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Sarah Peterson
February 18, 2021

Paying it forward, Peterson hopes to inspire future women in STEM

Written By: Alex Holloway

For inspiration for her future, Sarah Peterson draws from her past.

As a high school student, Peterson was unsure of what she wanted to pursue as a career. She’d always enjoyed math and found a spark in an AP physics class under a teacher with an engineering degree.

“She was always so excited to teach students and to influence us to become STEM majors,” Peterson says. “Seeing her push herself past obstacles as a woman in STEM, listening to the stories she’d tell us, and taking on the challenges she’d give us really made me want to push myself and do something out of my comfort zone. I wanted to do something exciting and hoped that one day I could also inspire other females to join STEM fields.”

Now, Peterson has finished her undergraduate studies with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from UW-Madison and is staying on to earn a PhD under Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Chin Wu. She studies coastal erosion and shore habitats, and soon will publish a research paper on shoreline analysis in Kenosha County in southeastern Wisconsin with Wu. The research focuses on how to better prepare communities to combat shore erosion.

“I’ve been researching under Professor Wu for about a year and a half,” Peterson says. “He’s a huge role model for me and really inspired me to take the leap and continue a PhD program. Professor Wu has been amazing at challenging me, and I’ve grown so much in the little time I’ve been working with him.”

Peterson also completed several internships during her time as an undergraduate, including those with the construction management company, J.H. Findorff & Son, working on building a $150 million high school in Verona, Wisconsin, and with MSA Professional Services, working on a road project in New Lisbon, Wisconsin.

In summer 2020, Peterson worked as an intern with GE Healthcare in Madison. Initially, she was building anesthesia machines. However, a few weeks into her internship, the plant’s facilities manager created a site facilities management intern position for her.

“I was overseeing maintenance work, hiring contractors and overseeing projects on-site,” she says. “It was a big responsibility, but my boss was absolutely amazing, and I got to learn so much from him. We helped install two new compactors in the building and we had our site surveyed. I brought contractors up to the roof to get quotes to redo the roofing system. It was very eye-opening.”

Peterson credits her hard work ethic in part to her twin sister, Sydney, who joined her in the College of Engineering as an industrial engineering major. Being a twin, and sharing a general field with your twin comes with challenges and blessings, says Peterson—and comparisons with her sister helped drive a competitive streak between them. Ultimately, she says, that made each of them better engineers.

Coincidentally, Sydney also held an internship at GE Healthcare at the same time as her sister—and Peterson says they have always supported each other.

“She was the one who inspired me to do research with and reach out to Professor Wu,” Peterson says. “She also helped me reach out to people at GE Healthcare. She’s been a positive influence in my life, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go through the program than with my best friend.” Peterson also credits her parents, Tia and Eric, as well as her grandfather, John, for being so supportive and encouraging during her studies.

Peterson’s familial ties to engineering stretch back nearly a century. Her great grandfather, Leonard Hillis, was a professor in the then-department of Civil and Structural Engineering at UW-Madison. Hillis earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 1929 and established the university’s first surveyor’s institute in 1949.

As she reflects on her time as an undergraduate student, Peterson says she studied more than she thought she would her freshman year. She says that with the support of both the college’s LEED Scholars program and her family’s encouragement, she came to love the challenges of a rigorous engineering curriculum.

And now, Peterson as a woman in STEM herself, she wants to use her experiences to inspire future women in STEM.

“I want to create an atmosphere to let young women know that they can achieve their dreams and they’re capable of doing whatever they put their minds on,” she says. “I want to be there for women who are having doubts—and for women who are excited and want to learn more about the field. I want to help them push for their dreams.”