Profile of Bridget Hegarty - Environmental Engineer

Posted Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 9:34 AM

Director, EngineerGirl, National Academy of Engineering

"How one woman's drive to save the rain forests led her to a career in engineering."

Profile of Bridget Hegarty - Environmental Engineer

PostedTuesday, September 12, 2017 at 10:34 AM

Profile of Bridget Hegarty - Environmental Engineer

Author: Melina Joseph

When Bridget Hegarty was in kindergarten, she told her mother that she was “going to save the rain forests.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that her curiosity of the natural world led her to major in biological engineering with a focus in environmental engineering at Cornell University.

She is now working toward her PhD in environmental engineering at Yale Graduate School, and is involved in educational outreach for middle and high school students. In addition, she played an integral role in the formation of the Yale Society of Women Engineers (SWE). As for her current project, Hegarty is working to understand cyanobacterial genetics through genetic engineering.

“I have always been full of incessant questions,” said Hegarty in response to what initially sparked her interest in engineering. “I was drawn to the fact that engineering’s primary focus is to apply scientific discoveries to improve people’s lives.”

While passionate about science from a very young age, she only began to view engineering as a possible career path upon taking geometry and calculus classes in high school. It was then that Hegarty found she enjoyed math, which led to her participation in a camp at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) after her junior year of high school. 

Her summer at RPI, she said, was what convinced her that biomedical engineering was a way in which she could apply scientific discoveries to improve the lives of others. 

Hegarty appreciated the strong engineering curriculum at Cornell, which played a major role in her decision to attend the University for her undergraduate degree. 

Although she entered college with the intention of pursuing biomedical engineering, her “childhood desire to save the rainforests remained as a commitment to mitigate the effects of climate change” and helped her realize that she could “merge her love of biology with this desire.”

When asked whether or not she faced attempts from others to dissuade her from a career path in engineering, Hegarty mainly answers that she did not. 

She describes being surrounded by individuals who encouraged her-- “My parents were both very supportive, as were most of my teachers...My sixth-grade teacher, in particular, hoped that I would choose to pursue engineering.”

However, she was still subjected to comments such as “Not many girls study engineering” or inquiries regarding whether she was comfortable “being the only girl in her classes.”

Such comments only motivated her to stick with her major, she says. Having been the only girl in her high school electronics class, the possibility of the same gender composition in college courses was not daunting.

Hegarty recognizes that there is often better representation of women in biological and environmental engineering than other types.

“Even still,” she says, “Being one of the few women pursuing engineering made me feel as though I needed to prove something with my performance to show that women ​are ​just as capable of succeeding in engineering as men.”

This thought was a driving force in her endeavors but could also be draining. She describes women in engineering reporting that they feel “as though they have to constantly prove themselves to be given the same respect as their male peers,” and this often leads to burnout and dissatisfaction. 

Until society internalizes the fact that women are just as competent as men in engineering and until they are treated in a manner that reflects this, she says, statements regarding a lack of women studying engineering will continue to be true.

“Like many women,” Hegarty says, “I struggle with feelings of being an imposter.”

Hegarty cites the support network of peers in her classes and mentors in SWE as critical to her success. They showed her the power of female role models and inspired her to be a mentor for younger students. 

She hopes that “like older students had impressed on me, I could show them that everyone struggles in engineering classes, particularly at first.”

Her outreach efforts have ranged from volunteering for Family Science Nights hosted at local New Haven schools, to a series of Engineering Days and Girls’ Science Investigations program events for middle school students.

The Yale Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is an organization in which Hegarty has taken a number of leadership roles. She led the effort to found the SWE community at Yale by starting a group for interested graduate students and aiding the process of establishing the group as a recognized section. She served as the president of SWE and co-president of gradSWE at Yale for the past two years. Currently, she is the Diversity and Inclusion Liaison for the society-wide SWE Graduate Leadership Team and continues to support the efforts of the Yale Outreach Committee to expand the Engineering Day program. 

She hopes to broaden the section’s outreach beyond New Haven, and is excited about the planning of an event for middle schoolers across Connecticut.

With such impressive credentials and community work, it may be easy to assume that Hegarty’s endeavors were always consummate. However, she strives to make clear that she dealt with her own setbacks in life regarding academics. 

At times, she did not perform as well as expected on exams, and she found particular classes to be difficult, which isn’t unusual for an engineering student.

“I found that those preserving in engineering didn't find the topics any easier than the ones who chose something else to pursue,” she said.  “But, they were those ones who were willing to put in the effort to master the material...Realizing this contributed to my sticking with engineering when at first I didn't succeed with the material.”

Graduate school is where her internal confidence has served her well, as “doing research is more often than not a series of dead ends; and perseverance is critical to sticking it out.”

Hegarty’s PhD project focuses on the genetic engineering of cyanobacteria (a photosynthetic bacteria capable of producing biofuel-precursor molecules) to produce higher levels of biofuel compounds. In addition, she is working on a project regarding the indoor microbiome, which consists of, “characterizing what species are present in dust to offer recommendations to improve human health.” 

Her regular day consists of both computer and lab work. She can be found running various experiments and assays on the cultures of cyanobacteria, analyzing data through computer programs designed for genomics, or meeting with her PhD advisor and other collaborators. 

Outside of her research, Hegarty enjoys hiking, reading, and photography. She’s a member of the Club Taekwondo team at Yale and skis when she gets the chance in the winter.

“I hope to motivate and empower the next generation of engineers,” said Hegarty. Her work, from doing research to change the world, balancing academics and hobbies, and being involved in the community, is doing exactly that.