Staff Spotlight: Ilka Rodriguez-Calero

Ilka Rodriguez-Calero serves C-SED as the Education Program Design and Management Lead. She joined our team early this summer and is looking forward to her first academic year on the job!

How/why did you become involved with C-SED?

I was first introduced to C-SED because both of my doctoral co-advisors, Kathleen Sienko, PhD and Shanna Daly, PhD, were co-founders. When I first started grad school, the center had just opened and so I started attending C-SED events with my cohort. I formally joined C-SED in 2018 when it launched the grad facilitator program. I applied to the facilitator program because I thought it was a great opportunity to do something related to my research but with more opportunities to apply my work to its broader impacts. I chose to stay around C-SED post-grad because I was having too much fun, learning too much, and doing personally meaningful work  with people I really liked working with!

Describe your role:

I wear several hats, but I primarily manage a program that aims to create an online learning experience in the bioenergy space, integrating Socially Engaged Design (SED) concepts and systems thinking.  Additionally, I will be involved in working with other SED learning experiences to come soon. And lastly, as part of my work I also conceptualize and write case studies integrating DEI in engineering curricula,  which is part of a larger effort  within the College of Engineering. 

What can students come to talk to you about (areas of passion/expertise)?

Students can come chat with me about methods for gathering feedback or communicating with people within and outside their design teams, especially on how to use tools, objects, and prototypes early on in a design process. I also love chatting with folks who are starting a new project or have an idea–I’m particularly interested in the physical product domain, specifically medical devices, and more recently I’ve started to get interested and informed in climate solutions. My research and a lot of my work has been situated in the early stages of design so students can come talk to me about: interview protocols, idea generation techniques, and doing synthesis of information they gathered into problem statements, design requirements and engineering specifications. Although I am not a career coach, I am also happy to share my personal career story with anyone navigating career transitions who is curious about possible career paths you can follow with an engineering degree. . 

What have you learned in your role?

So far, I am learning that I always want to have all the evidence and information to make a decision, but that sometimes one has to use what information you have and make a call. Sometimes we are working with an incomplete picture, and it is up to us to fill in the pieces to make informed decisions, be that gathering data or looking into past work. In that sense, I am also learning the importance of being transparent with others about what I am doing and what information I am using to make decisions. When you’re working on something that has not been done before, there is not a complete picture, because how can you have evidence about something that might exist in the future? But while there is discomfort in ambiguity and the unknown, there’s also growth in doing my due diligence to use all available information and communicating with transparency with others. 

Any advice for those considering your role or a similar one?

A piece of advice I have for PhD students looking to transition into a non-academic role: try a variety of things while you can in grad school! I would say you don’t know what you don’t know, so for me trying things beyond my daily responsibilities as a researcher was really important, such as being a grad facilitator for as long as I did. But in addition to that, I participated in events and activities on- and off-campus. For example, I did a lot of outreach, participated and eventually helped co-organize a science communication conference, where not only I was able to create with others a useful program for participants, but I was able to network with people with lots of different backgrounds, and develop skills that would be applicable in many alt-ac careers. I also pursued an internship in a consulting firm. So in ways that it is accessible to you, I’d say try to pursue diverse interests. If that is not viable for whatever reason,  there can be a lot of value in trying to connect with people with diverse experiences in your field. If you are interested in someone else’s work, ask them about it! Ask them about their path. There is a lot of value in exploring your interests and they can certainly converge into a path that is your own. 

Any unexpected parts of the job that surprised you?

I am still reading plenty of papers and articles, which surprised me. In grad school you are learning about a line of inquiry and figuring out research questions. Now I am looking at the impact, “how does this information inform our decisions or the project as a whole?” It is more focused reading now, but what I am not surprised about is that the learning never stops! 

What is one project you really enjoyed working on?

I am still figuring out the direction of my projects, so I would probably refer to work I did as a graduate facilitator. I really loved building out content for curricular and co-curricular workshops, sometimes from scratch and sometimes iterating on existing content. I particularly enjoyed building out the prototyping workshop content with Marianna because it involved  taking our research and contextualizing  it for the design classroom context. I loved thinking about the fundamentals of our work and breaking it down for new learners.

I also loved working with fellow facilitator Suzanne on a way to support students  in the transition between developing an interview protocol and applying it in an interview context–we called it the  Interview Lab. The Interview Lab has seen many interactions and iterations since its conception, but I think back then we made a classroom activity that enabled people to try things out in a setting where they could get feedback and develop their skills prior to conducting interviews with stakeholders.

What do you like most about working at C-SED?  

I love working with incredibly committed people who value relationships, but who also value the mission and how we get there. I’d say throughout the years, that has been true for me. It has been a positive and supportive space to work in and try new things in support of the mission.

How has your career path developed over time? 

I wanted to be an engineer from the beginning, but I had a really curvy path to making up my mind when it came down to selecting a major.  As the daughter of an engineer, I knew that engineers were always talking about problems and how to solve them. At the same time I was also passionate about ballet and dance and how that helped me see and interact with the world. Eventually I think I integrated both desires in my career; ballet is just one way among many other experiences in which my background informs my practice. You can learn more by watching my TEDx Talk on the topic!

Any design tools recommendations?

It depends on context, but something that I see as perhaps broadly applicable is becoming knowledgeable on methods and methodology. Qualitative research methods books and papers have been a consistent tool proven  valuable in my own toolkit. I have kept all of my research methods literature and course binders from my grad classes and I consult them often. They have helped me match methods  to the situation. 

Name social justice topics that you are passionate about and why.

Climate feminism, disability justice, and decolonization–which serves as my framework for the first two topics. Growing up in a United States territory I witnessed how that status severely impacts our ability to have self-determination about how we exist and participate in the world, but also how we face  challenges as an island in the Caribbean that is disproportionately impacted by climate change and disasters, which subsequently can create conditions for disease and disability. Healthcare infrastructure collapses when there is no reliable electricity or water. Knowing this and that women of color disproportionately face climate change and its impacts, and how many women live with a disability or chronic condition  it is hard to think of these issues separately. 

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