Montana State University

Saving the world one engineering student at a time

September 18, 2008 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

MSU engineering student Chandra Macauley poses in one of the university's fuel cell labs, where she works as an undergraduate researcher. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- When she was just 13 years old, Montana State University engineering student Chandra Macauley decided to help save the world.

That decision came on a family trip to Denver when Macauley spied a cloud of smog blanketing the mile-high city. That cloud, and what it represented about the state of the environment, terrified her.

"It was at that moment that I was bound and determined to change things," said Macauley, now 20. "And that's what engineering is all about."

After graduating from Billings Skyview High School in 2006, Macauley enrolled in the chemical and biological engineering program at MSU, where she has since begun to study fuel cells and other alternative energy technologies.

But once she arrived at MSU, she was inspired to tack another mission onto her world-saving energy research: reaching out to high school students across Montana who, before Macauley, might not have given engineering a second thought.

"It is an absolute necessity for American youth to major in engineering," Macauley wrote in her scholarship application to MSU's College of Engineering. And she has made it her mission to spread the word about engineering, holding onto the belief that America must teach young students to dream big and to turn those dreams into solutions for the world's energy problems.

"Instilling that kind of inspiration is vital to successful energy solutions," she said.

A self-described type-A personality with a passion for organization, Macauley practices outreach in her role as vice president -- and former activities coordinator -- of the MSU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, a national society that helps women succeed in engineering.

Macauley, who is a member of MSU's University Honors program, joined the society in 2006 as a freshman because she was surprised at how few women were in her engineering classes. The society gave her the chance to meet some of the other women who were taking the same classes and dealing with the same homework and deadlines.

"It was nice to have that network," she said.

The society also gave Macauley the chance to attend its 2008 College Leadership Forum in Minneapolis, Minn., as a "future leader." Macauley was chosen from among 100 applicants to become one of only 20 such leaders from across the country.

"You're in a room with 100 women, and they're all engineers and completely successful. Just being able to see so many successful women was inspiring," she said.

While Macauley originally joined the society for the social network it offered, she said that she has been drawn into its outreach activities, which give her the chance to talk about engineering with state high school students.

"I didn't know about engineering until I was a sophomore in high school, and even then there were few, if any, opportunities to explore the field," she said. "It's important for me to make sure I'm giving high school students the opportunities I didn't have."

Macauley has made herself instrumental to the College of Engineering's Shadow an Engineering Major program, which brings high schoolers from across the state to visit MSU for a day.

With Macauley's help, the program grew from about 30 high schoolers to more than 130 last year - so many that she had to arrange a special bus to get them to Bozeman.

Looking back, Macauley now believes that engineering was the natural choice for her. Ever since she was young, Macauley has wanted to know how things are put together. She used to take apart and remodel her sister's dollhouse, and she built what has become a somewhat infamous LEGO house, complete with insulation, in-wall surround sound, electric lights and running water.

Macauley laughs when she thinks about the plastic brick house and jokingly regrets ever mentioning it to people at MSU, but even so, the house has been useful. Macauley has used photos of it in presentations she has given to other students on campus.

As for the jury-rigged LEGO structure: "It's still put together," she admitted, "sitting in a shoebox at home."

"Determination. That's her in a nutshell," said Paul Gannon, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and head of the fuel cell lab where Macauley has worked since December.

In the lab, Macauley researches protective coatings for the inner workings of fuel cells. She uses methods like electrolysis and "magnetron sputtering" to coat the stainless steel parts with a layer of cobalt to prevent corrosion.

Macauley has mastered experimental techniques and analytical tools usually reserved for graduate students and is more than capable of doing her own research, Gannon said.

"When other students might get confused about something, she has the self-motivation to find answers on her own and push past those times of uncertainty," he said. "Chandra's willing to find the answers by herself, and that makes all the difference."

Abbie Richards, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, said some of Macauley's recruitment and inspirations efforts have started paying off. In one of Richards' introductory classes, a student said she majored in engineering because of the shadow program Macauley organized.

"If it wasn't for Chandra, this particular student might not have known about the opportunities available to her in the engineering field," Richards said.

Macauley remains modest about her achievements at MSU and, characteristically, shifts the praise to her teachers and fellow students whenever she can.

"I don't see myself as this amazing undergrad who's so talented," Macauley said. "Anybody's got the potential. It's just inspiring them to do something about it."

Related Stories:

Waking a sleeping buffalo: MSU students explore renewable energy on the Hi-Line, May 19, 2005

MSU graduate coordinates international engineering affair, Feb. 22, 2005

"Fuels cells electrify learning for engineering student," Jan. 14, 2005

"Top engineering grad is a whirl of energy," May 22, 2003

Contact: Heidi Sherick, Assistant Dean, College of Engineering, at 406-994-2272 or at