University of Colorado Boulder
PhD student in Environmental Engineering
AWIS member since 2021
“I aspire to create a new narrative of what an engineer looks like.”
What do you aspire to accomplish in your career and why?
First and foremost, I aspire to create a new narrative of what an engineer looks like. Although improving, academia is still a very male-dominated institution; authentic diversity and inclusion initiatives are slowing growing. As I develop my career, I hope to learn more about and challenge the systemic challenges that are holding back academic, scientific, and research institutions from creating meaningful and holistic change.
I also aspire to create a difference in how we approach global research collaboration. I think engineering is an incredibly creative process that can tackle some of the world’s global grand challenges, development of alternative sustainable energy being one of them (that I’ve been dedicated to for the last six years). Conferences are a great way to learn about what our colleagues are doing across the world, but they usually stop there. I hope to have a role through my career that focuses on bridging the gap in global research collaboration, creating and sustaining more symbiotic relationships, and leverages current international policies that will propel us towards a more circular and sustainable global society.
What do you consider to be your most important career milestone, and what did you have to overcome to achieve it?
My Fulbright research fellowship at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in 2019-2020 was an incredibly formative experience for defining myself as a researcher in renewable energy and affirming my enthusiasm for global research collaboration. One major challenge I had to overcome was imposter syndrome. By creating false narratives that I was not good enough or did not have the best research plan to receive such a prestigious fellowship (or once I received the fellowship, feeling like I did not deserve it or belong there) was incredibly taxing on my mental health, not to mention energetically exhausting. How I overcame this challenge, in order to really enjoy this research experience and career milestone, was by being honest and open with how I was feeling. I am thankful that Fulbright created the space for research scholars and students to do so, and to my surprise, I learned that many other Fulbright scholars were feeling or had felt the same way! Many had experienced imposter syndrome, from graduate students to postdocs, and even research and tenured professors. Coming to this realization, that imposter syndrome is a completely normal reaction to being human, allowed me to fully show up for this career milestone and recognize the importance of support from my academic peers.
What challenges have you encountered throughout your career and how did you address them?
I mentioned experiences of imposter syndrome previously, but another challenge I have encountered throughout my career is sexism, exoticism, and otherism.
My first encounter of sexism and harassment was during my bachelor’s senior design project, when I reached out to local breweries to inquire about their wastewater treatment practices. When I reached out to a male professor about what had happened, his response was to take it as a compliment, and when I reached out to a female professor, she confirmed that this is a very normal experience that happens to women in our field, which made me feel very disheartened and unmotivated. Would the treatment of women in STEM ever change? This feeling of helplessness continued in graduate school, as I immersed myself further in male-dominated industries and started to attend conferences. I have had many experiences where I am reduced down to “exotic” or singularized by being “the other” (as the only other female in the room or the only other minority in the room)–as if my presence requires me to represent all others who are traditionally not represented in this field.
I decided to address these issues through the development of a support system of other graduate students who had similar experiences of microaggressions and trauma. One of the major realizations I learned through this support group was to not diminish these feelings or experiences. By creating a safe space to share with other peers, normalizing the need for support, and not diminishing our experiences, we hope to change how women and minorities are “other-ized,” “exoticized,” or treated in STEM. Additionally, seeking support from my PhD advisor, who is aware of the differences between the experiences of women vs. men in STEM, has been incredibly encouraging.
What is your favorite word?
How has this word influenced or inspired your career?
This word has greatly influenced my career. It first showed up with my desire to study renewable energy in response to our society’s need to move towards a more resilient and energy-secure future. Later on, in graduate school, this word would show up whenever I faced adversity or setbacks. It helped shape my mentality and how I defined “success” and “progress.” It also helped me embrace a growth mindset and inspired me to be a lifelong learner.
What do you consider the best professional or personal advice you’ve ever received?
“Ask for help.” There is an idea in American culture that you achieve your goals through your own merit and the work you put into them. That is not entirely true – we are as strong as the team we surround ourselves with. We can achieve more in collaboration and as a unified system than we can as individual units.
Nicollette Laroco, a California native, is an environmental engineering PhD student with a strong interdisciplinary background in civil, environmental, and global humanitarian engineering. She conducted her M.S. field research in the rural Supaul region of Bihar, India on sustainable sanitation through biogas utilization from anaerobic digestion systems, then focused her PhD thesis on sustainable biogas purification to renewable natural gas (RNG) by leveraging a steel-making residual called “steel slag” as a potent sorbent. During her first year as a PhD student, she worked closely with the local wastewater treatment plant in Boulder, Colorado to develop a pilot-scale sustainable biogas scrubbing technology. During her Fulbright research tenure conducted in Barcelona, Spain, she investigated the role of biology to enhance her current PhD efforts. Laroco is also involved in documentary projects that use the power of storytelling to bridge the gap between science and society and to stimulate meaningful conversations as well as innovative and collective change.
This interview was originally published in AWIS Magazine.