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Pakeltis Sisters Hope to Change the World Through Engineering...and to Recruit More Women Engineers

"Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters!" –  Irving Berlin

Grace and Abby Pakeltis

October 7, 2016

While the old Irving Berlin song, “Sisters, Sisters,” may not exactly be the theme song of the two Pakeltis sisters, a couple of lines fit Grace and Abby to a T. One is the last part of the line:
"Two different faces,
But in tight places,
We think and we act as one."

For instance, both are studying Engineering at Illinois. Both went to GAMES camp, got hooked on their respective disciplines there, and thus ended up at Illinois. Both are heavily involved in leadership in the Illinois chapter of SWE (Society of Women Engineers). Both are passionate about and involved in outreach. Both hope to change the world through Engineering. Then there's this line: "Never had to have a chaperone, 'No, sir!' I'm here to keep my eye on her!" Who has been keeping her eye on whom over the last number of years? You be the judge.

Grace and Abby Pakeltis (photo courtesy of Grace Pakeltis).

So how did the Pakeltis girls both end up in Engineering at Illinois? For most of her childhood, Grace, the oldest, who is a senior in Materials Science Engineering (MatSE), wanted to be a teacher. But one math teacher pushed STEM because of her great math and science skills. Plus, her godmother (whose husband is an engineer) and high school teachers suggested she pursue engineering. That’s how she ended up at GAMES camp in 2011. And because she couldn’t get into Chemical Engineering GAMES, she opted for GLAM...and fell in love with materials.

Grace (on the right in the group in the foreground) and her team at GLAM GAMES camp the summer of 2011 (photo courtesy of Grace Pakeltis).

“I loved what you could do with it,” she admits. “I loved the activities, and I loved the people there. So then I started pursing materials science more.”

But even before she decided on which field, she was aiming for Illinois.

“I came to U of I for a basketball tournament,” she says, “and I saw the engineering quad and the big engineering library, and I realized that this is where I wanted to be. So all throughout high school, that was the goal: to get into U of I for engineering.”

It wasn’t until later that she discovered how good of an engineering school it is. “Our materials science program is #2 in the country,” she admits, “and that really drove me to try it.”

Abby, a sophomore in Mechanical Science & Engineering (MechSE), took a similar route to Illinois. Proof that Little Sister had been watching over the years, Abby reports that while her sister’s participation in GAMES camp “intrigued” her, what had really impressed her was when Grace went to state in Science Olympiad: “So I saw that, and I thought it was a lot of fun.”

Abby (center) and her teammates with the windmill they made during the competition the final day of G-BAM GAMES 2014 (photo courtesy of Abby Pakeltis).

So like her big sister, Abby, who liked math and science too, also got involved in Science Olympiad in high school. But because Abby wanted to be a doctor, she went to Bioengineering GAMES, then to another engineering camp, where some device (which looked like a wood engraver, but was used to remove organs during surgery) “sparked my interest in medical devices,” she admits.

Then the fall of her junior year, Abby took and liked physics, "and that was what made me think about mechanical.” The following summer, attending MechSE’s G-BAM GAMES camp sealed the deal. “I loved it; that’s why I chose mechanical in the end,” she reports.

She says participating in G-BAM “was definitely when I made my goal of coming to the University of Illinois for Engineering.  It was always engineering, but I didn’t know it was U of I all along.”

So, with Abby emulating practically every step she has made so far in high school and now college, is Grace tired of Little Sister tagging along? Nope, she loves it.

Grace Pakeltis the summer after her freshman year when she was a GLAM GAMES counselor.

“I’ve always liked having Abby at the same school as me,” Grace admits. “And I really wanted Abby to come to U of I with me. It’s great to have family on campus, and get to see her all the time. And, yea, it’s just a great support to have as well.”

Abby agrees, and doesn’t find Big Sister's proximity too restricting: “I honestly couldn’t imagine it any other way. We’re different in our interests through engineering, although we are both in SWE, we are separate enough to be our own individual people.”

In fact, Abby has her own built-in mentor in Grace. “We are also close enough that we have each other to lean on, since she has already gone through the first years of college. And I am very grateful to have her as a role model. I do think of her as a mentor.” 

Grace Pakeltis presents her research at a recent conference she attended as part of ISURS.

But while their journey so far has led through the same school, their paths will most likely diverge once they graduate: Grace is going on for a PhD; Abby is headed straight to industry. In addition, they hope to address very different problems.

Grace, for instance, is interested in electronic materials. “Materials are the future of electronics. There’s no getting around that...I will be going to grad school to hopefully pursue my PhD in materials engineering, and from there I would like to work in research and development for the electronics field.”

Grace interned this past summer at the University of California-Berkeley working with a multi-ferrous system, which she explains, “boils down to using the direction of magnetism to write and rewrite memory in your device.” If possible, she would like to continue her work at Berkeley in that group for her grad school. 

Abby’s career goal is to work in industry in medical devices. “I don’t know what kind of medical devices, but I want to work on something that will help increase the quality of life for other people. My passion in engineering comes from helping other people.”

Grace (left) was the SWE Outreach Chair her sophomore year. Here she is with the other leaders of SWE in 2014.

But while the two might not agree on which engineering problem to tackle, both agree that the “coolest thing” about Illinois (besides going to school with their sister, of course), is all of the opportunities for personal growth and for outreach.

For example, both are heavily involved in SWE. Grace was the Outreach Director her sophomore year. In fact, SWE's Engineeringl Round Robin outreach, which exposes girls to all the engineering disciplines, is her brainchild. Last year, she was the SWE EVP (External Vice President), and she is President this year.

Grace in her role as the 2016 president of SWE (photo courtesy of the SWE website.

Last year, Abby was on SWE’s outreach team; this year, she’s a Team Tech Director. For this SWE competition, Illinois’ team of about 10–12 female engineering students will work on a project throughout the year, to develop a new system or product for their sponsoring company, then present it at the national SWE conference, competing against teams from other universities.

Abby interacts with a kindergartener at SWE's FKO (For Kids Only) outreach at Leal School.

“Through SWE,” says Abby, “I have had the opportunity to work on a project for another company, and now I am leading a project as well.  That’s something that Illinois has already offered me.”

Another great opportunity is the research, which Grace calls “really cool.” Involved with research since her second semester freshmen year, she’s currently working on her third project on this campus with MatSE Professor John Rogers. “The research was what sparked my interest in electronic materials,” she admits.

Grace has particularly appreciated her two research experience mentors. Professor Rogers, whom she calls “a wonderful mentor,” encourages his grad students to mentor undergrads. Another was a post-doc named Xing, now a professor at a university in China, whom Grace calls, “wonderful...He taught me how to do research.”

Grace waits to present her poster at a recent conference.

Also, by doing undergrad research Grace also gets to be a part of ISUR (Illinois Scholars in Undergraduate Research), through which she’s gotten to go to conferences for the past two years to present her research.

Abby has also had research opportunities, many through her MechE classes. “Right now I’m in ME 270, and we work in a group to create a medical device that we think can solve a problem in the world.”

Another area where the two “think and act as one” is outreach; for instance, both are passionate about increasing the number of women in engineering.

“I think outreach is vital for the gender gap in STEM,” Grace says. “But beyond that, I think outreach is important that all students get the opportunity to experience STEM. Being able to introduce them to all the ways they can change the world through engineering is so important.”

Abby and a fellow SWE member work out some kinks during the Binary and Arduinos session at the fall 2016 Engineering Round Robin outreach.

Grace also believes that for students who don’t have teachers who will introduce them to STEM and GAMES camps, outreach gives them a chance to see if engineering is for them: “I was fortunate to have that push,” she admits. “But a lot of people don’t. And SWE does so many outreach programs throughout the year to let people come down and see engineering first hand, and see if this is the path that they want to take.”

Abby hopes that through outreach, the notion of engineering as an attainable career would become more widespread. Actually, she would like to see it regularly show up in the short list kids rattle off when asked what they want to be when they grow up. “Engineering isn’t something that many young kids, especially women, hear about as a job.”

“So, for example, for me, I said I wanted to be a doctor growing up,” she continues. “When you think of it as a little kid, you want to be an artist, doctor, or rock star. And engineering kind of incorporates all of those interests and sparks that creativity. So I think using outreach to give people the opportunity to experience it is the most important thing.”

The Pakeltis sisters helping run SWE's Introduce-a-Girl-to-Engineering Day in spring 2016.

The two also want to show young people that engineers can change the world.

Grace says, “You hear people talk about going out there and saving people by being a doctor. But by being an engineer, you are doing that as well. You are making lives better and improving the world no matter what field of engineering you are in.”

In fact, Abby says engineers don’t get enough credit for all the things they do to make the world a better place: “In movies, they show doctors and surgeons saving lives, and you start thinking, ‘Oh, I want to do that!’ But they don’t show you who is making all the equipment they use. So that’s what outreach can do, it shows who made all that stuff!”

Grace interacts with high school students during a hands-on activity when she served as a counselor in GLAM GAMES 2014.

So in keeping with their convictions about outreach, both have participated in numerous outreach activities. Both have been GAMES camp counselors, Grace in GLAM, Abby in G-BAM. Both participate in SWE outreaches, including the 2016 High School Round Robin. This year SWE expanded it to include middle schoolers, which Grace says is “a great idea. So now they are being exposed to all the different fields at an ever younger age.”

At WIE Orientation 2016, Abby interacts with an incoming engineering freshman during an activity.

“I love the outreach events,” adds Grace, “and I try to go to as many as possible, even though I’ve changed positions.”

Both are also involved with Women In Engineering (WIE). “We work hand in hand with WIE," Grace says. "The collaboration on outreach between SWE and WIE has been a great thing for the gender gap to decrease.”  

As part of SWE outreach last year, Abby helped make an air hockey table from scratch for EOH (Engineering Open House), then enjoyed interacting with the young visitors.

Abby interacting with EOH visitors playing at the air hockey table she helped build.

“I really enjoy sharing my passion for engineering with others,” she acknowledges.

Grace has also served as a role model for the previous two years in SWE's huge Invent It Build It outreach event during its National Conference. “Engineers come from all around the country and serve as role models for the girls...We worked on their design challenges and fostering their creativity.”

Abby will attend as well this year. “So this will be my first year that I get to be the role model there,” she says, “but I am excited to see it, because I love outreach events. And excited to do it at the national level."

Abby (center) chats with a recruiter at the Fall 2016 Engineering Career Fair.

While both enjoy being in Engineering together, there might be one fly in the ointment. Unlike the “Two different faces,” line in “Sisters, Sisters," they practically look like twins: "It’s funny,” admits Grace, adding one caveat regarding her sister being at Illinois too. "Now that she is team tech director of SWE, and I’m president, people see me and ask if they’ve seen me before. Then they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re Abby’s sister!’”

(This reporter had a similar experience the first time I met the Pakeltis sisters: I was doing an article on the 2014 GAMES camp, and because I like to feature GAMES alumnae, had just interviewed and done a photo shoot with GRACE, who had served as a GLAM camp counselor that year. Then, when I showed up at G-BAM to get photos, behold, there she was again, but a camper! This threw me momentarily, until the light bulb went off, and I told myself, “Ha! This must be Grace’s sister.” And it was.)

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative, unless noted otherwise.

For more related stories, see: GAMES, GBAM, GLAM, Illinois Legacies, MatSE, MechSE, Science Olympiad, Student Spotlight, SWE, Undergrad Outreach, WIE, Women in STEM, 2016

The Pakeltis sisters (Abby and Grace) on the south portico of Engineering Hall.