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February 14, 2018

Student finds her voice – and the confidence to be a leader

Written By: Adam Malecek

It can be challenging for some students to make new social connections when they start college, especially as they try to find their place on a large, unfamiliar campus.

Janerra Allen
Janerra Allen. Photo credit: Renee Meiller.

That was the case for Janerra Allen, who moved from her home in Brooklyn, New York, to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Coming from New York City and trying to get acclimatized to Wisconsin was a culture shock,” Allen says. “And in my engineering classes, I didn’t see people who looked like me. Initially it was hard for me to really branch out and find my voice.”

Allen says the Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity (LEED) Scholars Program offered a crucial support system and the opportunity to connect with other engineering students from diverse backgrounds. The LEED program, which is run through the College of Engineering’s Diversity Affairs Office, is designed to support and retain academically talented undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups in engineering. Students in the program attend monthly meetings and have access to a variety of opportunities for academic, personal and career development, social networking and mentoring.

Allen says the meetings also give students an opportunity to candidly discuss pressing issues beyond their engineering studies, such as social life and staying safe on campus, and the campus climate.

“Providing a space for us to speak out on how we feel about these issues was really valuable,” she says. “By creating a supportive community, the LEED program helped me find my voice on campus. Finding that cohort of LEED scholars was very important for me to succeed within engineering.”

As Allen became more self-confident, she pursued leadership roles on campus. Throughout her undergraduate career, she was active in the Wisconsin Black Engineering Student Society (WBESS) student chapter affiliated with the National Society of Black Engineers, and she became president of WBESS in her senior year. Allen says the student organization was a major factor in her success at UW-Madison by providing a tight-knit group of peers who encourage each other to excel.

To explore her interests and possible career paths, Allen took the initiative to find undergraduate research opportunities outside of class.

After connecting with Biomedical Engineering Professor Elizabeth Meyerand, she began working in a UW-Madison radiology lab focused on using brain imaging for studies on stroke and epilepsy. Through that experience she met Dr. Vivek Prabhakaran, an associate professor of radiology and one of Meyerand’s collaborators, and went on to work in Prabhakaran’s lab as an assistant researcher.

Allen worked on Prabhakaran’s stroke rehabilitation project, in which the team used a brain-computer interface system to drive neuroplastic brain changes in stroke patients, and used brain imaging to monitor changes in the brain during patients’ motor function rehabilitation.

The experience was highly rewarding, and it influenced Allen’s career path. “I really enjoyed interacting with the stroke patients who participated in the study,” she says. “It was great to see how they responded to the therapy and improved over time.”

Allen became so invested in the research that, after graduating in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, she took a job as a radiology research intern in Prabhakaran’s lab to continue working on the project. In the future, she plans to pursue a career in industry where she can help further develop motor function rehabilitation systems and devices using virtual reality, games and physical therapy.