, it’s been pretty good. Then, I started SheEngineered with the goal of helping more women get involved in grad school, learn about the opportunity that grad school offers, and how to get there.


Starting Out in Engineering

What inspired you to do electrical engineering?

I grew up swimming, and when I was about 12, I saw the Paralympics where a lot of the swimmers had prosthetics and I thought, “That's the coolest thing I've ever seen. How do I get to make those?” Somewhere around that time, the movie “Dolphin Tale” came out, Morgan Engineer plays the engineer who makes the tail for the dolphin, which I found very cool. Through looking up jobs like that, I found out about biomedical engineering, and it was sort of an accident that I ended up in electrical. I had to transfer universities after my first year and ended up transferring to a university that didn't offer biomedical engineering. And so I saw electrical as the way that I could still contribute to the biomedical field. I'm a little bit removed from the biomedical applications now, but I'm still getting technical training and a direction where I could apply that to the biomedical field at any point. So what really got me into engineering was seeing how prosthetics leveled the playing field and allowed people to be able to continue a fairly normal life and compete on the Olympic scale.

You mentioned a few different types of engineering that you've been exposed to in different internships. How did you build your confidence to carry you to these new fields that you hadn't really explored before?

It's kind of funny because after my freshman year, that was definitely a low point in terms of my confidence and feeling competent. I did really poorly during my first semester, and was on academic probation. I was told that I wasn't going to make it into the engineering college. And I think that as much as that sucked, it was a sort of good thing because I was able to take a step back and think about what I needed to do in order to make that happen. It doesn't have to be the big name school. I didn’t need this advisor who's telling me I'm not going to make it, tell me that I'm going to make it, in order to be an engineer. I learned how to say, “Okay, here's my end game goal. What do I need to do to get there?” rather than worrying about whether or not people thought I was going to get there. I think it really helped me reframe my position.

Every time I've started an internship or even starting my PhD, I think there's always that fear of them expecting me to know more than I do know. And I don't want to ask questions. Having gone through that with two different internships, tons of classes, and now starting my PhD, I think I've gained the confidence. Knowing that asking questions and saying, “Hey, I don't know this”, means you are going to allow you to learn a lot faster. You're going to be a lot more effective and have way better outcomes than the people who aren't asking questions and are afraid to admit they don't know things because they're going to keep treading water while you're asking questions and moving ahead. Each time, I start asking questions a little bit earlier, and get a little bit more efficient every time. Yes, there have been times where I have thought, “Oh, I don't know if I'm supposed to be here”, but I keep making it through it every time. That definitely builds up the confidence.


Life as a PhD Student

Moving on a little bit to your PhD, what exactly do you do as a PhD student now?

I went straight from my undergrad to my PhD and had done some research in my undergrad that is not at all related to what I do for my PhD. I found this group because of the advisor; he reached out to me once I'd been accepted to the program, and I talked to him and a couple people at different schools. I felt like I connected with him as an advisor, like I was going to get the advising style that I wanted and was interested in his work. As a PhD student, I take about two classes per semester, but right now, I’m actually only taking one. The rest of my coursework is filled with research. So I spent the majority of the first year learning the tools that go into circuit design, because I hadn't done a whole lot of that as an undergrad. A lot of that was working through tutorials, trying things out, and learning how all of those tools work. Then, at the end of the year, I was able to start contributing to projects.

Throughout the summer, we came up with two new projects that we'll be working on throughout the year. One of them is again very circuit focused, and another one is looking at trying to make PPG sensing (one of the ways that you can tell blood oxygen level and heart rate) more accurate across different skin tones. So that's one of those things where you can go down to the circuit level and look at what you can change, but at an application level, you're looking at leveling the playing field for heart rate sensing across all skin tones. That's the project I think that I'm the most excited about, and it is getting a little bit closer to those biomedical applications.

I was wondering if you could delve a bit deeper into some of the projects you're working on in your PhD?

Overall, the goal of the group is to create self powered systems. Basically, the idea is that as we expand IoT, we're going to be putting sensors on everything, and going to need sensing nodes. If you are powering those off of batteries, in 10 years, we'll be at the point where we're needing to replace billions of batteries which is not a sustainable model. We're down at the level where we're looking at circuit level design, and how you decrease the power of the circuits for either the sensing or the analog to digital converting. We are really just trying to lower the power of everything. What I've been working on specifically is the PPG sensing project that is tied to a larger goal of having low power self powered wearable devices. So having things like heart rate sensing, to sensing blood oxygen levels and all those different vital signs that have different applications. With the OT sensing, you want to be able to determine environmental oxygen to help asthma patients. But the goal is to have those be low power enough that they can be in a wearable system that's powered off of your body heat. It's a really cool challenge and for a lot of it, we work with other universities. For us, we work in the area of what you're plugging the sensor into, to be able to get data.

Then I'm working on some other aspects, like trying to automate some of the circuit design. There are some very standard structures that you use over and over again in circuits. But it seems like every time you go to make a larger circuit, you're having to redesign that same architecture and tweak it a little bit. It's something that's simple, but time consuming. And so we're trying to figure out if there's a better way to automate that step in the process, so that it’s not one of those things that's taking up brainpower and time when you're trying to design the circuits. I love hearing about what people are working on with their PhDs because it’s so new and always a very specific thing. We have somebody who works on ultra low power RF transceivers, which is so specific within the circuits field. Sometimes, even within my own group, people do work on areas that I didn’t even realise you could get that narrow within the field.

Have you had any challenges while you've been doing your PhD, and how have you overcome them?

I think a huge challenge was just figuring out the grad school landscape overall. I graduated from a university that didn't have a large graduate program, and there were a couple master's students. It was just sort of by chance that the internship that I had first was research focused. That’s how I became interested in research and getting my PhD. I think a huge obstacle is figuring out how to even get to that point. I am an engineer, but I'm going into a field where I don't really have a whole lot of experience. So I took a couple circuits classes in undergrad, and did a little bit of VLF. But we're doing it on a much larger scale with more powerful tools at gad school.

Even just the learning curve for the tools, has been a big challenge. Somebody will say, “Run the simulation,” but what do you click to do that? The learning curve definitely knocks you down a few pegs in terms of confidence. And so getting past that, I think has been one thing.

I think another thing has been the advisor-advisee relationship, which is a little bit different than a boss employee relationship. My advisor's purpose and theory is to help me do good research. I go into some of our meetings with the mindset of trying to prove what I've been working on and prove what I've done, rather than going into it with the mindset of getting help. And that takes some vulnerability. It's asking a lot of questions and admitting what you don't know. But that's their role. They're supposed to be guiding you to answering all those questions, and helping you figure all of those things out. So that mindset shift of proving myself versus trying to take advantage of the super knowledgeable person that I have access to, has been another obstacle. Some people often don't have a great working relationship with their advisor. And that's definitely not my case. I have a really great advisor. It's just my own mindset around what those meetings look like is something that I've been learning.


Building a Brand and Business with SheEngineered

I'm really excited to speak to you about SheEngineered. Can you give us a little rundown on the whole business?

I started SheEngineering because I went through that whole grad school application process with very little guidance from people who had been there or recently been there. I had a lot of professors who were older give me a lot of advice and a lot of help, and I had someone from the Writing Lab at my university helping me put my application together. But I didn't really have anyone who had recently gone through the process and was super aware of what grad schools were looking for. I didn't have a mentor relationship going through the process. I did so much Googling, and didn't know how to search for schools. I started with this huge list of basically every school in the US, and had to figure out how to narrow that list. It was so much work and so much having to figure everything out; there was never a lot of information in one place. There was a lot of chasing the information down. I also felt like I'd had no real exposure to what grad school was. I also felt like my university was focused on having two internships and then getting a job, as well as professional development, which is really good, but they hadn't really included grad school as an option.

My goal with SheEngineered is to expose engineering students to grad school, specifically women, because the numbers drop off significantly once you get into grad school for women in engineering, into what grad school is and help break down that stereotype of how it’s a seven year program and you work 100 hours a week. That's not been my experience. I kind of knew going in that I could do this without having that hundred hour week super crazy experience. My goal is to show that you can like engineering and want to get into research, which is good enough motivation. It's hard. It's not you don't just roll through it. It was sort of my experience that led to the motivation for starting the whole idea.

Could you speak a little about the process of starting up your consulting business?

I had started helping a few girls who I knew personally, explaining to them how I applied and went through that whole process. Then as I started sharing information through Instagram and putting some resources together, I asked if there was anyone who wanted to work with me through last fall and a little bit into the spring on a trial run to see where their pain points were with the application process. This fall, I'm offering individual and potentially group coaching to help other people work through that process. With applications, I felt like there was this huge information overload. If I can be the first point of contact for someone to help them figure out where to even start and to put together a plan for their application process, then this would help avoid pulling things out of thin air and feeling scattered.

I offer individual sessions if you want to just sort of have a one and done meeting or I can work with people throughout the semester through every step of the application process.

I also offer a boot camp that's more targeted towards underclassmen, freshmen, sophomores and some juniors. That is focused on professional development, mindset setting goals, etc. I think having really clear goals is important, and having the tools of putting together a good resume, developing relationships with your recommenders are really important, but they're not ever talked about in engineering school. It's all such a technical focus.

I think if you take a little bit of time to plan out where you're trying to go, there are so many opportunities you have as a student that you can take advantage of, and that people just don't know about. So my goal with that boot camp is to help people think outside of just their classes; about where they want to be and what they want to be doing. Then, they can look at the opportunities they have, figure out which ones to take and which ones to pursue to get them to their end goal.

And not only that, but you also co host “Call Her Doctor”. Could you speak a little bit about that and what inspired you to start that?

It’s kind of funny, because as I was starting, SheEngineered, I was thinking about the best way to get information out to people. I had not really ever been a podcast listener up until the beginning of 2019, and got sucked in. Especially because I was learning about things like marketing and how to run an Instagram account through podcasts. I figured it would be a great way for me to get information out there. I wasn't really sure that I wanted to take that on alone, because it is a lot of work. This past Christmas break, I went for lunch with a friend of mine who was about to start medical school. She also has a blog. She was talking about how she maybe wanted to do a podcast and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I thought about that”. It never really came together as we were sitting there eating lunch. And then a couple weeks later, I texted her saying, “What if we did a joint podcast focused on grad school, professional degrees, and STEM?” There are so many lifestyle podcasts and motivational podcasts out there. But a lot of it isn't STEM specific and there are gaps that STEM students have. Especially with topics such as women in engineering, which don't get addressed in those other podcasts because it is such a niche. You know, things like imposter syndrome. Yes, you deal with that everywhere, but it's a whole different ball game within STEM to deal with imposter syndrome. There's just that whole extra technical layer. We sort of bounced around ideas, decided to do it and came up with some topics, as well as a couple different name options.

We didn’t do a whole lot of research on how to start it. We started with recording over Zoom, where we had all these audio issues. We’ve now figured out a little bit better audio and it's continually getting better. And my friend has a passion for graphic design, so she makes all of our cute little Instagram graphics. It's also just a fun way to keep in touch with her because we've been friends since we were about five. But which is, which is crazy. Throughout college, we would always meet up over breaks and stuff, but we weren't on the phone every week. Now, we're on the phone every week and I have this great friend who's also going through grad school and understands the pressures and all of that kind of stuff. We definitely have a big vision for that to turn into a community type of thing for girls who either want to go to grad school or medical school or who are already there and can share their experiences. We’re just slowly working our way up there as our schedules allow and stuff. Baby steps are the best way.

If you're going to start with one episode, I would recommend our interview with my friend Madeline Jennings, who is studying engineering education and inclusive design at Arizona State University. Their research is incredible. It was a really great interview about what engineering could look like in the future. So I would definitely suggest starting with that one.

Do you have like three of your top tips for prospective grad students?

I think the biggest one is just to start early. You typically apply in the fall of your senior year, so I would start in the summer. But not in a stressful way, instead, leisurely looking at what programs you might be interested in and what professors might be interested in working with. You can also look at your university’s resources for helping put my application together. When is the GRE offered, and getting an idea of what you want to be doing.

The next thing I think, would be to find someone, typically at your university, where there is a writing lab, and find someone who can help you put together your application. There definitely is an art to how you portray your experience, and since I personally am not good at proofreading things, if there's somebody in the Writing Lab who can look over to make sure I'm not spelling things incorrectly, that is super helpful. So definitely find that person at your university.

Take time to sort of paint the picture of why you want to go to grad school. Even if you are an undergrad and you don't have any research experience, or you don't have a ton of research experience, they want somebody who knows why they want to go to grad school. They want someone who's going to stick with it, and who has some sense of what grad school looks like, as well as why they want to be there. If you can really paint a picture of how you became interested in grad school, and what experiences contributed to that, you can put together a really, really strong application, even if you don't have a ton of research experience. Definitely don’t let your lack of research experience keep you from applying. People have different situations in undergrad, if you're working part time or full time, you probably don't have time to do on campus research or you may not be able to take time off to do an internship. If you work part time, all through school, that's important. Put that on your resume, as that shows good time management. I think you can make any experience you have relate to why you would be a good grad student. It's just really about finding the right person to help you paint that picture and tell that story through your applications.

Where do you see your business going in the future?

I recently had a meeting with Toyon, who runs the Academic Society Instagram and business. She helps grad students get more prepared for grad school. But she also does consultations for grad students who have a side hustle. We met and she was helping me frame out what this could look like. I have a big vision of working with universities to help them put their information out there and connect them to the students who want to go there. I think a huge part of the application process is just figuring out where to apply. You have to go to every individual school's website and look at every individual school’s lab group, research topics, admissions policies, and honestly, it's overwhelming and kind of discouraging to go through all of that.

I would really love to work with universities and have them sponsor things on the blog and the podcast so I can continue to put out a lot of free resources for my audience, but have that be supported. I also want to provide profiles of the universities that sponsor my content in order to help people be able to do a side by side comparison of all of these universities. I'd also really love to offer my grad school coaching and the boot camp through universities to their students so that I can work with them, but it wouldn’t cost the students. I know college is not a time when you have a ton of extra money to spend. I think the people who most need that coaching are probably people who don't have the out of pocket money to spend on things like that. Maybe they're a first generation student whose parents don’t have that information on internships or all of that guidance that I had. I know that I was very fortunate to have that. My goal is to be able to bring that to the people who didn't, or who may not have all of that guidance built in. But to be able to do that, where I'm still getting paid, but students are not having to pay for it. That's really the big, big goal.

Do you have any advice for someone looking to launch a side hustle?

Start small. I just started with Instagram. I offered what I was doing for free, too. Three or four people to kind of get feedback. I'm still definitely learning, though. I think, be very clear on what the goal is and what the very small steps in that direction are. So, I have this huge vision, but right now that looks like trying to maybe get six schools let me create a profile of them for free. And then next year, maybe that's 20 schools. Definitely think, “what's the smallest step you can take in the right direction?” You definitely need to take the time to build up.

Another thing is to give more than you're asking for. So especially if you're doing something like coaching, if you can give as much as you can for free, that's really great. And then you're not asking as much of your audience, I think really listening to peoples’ feedback and trying to figure out what people need is definitely the most important piece of it. Because you don't want to be out here trying to offer something that nobody wants or needs.

Then I think the other thing is really being honest with yourself about how much you can take on. So again, starting small, you're probably not going to be doing consistent daily marketing and have this great website and have your whole thing put together. So I think it's better to start small and start earlier, than it is to make sure everything's perfect.


Perspective as a Woman in STEM

Do you ever feel like you've been treated differently as a woman in STEM?

This is quite a rare situation, but I think my big experience with that was my freshman year. I was basically told by my advisor that I wasn't going to get into the engineering program and that I should probably change majors. At the time, I definitely thought he knew what he was talking about. Like, I'm going to be an engineer and I didn't really think of it later until I went to SWE conferences. I started to hear people talk about how some advisors will typically encourage men to stay in the field. Whereas with female students, they'll be more likely to encourage them to transfer to a different field of study. And at the time, I didn't recognize it as that.

But looking back as well as through other interactions that I had with this advisor and watching him interact with other female students versus male students, I really think that that may have been what was going on. I think there have been times when I had an internship where I worked with another female intern and another male intern. I think the male intern had a very dominant personality to begin with, which I think regardless of who I was, there would have been an issue. There were just little things where he would say, “Oh, well, I'll do the presentation and you can take notes”. Or he would do tasks that I had been assigned because he knew what he was doing more than I did at the time, but he would still do the work that I was doing. But overall, I think I've been very fortunate. I've had really good experiences across the board with advisors, professors, all of that. I am really lucky in my lab group, there are four girls out of fourteen students, which is honestly super high for electrical engineering at the PhD level. I know other people have had much worse experiences but fortunately it's not been that bad for me.

Do you have any advice for women in STEM? Any practical experience that they should pick up?

Yeah, I think the biggest thing is connecting to other women in STEM, whether that's through SWE or some other group on your campus, where there's a woman in science and engineering groups. Get connected to that because through SWE you get to go to conferences and workshops. That's how I learned about things like imposter syndrome and had I not known about imposter syndrome and been able to label it for what it was and recognize it, my ability to deal with it would have been way reduced from what it is. Also, learning about things like gatekeeping, where people will ask you questions to kind of prove that you don't know what you're doing, is important. If I didn't have a name for that, and hadn't learned about that through a group like SWE, I would have been experiencing it and maybe believed those people who were saying I didn’t know what I was doing. The ability to get plugged in and to learn from other women who have had those little microaggressions or unconscious biases against them, and being able to label those things have been the most valuable things. I also did all my professional development work through organizations, but the imposter syndrome, gatekeeping dealing with all of that kind of stuff was very eye-opening and changed my entire experience in engineering.


Natalie's Next Steps

What’s next for you in your career and life?

Hopefully I’ll be done with my PhD in 3 or 4 years. I really want to work in industry and do medical device research and development where I can bring something to the consumer and not just stay in the research phase. I think way down the line I want to be a lecturer. I don’t have a super solid plan for after graduation, and would like to travel abroad, but it’s nice to know that I can get a great job when I do figure it out. I would like to grow SheEngineered to the point where I am working with other grad students as I do think there is a need for that.


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Mechanical Engineering student. Future space engineer. Writer. Runner. Passionate about getting more women into STEM.

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