Sara Dwyer’s (E '19) robotics team received the call at the end of her senior year. It was from BattleBots, a show about robot tournaments on ABC, asking her to compete. For three weeks, she stayed after school ton construct a 250–pound robot to fight on the show— but right before the robot could compete, its motor broke. A spinning bar that served as the robot’s weapon had stopped working. For an entire day and night, Sara worked with her team and other contestants to try to revive the bot, including people from NASA, MIT and private companies.
“That was one of those moments where I just kind of appreciated how conducive engineering is to learning and helping other people," Sara said. "And how it really is about creating something and doing something rather than the competitive aspect of it."
She wasn't able to get the robot's weapon to work in time for the competition—but the lessons have stayed with her.
Surprisingly, Sara has always been more of a humanities–oriented student, saying she enjoys history and English. “I’ve never been a science and math person. I can do science and math but it’s something that doesn’t come as easy to me. So I knew I wanted to take on a challenge in college,” she said.
Sara was drawn to Penn because of the high percentage of women in engineering, compared to other schools. According to Penn Engineering’s website, women comprise roughly 35 percent of the entering classes, with the national average being close to 20 percent. “Girls tend to be really active in classes,” she said, “and I think at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how many there are, it just matters that they’re involved and interested in this.”
Penn was a shift from Carrollton, Sara’s all–female high school in Miami. Sara had been in all–girl’s schools since third grade. “Since I came from an all–girl's school, the concept of a gender stereotype was just completely foreign to me,” she said.
In the ninth grade, Sara was on a team representing her high school at a robotics competition. While walking through the back entrance, a security guard directed them to a cheerleading competition. Only after showing him the jackets she and her teammates had designed for the team did he let them into the robotics tournament.
“That was kind of my first experience with realizing that there's a shortage of women in engineering. And so I think that experience made me a little bit more set on the idea that I wanted to be one of these few women in engineering,” Sara said.
Sara was drawn to the computer science major when she realized how similar studying coding is to studying languages, which she has always been interested in. Her exposure to different languages began at a young age, as her mother, who is from El Salvador, speaks Spanish. She started studying Mandarin in the sixth grade, and is now a Mandarin minor.
Last summer, Sara participated in a 9–week intensive language program with the Harvard in Beijing Academy. The program had a 3–strike policy and if students spoke English, they would risk having to leave the program and go home. Sara spent a week of the program in Mongolia, interviewing people who lived there. “It was an amazing experience,” Sara said, “just very challenging in a good way.”
Not only did this experience help Sara develop her Mandarin, but she also saw the ties to computer science. “I think it actually kind of broadened my horizons even in the comp sci sense,” she said.
She spoke about the concept of "super apps" in China, such as WeChat, an app that can perform multiple different functions like payment and messaging.
"China is kind of this enclosed bubble," Sara explained, as apps in China are developing with heavy restrictions and firewalls. “We can actually look at China and learn from how their apps are developing. They’re developing in, like, a lagoon, in a sense.”
Sara is currently working on a project with computer science professor Chris Callison–Burch inspired by her siblings’ love of Instagram. She is doing research on phrase–based translation and working on developing her coding skills in order to start developing an app this summer, which would come up with captions for a picture. Users would upload the picture, input the subject and choose what kind of caption they want, such as a pun, song lyrics or a quote. The app would then go through data and come up with captions for the photo.
Although Sara is currently interested in app development, she has plans to pursue a career in leadership. “I love coding. I think it’s so exciting. But at the end of the day, I would like to spend more time talking to people so I’d like to be in a leadership position,” Sara said.
After college, Sara plans to work for a few years before pursing an MBA and is interested in going into fields like healthcare analytics and cyber security. “I’d like to do something that incorporates coding with helping people,” she explained.