Titilope Banji is a doctoral student of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University, United States of America. She graduated from the University of Ibadan with a CGPA of 6.1 out of a possible 7.0. In this interview with Edugist, she shares her undergraduate experience leading to her direct PhD route to the USA. Excerpts:
Please share with Edugist, a little about yourself and your education background.
My name is Titilope Banji and I am 25 years old. I grew up mostly in Lagos, Nigeria. I am currently a PhD student of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Ibadan where I finished with a first class grade in December 2021. As at the time I graduated, the University of Ibadan operated a seven-point cumulative grade point average (CGPA) scale, before it changed to a four-point scale. My final CGPA was 6.1 out of a possible seven.
I had earlier started with a CGPA of 6.5, but along the way, my CGPA dropped drastically because of a near failure I had in my second year and coming back up was very tough. I however made sure that I didn’t drop out of the range of first class grade.
Congratulations on your outstanding academic achievements. When did you start your graduate school applications?
Thank you. I was preparing for my service year around the time I graduated in 2021. But I had also made applications for graduate schools during my final year. I completed five successful applications and received three admission offers, but only one offer came with funding. I knew that was the next step for me. So I relocated and began my study last year, in August 2022.
What specific research area within mechanical engineering are you focusing on in your PhD programme, and what inspired you to pursue this particular area?
My area of research is in energy and engines or other engines and energy conversion. I’m working on projects which have to do with emission reduction, which is an important thing to the world right now, both in the United States and in every other country. This is because health is paramount and this is what the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to establish. So, from our own perspective as engineers, we tend to make our own contributions that are meant to end up in industrial applications to reduce emissions.
Could you tell us about your motivation to pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering right after graduating with a first class grade?
That spans back to my undergraduate days. Well, I already started considering a direct PhD study from my fourth year, when I interned at a food production company in Nigeria for six months. During the internship, I had the opportunity to work with experts and a major highlight for me was working on a gas turbine. At that time, I saw that I wasn’t doing mechanical engineering for fun, or something I just had to do in school. I saw that it was something that I really liked and wanted to get to know a lot more about. The internship made me realise that there was so much I did not know.
My undergraduate studies could give me some background but I knew that for me to be really relevant and have a voice in the field, I would have to further my studies in mechanical engineering. I knew that a PhD would offer me the luxury of deep understanding. A master’s degree certification is good, but I felt it was a bit too rushed for me. I also had more funding prospects when I applied for a PhD. But aside from that, I knew that I needed time to study and I was willing to work on research which would broaden my knowledge.
So in my final year, I started working with some of my friends, discussing how to make graduate school applications and the documents we needed. Also, we published some papers together in the process. I would say it was more of a desire to want to have a concrete understanding of every concept. There is a popular culture of “la cram, la pour” among Nigerian students. But I am very bad at cramming.
How has your undergraduate experience prepared you for your current PhD programme in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University?
Yeah, my undergraduate experience really did prepare me well, academically and beyond. I remember in my 200 level class, we had a ‘Women in Engineering’ programme, and a lady who worked with Shell Nigeria came to speak. So after her speech, she said anyone who wants her to mentor them should reach out and I reached out, she was of very great help. Even up to the point when I left Nigeria.
She encouraged me to gain skills beyond my academic skills and to maximise my internship. She gave me tasks from time to time and guided my qualifications for different initiatives, including a STEM Girls Initiative programme, I was assigned a mentor there as well. I also received mentorship from someone who works with British American Tobacco. She mentored me as well as guided me through CV writing and academic profile creation, among others. My lectures were also amazing. Of course, not every one of them but a good number of them. My undergraduate projects also went well and it helped me to launch into something related to energy systems. And that was a very strong point to my graduate school applications. All thanks to my supervisor who was very helpful to help me make sense of things taught in class.
Leadership positions also really helped me as I was committed to different organisations. I was involved in a Christian fellowship where I held a leadership position. It was demanding but I learnt people management, how to listen to other people and how to manage projects and events. All these are relevant to my project management skills. I was made the editor-in-chief of the Nigerian Institute of Mechanical Engineers press chapter in my school where I ensured that members improved their writing skills, even though they were engineering students. My volunteering experience also contributed. I volunteered with a mental health organisation. It was a time when I wanted to offer my skills, not because of pay, but because of my desire to make a positive change to my society. My undergraduate years were very useful in giving me a strong background.
Can you discuss any challenges or obstacles you’ve faced during your academic journey, and how you overcame them?
If you recall, I said when I was in my second year, I had a near failure in a particular course that cost me a lot. I realised that I assumed that I knew some things while I didn’t. I was kind of lazy and I didn’t take my time to go over my study carefully. I just assumed that I knew the course content. It affected me and it was challenging getting my CGPA back up. Semester after semester, I kept struggling to get it back up.
I also had a challenge of time management, getting to balance my extracurricular activities. At some point, I started organising tutorials for my classmates. In the process, a new challenge came up, balancing teaching other people with teaching myself. So I learnt to prioritise and take some steps back when I get burnt out.
My social life wasn’t as great but my coping mechanism was interacting with people. I knew everyone in my class, every single person. I knew them personally, only maybe a few, that wouldn’t really know me, or that I wouldn’t have had a conversation with. It helped me to build my confidence and raise my spirit.
Could you share any notable projects or research you’ve been involved in prior to your PhD programme?
One notable project I can share is my final year project. I worked on producing biodiesel from petrol fast seeds. So Jatropha is a plant that is common in Nigeria but not grown in large quantities. I needed seeds up to like 50 kilograms for it, so it was tough getting those seeds. But the goal was to create biodiesel from it and then test it on an engine in terms of how it blends with normal diesel to see the performance characteristics, the emission characteristics and combustion characteristics which are very important in analysing its performance. So it was a very challenging project. Eventually, it was good to see the performance of the biodiesel on the engine and its reduced emissions.
My internship coursework project was also an interesting one. We worked on servicing a turbine. It was my first time seeing it and the project involved us checking the limits of the turbine, the amount of power expected from it and the amount it was given and the reasons why it was given those amounts, among others. It was an exciting project of getting to know the working principles of a turbine because I was given tasks. I also worked with boiler and heat recovery steam generator that was linked to the turbine, that is, the exhaust from the turbine was used to generate steam that was going to be used in the company. Being there, analysing the system and giving reports were a major part of the project.
How do you stay updated with the latest advancements and trends in mechanical engineering?
I’m currently a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, and they had a convention two months ago where some presentations were made. Although I didn’t present anything, I learnt a number of things from the presentation that I joined the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as a student member, and I get updates in my email on recent publications and research. There will be more conferences in the future. My current supervisor has told me about conferences that I’ll be attending very soon, starting in the fall. I also read research papers when academics publish new things in the field.
As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, have you encountered any unique challenges or experiences, and how have you navigated them?
Beginning from even secondary school, choosing to do technical drawing instead of human nutrition, attracted criticism. I have always been in male-dominated environments. Initially, I didn’t really see any challenge in it until I went to the university. People were always shocked when they found out about my course of study. The truth is it was kind of discouraging, because it felt like people did not expect me to do well. And so when I did well, they celebrated me more than other people as though I was not expected to even do well in the first place. I got more enlightened on the fact that it’s just about you doing your best. You don’t have to consider what every single person says.
Even right here in the United States as well, it’s still a male-dominated field. I believe that the reason why it is a male-dominated field is because of the energy that is put into it. And trust me, I know from when I was interning that it can be very challenging. And then, women tend to have more tendency to lean to family than career. But I still feel like there are some of us who have that rigorous skill, and we shouldn’t waste it. So I remind myself of that all the time. I try to tell myself that I’m not here because I’m a female. I’m here because I want to study mechanical engineering.
Kindly run through the application process for the funding of your PhD
The initial scholarship was a one-time funding. Then, I received an assistantship position which funds my tuition plus stipend. The application involved me applying for admission and reaching out to a professor in the university proposing to carry out research in his lab. This correspondence went on in the email before making an application to the school which recommended me for the scholarship.
How do you plan to contribute to the field of mechanical engineering through your research and future career aspirations?
Methane and carbon dioxide emission reduction is where the focus has been. I also plan to make improvements on the large engine I work on which will contribute to mechanical engineering since it will make subsequent productions better.
What do you plan to do when you obtain your PhD degree?
I know many people would expect that when you finish a PhD, you lecture. For me, it is not set in stone yet. It depends on where I find myself at the end of my studies. For now, I still have an interest in going back to the industry.
Also, at the end of my PhD, I’ll be able to make more informed contributions to mechanical engineering through my research and people will refer back to it. If I end up working in industry, I’ll be able to contribute to engine production and oil and gas industry, because I have a keen interest in energy conversion or the energy sector as a whole. I am intentional about mechanical engineering because I know I will be useful in many sectors.
Outside engineering, what do you like to do?
I am a creative writer. I like writing. Although that is not common to many engineering students, it is something I enjoy doing. I usually write on my medium page randomly.
What advice would you give to aspiring female engineers who are considering pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering or any other STEM field?
Don’t fail yourself. Many people tend to write themselves off even before other people do so. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep working hard. And except if STEM is not your passion, if it is your passion, then don’t give up. Keep trying and success shall be yours.
Wow, this is awesome and eye opening