One of the newest additions to the Honors College and the Engineering Positive and Intentional Change (EPIC) program is assistant professor Dr. Katie O’Harra. O’Harra spent her middle and high school years in Georgia before coming to The University of Alabama to study dance and chemical and biological engineering. She attained her Ph.D. in chemical engineering this past August.
EPIC is a small cohort-based partners program specifically for engineering or computer science undergraduates that focuses on diversity, equality and inclusivity efficacy, as well as the broader impacts of engineering on society. According to O’Harra, engineers are “some of the most creative problem solvers” that can be a powerful tool to help solve society’s complex problems.
If you are wondering how someone obtains a degree in dance and engineering simultaneously, you would not be alone. O’Harra said she took around 23 credit hours each semester to satisfy her creative and technical side. Now, she is able to use her creative side of thinking in engineering by researching the field.
O’Harra said, “The mindset that is really important for engineering is thinking at the front of innovation and also thinking of the impact on people and the environment in that pursuit.”
During her time in grad school, O’Harra taught dance classes at the juvenile detention center in Tuscaloosa through the WOW program in UA’s College of Social Work. Today, she continues to dance by taking ballroom classes several times a week and helping coach the competitive ballroom team at UA.
Being a woman in STEM has its challenges, and O’Harra is not an exception. She said that she believes that women in STEM struggle to see themselves in the roles they will take on because there is a great lack of representation at the level of leadership and instruction. O’Harra said she had maybe two teachers who were women while getting her degree. She also expressed the importance for people in leadership roles to advocate for equity in STEM in terms of gender, equal pay and growing the representation of women in the field.
O’Harra said, “Society can place limitations on what you view your place is in STEM, but don’t let that limit you. Women are a growing representative group in STEM, and there’s definitely progress to be made that will take some time. But, don’t limit your expectations, your power or your impact.”
Beyond her academic successes, O’Harra also has a passion for two specific things: baking and animals. O’Harra loved baking since she was a child, stemming from her mother’s home cooking. But, being from the south, she said, “We probably have too much butter in everything.”
She also worked in the study abroad program in Europe during grad school and was inspired by the cultural foods you can’t find in the U.S. After becoming a self-proclaimed “baking fanatic,” she became interested in the technical and artistic lens of baking. This inspired her class, the Chemistry of Baking, which teaches Honors students the reasoning behind the different aspects of the baking process and the function of ingredients.
If you’re a newbie at baking, O’Harra said one should start with bread. People may think it’s scary, but she believes that if one has patience and time, then anyone can bake bread. However, if the time commitment of baking bread is too much, then O’Harra recommends trying cookies.
O’Harra and her partner of seven years currently have four animals, three dogs and a cat, all of which are rescue animals. Their dogs are a boxer-lab mix named Penny, a boxer-hound mix named Rue and an Anatolian Shepherd named Loosa. She also has a fluffy orange cat named Frizzle (like Miss Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus”).
O’Harra expressed excitement to be working in a program at the forefront of DEI advocacy that focuses on the intersection of engineering and society. In addition, she said she was appreciative of the opportunity to conduct research and collaborate with others in the Honors college on transdisciplinary topics on the intersection of art and science.
She said, “These topics really fascinate me and will probably fascinate many students across the Honors College who are interested in delving deep into these kinds of interesting topics that are not offered in other departments.”