Rebecca Webb loves engineering because it can solve problems in society — and she’s transferring that love of problem-solving to both graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
The 36-year-old professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering first came to Colorado Springs while working for Agilent Technologies. After earning a Ph.D. in engineering from Oregon State University, she now focuses on teaching and researching — exploring ways to develop efficient methods of collecting and storing solar energy.
She’s also overseeing graduate students in the Sustainable Energy Collection and Transport Laboratory and helping undergraduates find research projects as part of the Undergraduate Research Academy.
Why did you decide to work as a mechanical engineer?
Mechanical engineering is a very broad field with many interesting applications. With many of those applications comes the opportunity to help address the problems our society is currently facing, a prospect that really appealed to me when I was choosing a career path and still does. For example, the focus of my current work is to help improve the viability of solar energy. Through mechanical engineering fundamentals we are developing more efficient methods of collecting and storing solar energy.
What are the challenges with your field?
As a mechanical engineering professor I must balance the roles of teacher and researcher. I manage the Sustainable Energy Collection and Transport (SECanT) Laboratory. Our lab is composed of five students working on several different funded research projects. In addition to mentoring the students and managing the research projects, I attend conferences and write journal articles to disseminate our findings as well as write grant proposals to secure funding to further support our work. I am also spearheading a university-wide undergraduate research initiative. We created the Undergraduate Research Academy to provide motivated and qualified undergraduates from all disciplines with the opportunity to work on meaningful research projects. The goal of the academy is to further stimulate research on campus while providing our students with an incomparable experiential learning opportunity. Balancing these roles requires time, effort, and a sense of humor to make sure I strike the right balance and do the best job possible.
As a young woman in a field that doesn’t have many women, how do you mentor students who might be interested in engineering?
I believe the best way to help all students, male or female, is to teach by example. So I feel, to help our female students, one of the most effective things I can do is to be a positive role model. Mentorship is also an important part of a student’s development and it is a responsibility I do not take lightly. My approach is to have very high expectations for my students and to provide them with all the help and guidance they need to meet those expectations.
What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
I love to learn, and in both my teaching and research roles as a professor at UCCS I have that opportunity every day. As a teacher, I am always looking for new material and real world examples to integrate into class. I also seek out more effective methods of teaching. As a researcher, I determine what has already been done through background studies and use that information to design experiments that allow us to make new discoveries. Research projects with local industry are particularly fulfilling because they are typically outside of what I do on a day to day basis. They provide me with an opportunity to expand my knowledge base and to become a better engineer and professor.
What do you do for fun?
I enjoy skiing, biking, running, and swimming. Every summer my husband and I try to sign up for races in locations we haven’t been to before. This gives us an opportunity to compete and travel. Our honeymoon is a perfect example. We signed up for the Alp d’Huez Triathlon in France and then spent the two weeks after the race riding our bikes through the Alps.