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Engineering student promotes women in STEM, researches sustainable recycling practices

Audrey Parker enrolled in Boise State in 2018 to study materials science engineering, looking to combine her passion for chemistry, engineering and community to build a better world. The Meridian native has been a scientist at heart for years, even pursuing intensive engineering and science courses beginning in her freshman year at Centennial High School.

Parker loved the classes she took, but was distinctly aware of being a female minority in the male-dominated classroom.

“When it’s only you and one other girl, you feel a little out of place,” she said. “I had a really good teacher, she was able to see these things happening and support me. We started a club, Girls in STEM, and did outreach to middle and elementary schools around the valley.”

Girls in STEM traveled to schools and guide students through engineering exercises, such as paper airplane-throwing contests, or building structures out of popsicle sticks and toothpicks. A discussion of the engineering and scientific principles behind it followed each exercise, as well as a discussion on how it all applies to career opportunities in those fields.

Parker says the experience helped her develop resilience and a stronger sense of her professional interests and abilities. She continues to support women in STEM as a member of the Society of Women Engineers at Boise State. Before the pandemic limited travel, the society would sponsor members to attend national conferences and invite industry professionals to speak about their experiences as women in a male-dominated field. Now, they continue to provide networking and outreach opportunities to members.

In addition to supporting a community of female scientists, Parker is interested in creating more sustainable plastic alternatives and more effective recycling techniques. She has worked as an undergraduate researcher alongside faculty member Scott Phillips, a professor in the Micron School of Materials Science Engineering and researcher in the Macromolecular Science Laboratory, since fall 2019. Their research focuses on a variety of pre- and post-consumer sustainability topics, including energy-efficient recycling and reuse of plastics, and developing new classes of smart materials like safe, sustainable building materials.

Many current recycling services put the responsibility on consumers to separate different types of plastic for processing before they can be recycled. Parker’s work focuses on combining multiple kinds of post-consumer plastic into one new material, making plastic recycling easier for consumers.

“Parker has just recently taken the lead on an effort to create new kinds of useful materials by combining mixed plastic waste,” explained Phillips. “She has quickly demonstrated a unique ability to understand the science and engineering concepts, and then to think broadly in order to develop creative solutions to the research challenges.”

Parker is especially grateful for the support and guidance the faculty in the MSE program have given her over the years, allowing her to pursue her interest in sustainability and research alongside her goals for for community and inclusion.

“My professors have been so open minded and have industry experience where they have seen sexism, they can relate or sympathize, they can give you guidance,” she said. “And Scott Phillips is really good about giving feedback on what clients expect and how they communicate, which prepares us for what the industry will be like post-graduation.”

In addition to her membership in the Society of Women Engineers, Parker is a member of the Boise State Student Impact Board and is a College of Engineering Peer Ambassador. Looking forward, Parker plans to continue on into graduate school abroad as soon as she is able. She was on track to study abroad in France for several weeks this summer, before pandemic response measures went into effect. She hopes to continue working to develop sustainable materials to promote a more accessible and eco-friendly standard of living.

– By Angela Fairbanks