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An Interview with Nicole Swatton: Navigating college as a girl in STEM, interning at NASA and More!

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Check out this interview, where we spoke with Nicole Swatton who is from Phoenix, Arizona and attends Arizona State University. She is majoring in electrical engineering with a focus in energy and power systems and minoring in sustainability. We talk with Nicole about navigating college as a girl in STEM, getting into a research lab as well as taking a semester off school to work at NASA!

Nicole Swatton NASA Glenn Research Center

Why did you pick your major and or minors?

Ever since I was little, I have been in love with the environment and animals. I always wanted to grow up to be able to protect both of those things. I chose my major because I want to revolutionize the energy landscape. I am passionate about solar energy and helping the world switch to renewable energy sources. I believe I can do this through studying electrical engineering to understand the current way our societies produce energy in order to help it change in the future. I chose my minor because energy seems to be very heavily tied with politics. I want to be able to understand the social and economic factors that go into renewable energy and what implementing solar looks like regardless of the technologies themselves. I also believe everyone should take a class in sustainability at least once in their college career, it really puts waste/water use/ energy consumption/ and many more daily life activities into perspective.

What do you hope to do when you graduate? What are your career goals?

I plan to pursue a graduate degree. I want to get a PhD in electrical engineering in order to continue my research in the solar sector. Following my PhD, I would like to get involved with Tesla or start a technology company that helps fossil fuel companies to switch to renewable energies. I think it is important for the fossil fuels to kickstart switching to renewable energy before the whole country makes the gradual switch. My company goals would consist of having cross-sector leadership that would contain teams comprised of engineers, politicians, sustainability engineers, and business professionals. Teams made up of these different majors can bring a whole new perspective into the energy field.

Nicole Swatton giving scientific poster presentation

What activities/clubs/organizations are you involved in on your campus?

I am heavily involved in clubs at Arizona State University. These experiences are almost as important as the academic facet of college. I participated in an Engineers Without Borders group a year ago that was developing solar panels for the Shonto Indian Reservation. I was also the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers Undergraduate Chair for two years and helped to over double the number of undergraduate members in the club and in leadership. I am a Fulton Ambassador and Young Engineers Shape the World Mentor on campus, as well. These are clubs on my campus that are dedicated to inspiring and having conversations with high school students looking into engineering careers!

How do you balance your school work and your hobbies, activities clubs etc.

I have learned that scheduling days for activities vs schoolwork is extremely important. The semesters I have performed the best in are the ones I have chosen two days a week to purely devote to studying and homework. It is easiest for me to get work done in longer sittings with a larger amount of time to dedicate to everything. This also gave me flexibility to participate in my clubs and hobbies.

Briefly tell us one high and one low you have experienced in college.

I am going to start with the worst news first. My previous college semester was the first time I had failed a class in college. It was devastating and made me truly doubt my abilities. After getting so many off-hand comments from men in my high school and classes, I started to believe them. Grades don’t make you who you are, and hard work will really shine through in the end. I am currently retaking the class and have a 95%, it showed me that I can overcome even my largest failures. One high in college so far has been my NASA internship acceptance letter. I opened my email to see the acceptance and was crying the whole day because of how excited I was. It truly was a dream come true from me and I can remember every moment from that day clearly. I was in such a funk from struggling in the class I failed and really doubting myself, and the internship offer really boosted my self-confidence. The funniest part is my high and low were in the same semester.

Tell us about DEFECT Lab at Arizona State University?

The DEFECT Lab at Arizona State University works on developing energy conversion technologies and understanding how defects of materials affect electrical and optical properties. We strive to maximize solar cell performance through our data analysis and experimental processes. I worked on a project under Pablo Guimera Coll studying silicon wafer spalling. Essentially, this is a technique used to create more sustainable and efficient silicon wafers that make up the base of solar cells themselves.

Tell us about how you found out about the opportunity to work in the lab, and how you were able to get the opportunity to work in the DEFECT LAB?

I went to a local high school from my university and during my time there I founded and led a girl’s robotics team. I wanted to foster connections with engineering women at the local university and reached out to a group there. I was able to meet a couple of amazing inspiring women who were graduate students at the time. When I got to Arizona State University one of them reached out to me to do a stocking position in a water treatment lab. I used this to gain my lab skills and build my confidence in a lab setting. Eventually, I expressed my desire to get into the solar lab on campus to one of my high school mentors. She connected me with another one of my amazing high school mentors that I did not have contact information for, that worked in the solar lab. After meeting her for coffee, she asked her boss if they needed an undergraduate assistant. Following this, I worked as an unpaid research assistant under Pablo. That following summer (the summer of my freshmen year) I got paid to work in the lab as an undergraduate research assistant.

Nicole Swatton

Tell us about your volunteer work.

I do most of my volunteer work through Fulton Ambassadors. This club allows me to have women in STEM dinners with high school women, go to women in engineering outreach events, and give tours to prospective ASU engineering students. I love this club as I have made many friends through it and have been able to reach such a large group of students. I have recently been conducting my own volunteer work during COVID times. I have started offering free mentor sessions to high school and college women interested in engineering. This has helped me to reach out to people from Greece to the United States! I love being able to help young women and I hope that I can be as good as a mentor to them that mine were to me.

Briefly tell us about your work as a NASA intern.

I work at the NASA Glenn Research Center as an intern in the photovoltaics department. I started in January 2020 as a co-op intern and received the opportunity to continue work through the summer session. I have gotten to work on space flight projects, research electrodynamic dust mitigation, and contribute to a couple more projects in the department. I absolutely have loved my time as a NASA Intern! If you want to hear more about NASA internships check out our podcast called GlamScience Podcast on Spotify, Apple Google Podcast, and Anchor.


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