ChemE alumni Destiny Oparaocha
My engineering education and experiences have... provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Destiny Oparaocha 
Hometown: Bowie, MD
Degrees: Spring 2020, B.S. ChemE; Spring 2021, M.S. Systems Engineering

Can you tell us a bit about your background? Were there any compelling people or events that helped propel you into engineering? 

Before I explain who I am, I want to give a little bit of background on my family. My mom initially went to law school, where she earned her J.D, and she now teaches special education students. I have two siblings: a younger brother who is double majoring in mechanical engineering and computer science at UMD, and I have a younger sister who is planning to major in engineering. My grandparents have greatly influenced my life, and they have also made significant contributions to society. They were both active members of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s. After the Civil Rights Movement ended, my grandma went back to school to finish her medical degree, but my grandpa continued to work in the area of social justice. He served 16 years on the D.C. City Council, and he went on to found the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1998. Additionally, my great-grandpa was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of all African American military fighter pilots, during WWII. Even during the time of segregation, he was still able to rise to the rank of First-Lieutenant. Needless to say, I grew up with family members who have positively changed the world around them.

I spent my entire life right here in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Growing up, I was a very artistic kid, and I loved designing and building different things. When I was in middle school, I had my first introduction to engineering when I began to participate in robotics. From then on, I could clearly see engineering as a future career path. Additionally, I attended Catholic school until I went to college, and my Catholic education placed a large emphasis on service to others. I worked on several service projects, and I did everything from working in soup kitchens to tutoring children in underprivileged areas. It was in this environment where I discovered that I wanted my path in life to leave a positive impact on the world and benefit others. I knew that engineering would place me on that path. 

That’s an impressive background! So, why UMD? 

I chose to study at UMD because it is a large university with a lot of opportunities. I attended several events at UMD when I was younger, and they really opened my eyes to what the university had to offer. When I was in high school, I went to a Women in Engineering (WIE) conference, which was where I first discovered the Flexus: WIE Living and Learning Program. I knew engineering was going to be difficult so a support system would be very important. Additionally, when I went to Maryland Day, I saw all of the different organizations that I could participate in, and Engineers Without Borders really stuck out to me. The idea of tackling real world problems and having my engineering efforts directly impact someone was really appealing to me. Ultimately, I felt that UMD was a place where I could thrive and be successful.

It seems like you’re right where you need to be, for sure. And what specifically led you to chemical engineering?

When I was in seventh grade, I remember reading a magazine about fabricating artificial organs, and I couldn’t believe that was even possible! At that time, I had no idea what chemical or bio engineering were. All I knew was that I wanted to learn how to do something that amazing. That was also the year when I took my very first chemistry class. From then on, I was hooked on chemistry and biological applications. However, as I progressed through high school, my interest in robotics deepened, so when I applied to UMD at the beginning of my senior year, I applied for mechanical engineering. As a senior, I was also taking AP Chemistry, and that class reaffirmed my love for chemistry. Out of all the sciences, chemistry has always been where I excelled, and I knew that I wanted to major in a chemistry related field. I also knew that I wanted to do chemistry where I could actually build something, so I switched into chemical engineering right before my freshman year of college started.

Did you conduct any research during your tenure, either on or off campus?

While I was at UMD, I had the opportunity to work in three different on campus research labs. During the summer after my freshman year, I worked in the Institute for Bioscience & Biotechnology Research with Dr. James Culver. I helped to develop CRISPR knock out lines to determine how the absence of IAA26 and IAA27 affected the movement of Tobacco Mosaic Virus throughout a plant. The following summer, I worked in the Advanced Fuel Cell and Battery Lab with Dr. Chunsheng Wang where I worked with lithium ion battery technologies with various electrolytes. I also conducted my master’s research with Dr. Paul Albertus with a concentration on computational modeling for the REPAIR (Rapid Encapsulation of Pipelines Avoiding Intensive Replacement) program for the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) organization. My research centered on the development of executable transient thermal models for the rehabilitation of a natural gas pipeline system to simulate a rapid sintering process.

In addition to on campus research, I had two industry experiences. I worked for DuPont as an R&D intern with a focus on formulation science in the Nutrition and Biosciences department the summer following my junior year. I had the opportunity to work on 3 separate projects, which allowed me to further develop my bioscience, analytical chemistry, and process engineering skills. After I graduated with my B.S in Chemical Engineering, I still had one year left towards my M.S. in Systems Engineering. Since all of my previous internship experiences had been in the chemical engineering field, I really wanted to get some experience as a systems engineering. For my final internship/co-op, I worked as a Model Based Systems Engineer for 1 year in the software engineer department at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  

That’s quite a resume! So, what was the best thing about your experience on campus? Any challenges you had to overcome?

I had gone to small, Catholic schools my entire life where everyone had grown up together and known one another. Coming to a huge university like UMD was definitely a change for me, but the Flexus: Women in Engineering (WIE) Living and Learning Program really helped with the transition. During my freshman year, I lived on a floor filled with STEM majors. Living with a group of people who were specifically focused on engineering was really beneficial for me. Being a chemical engineer is extremely difficult to do on your own, which is why having homework and study groups was so important for me. One of the biggest challenges that I faced was training my brain to think in ways that I never had to before. There was a constant influx of information that I had to learn to process very quickly, and there were several learning curves that I had to overcome. However, being able to walk down the hallway to ask about homework problems or have a midnight study session really helped me to stick with the major. I even met some of my closest friends through Flexus.

How did you spend your free time?

I participated in a wide variety of activities. I was a member of the American Chemical Society as well as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). I also tutored CHEM 135 (General Chemistry 1) for 4 semesters, and I volunteered as a peer mentor for freshmen through the University Honors Program and Flexus. Tutoring and peer mentoring allowed me to help freshmen on their journey through engineering, and it was definitely a very rewarding experience for me. Additionally, I was a team lead for the water treatment sub-team for the Ghana Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. When I began my M.S. in Systems Engineering, I wanted to give myself the most opportunities as a systems engineer. This motivated me to become certified as an Associate Systems Engineering Professional through the International Council of Systems Engineers (INCOSE). 

Aside from my more technical activities, I really love spending time with my friends. We enjoyed going to football, basketball, and soccer games together. Moreover, one of my favorite hobbies is cooking. When I lived on campus, my friends and I tried new recipes together, and we were always trying new food at different restaurants.  

Now that you’ve graduated, what are you up to? 

Throughout my college experience, one of my biggest struggles was trying to figure out how I would combine my passions for chemical and systems engineering. I was part of the BS/MSSE program, so I began taking systems engineering graduate courses during my senior year of chemical engineering. Back then, it was difficult for me to see how I could have a career simultaneously in both areas. I felt that I was ultimately going to have to pick one area of engineering to focus on. It wasn’t until I began my master’s research that I finally saw what a mix of chemical and systems engineering would look like. After my master’s thesis defense, Dr. Sriram, one of my thesis committee members, stuck around to ask me what my post-graduation plans were. At the time, I was set to continue working as a Model Based Systems Engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). However, it was during that conversation with Dr. Sriram that I realized I wanted to have a career where I could use the chemical engineering knowledge that I had spent 4 years acquiring. I decided to continue job hunting, and I finally found the perfect opportunity at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU/APL). 

Today, I work full time at JHU/APL as a chemical and systems engineering in the chemical sensing field. I also work time part time as a Model Based Systems Engineer for Systems Strategies and Analysis Inc. to further develop the software skills that I acquired while working at NASA GSFC.

Engineering is obviously a complex major – do you have any advice for incoming students as to how they can be successful?

Yes! I have two pieces of advice for incoming students that I lived by while I was in college: 1) Don’t be afraid to ask for help and 2) take every opportunity that comes your way.

The last thing that you want to do in engineering is get behind in class material. Once you get behind, it becomes very difficult to catch up. This is why asking for help early is so important. I basically lived in office hours my entire time in college. I found that going to office hours helped me to ask questions that I didn’t even know I had. It was also a great way for me to get a jump start on my homework and to begin really understanding the material. If office hours aren’t your thing, you could try tutoring for more one-on-one assistance. The Keystone Center is a great tutoring resource, and they offer help for many core engineering classes.

I can honestly say that every experience that I had in the past has gotten me to where I am today. One of the major reasons that I was able to get my current job at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab was my wide variety of work and research experiences. Even experiences outside of engineering can help you to build critical skills that are applicable to the engineering field. Every opportunity that you take not only builds your resume but also allows you to form important connections with others, such as potential employers.

Throughout my time as an engineering student, I have found that you might try a lot of things you don’t like (or aren’t good at), you’ll make mistakes, but eventually you will succeed if you put in the work, make the right connections, and ask for help before it’s too late. We are all capable of more than we think.

So, what do you ultimately want to be when you grow up?

When I grow up, I want to be an inspiration to others, especially to the younger generation. My engineering education and experiences have made such an enormous impact on my life and have provided me with opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I want to be someone who can use my talents to make this world a better place, and ultimately, I want to change the world. However, in order to do this, I must first impact the lives of those around me. I want to be able to show others that if you have a dream, no matter what it is, you just have to start chasing it because one day, you will get there.