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April 3, 2017

Family, football and favorite subjects converge on chemical engineering major

Written By: Silke Schmidt

When high school senior Rachel Maguire joined her two older sisters—and scores of other red-clad Badger fans in Camp Randall’s student section—to watch a football game in fall 2013, she said to herself, “I could get used to this!”

Three-plus years and many new friends and experiences later, her career plans have changed a bit, but watching a Badger game is still her favorite pastime on campus. As the youngest of three sisters hailing from Wausau, Wisconsin, to enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it was easy enough to follow their footsteps and even choose the same major—chemical and biological engineering—as her middle sister, Shaenah.

But Maguire’s enduring interests don’t end with football games. She fell in love with chemistry in 2011, thanks to a chemistry-focused science outreach project run by one of her favorite high school teachers, Bill Heeren, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Since she had always been good at math, chemical engineering seemed like a perfect fit.

Maguire also became fascinated by stem cell research at a young age, partly because she toured Anita Bhattacharyya’s lab at the UW-Madison Waisman Center, where her oldest sister, Chelsie, worked in 2010. Today, Maguire works in a similar lab directed by Surgery Professor Jon Odorico. While she didn’t have a fully developed set of biomedical lab skills when she started, her engineering classes came in handy for troubleshooting experiments.

Maguire (fourth from left) with the UW-Madison student organization MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere) on a 2015 trip to Tanzania. Photo provided by Rachel Maguire.
Maguire (fourth from left) with the UW-Madison student organization MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere) on a 2015 trip to Tanzania. Photo provided by Rachel Maguire.

“When research projects don’t work out as you expect them to, which is the majority of the time, you have to be able to break down the process and figure out what’s helping or hurting,” Maguire says.

Beyond classes and hands-on research, UW-Madison provided another formative experience. The summer after her freshman year, Maguire went to Tanzania with the student organization Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere (MEDLIFE), helping local physicians triage patients and set up mobile clinic equipment.

“In Tanzania, I realized that you can treat people individually, but ultimately, the infrastructure plays such a big role in why they fall ill,” Maguire says. Having initially considered medical school, her time in Africa convinced her to go “lower” in the process, working to prevent people from getting sick instead of just treating them.

In 2016, that change in perspective led her to reach out to Symbiont, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm of engineers and scientists, for a summer internship focused on wastewater treatment. “Wastewater isn’t glamorous, but it’s important,” Maguire says, remembering how often polluted rivers in Tanzania contributed to the illnesses she witnessed firsthand.

She decided to return to Symbiont in summer 2017 for two other reasons: the company’s small size—typical of many engineering consulting firms—that allows for personal connections between employees and executives; and the variety of projects consultants get to work on.

After graduating in spring 2018, Maguire plans to enter the workforce, but could see herself pursuing graduate school down the road. Before completing her degree, she hopes to have a little more time to enjoy UW-Madison’s beautiful campus and the city’s lakes and trails during the summer. “One thing I love about Madison is that you have all the amenities of a midsize city, but then you walk to Picnic Point and it feels like you’re somewhere else,” Maguire says.

She doesn’t regret the decision to follow her sisters’ footsteps. “There is so much diversity at UW-Madison, not only in the cultures of the people who study and work here, but also in majors,” Maguire says. “You can’t go to any other school in Wisconsin and have friends with any kind of major you can think of. I’ve really enjoyed that.”