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Danielle Fakler, a Boston University '21, Shares Her Experiences

This past month, SuccessBaseMass had the pleasure of hearing from Danielle Fakler, who is the Vice President of Boston University's Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter. SWE is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting women in the STEM fields. As such, SWE has established chapters in several colleges/universities, and has created a club for high school students, which promotes young women in engineering design. In this article, Fakler delves into her high school experience, her blossoming interest for STEM, and roadblocks she's had along the way.


Q: How was your high school experience?

"I would like to think that my high school experience was pretty standard in terms of

attending a public high school, not quite what you see in the movies or on TV but the basic gist

of it was there. My parents always drove home the idea of being the “all around” student,

wanting me to participate in every facet of academics to boost my chances of getting into my

dream schools. I placed into the AP classes, I constantly studied to stay in the top 10% of my

grade, I was on the varsity dance team, I was on the varsity track and field team, I competed with

extracurricular dance groups, I was in the National Honor Society and National Spanish Honor

Society, I was on the school Science Olympiad team, I was a chair of the recycling committee

for the Student Environmental Action Society, and I had part time jobs as a cashier and an office

assistant over the summer’s to help save up for college. I was pretty much my parent’s poster

child for what my siblings should do once they got to high school.

While I did find the workload being placed on me as a young teen difficult, I wanted to

make my parents happy. Neither of my parents went to college, my dad is an electrician and my

mom is an office secretary. From a young age there was pressure on me as the oldest child to be

the first one to go to college, a good college with a good major that would make me good money

to ensure I’d have a good life, and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my parents. That

pressure really started to hit me when both of my parents lost their jobs and their business had to

be shut down during the recession of ‘08. They were both out of work for years and money ran

tight but they tried to play it cool for as long as they could, I distinctly remember that first

Christmas where my mom was explaining to me and my brother that we would not really be

getting presents and at the time I did not understand why she started crying. Seeing how my

parents struggled to the best of their abilities to keep me and my brother happy despite the hand

they had been dealt, I wanted to strive to be the best version of myself that I could be in high

school—at least in an academic sense—to ensure that I would be able to give back to them and

show them how much I appreciated what they had done for me."


Q: What were you interested in, and how did your experiences lead you to BU?

"This may seem like a bit of an odd response considering what I am studying now, but for

years I wanted to go to college to get a Bachelor of Arts in dance! I was a part of my high

school’s varsity kickline for four years, was a part of a studio competition team for another eight

years, even had the opportunity to join a professional company that performed at colleges on

Long Island and festivals in NYC for three years. For a while, my life was mostly eat, study,

dance, sleep, repeat, it was exhausting but I adored it. I would say around sophomore year of

high school was when my parents really started drilling into me that dance was not a viable

career choice and that they would not support me if I were to pursue it at a higher level. With

that option off the table I started looking to my other areas of strength- math and the sciences.

I had always had such a fascination for math and the sciences growing up, there was just

something about the subjects being so concrete that drew me in. My favorite subjects that I took

in high school were biology, calculus, computer science, and CAD/CAM. It makes sense why I

ended up in engineering, huh? My CAD/CAM teacher Mr. Kruse was beyond supportive of me

and my endeavors. He always came to talk to me during class about how the college application

process was going and about the biomedical areas that I was interested in, even promising to

make one of our projects tailored to prosthetic modeling just for me. He even personally asked

me to be one of the leading members of the newly created robotics team my senior year because

he felt that I had the ambition and skill to help bring a rookie team to states, but I had to decline

because of prior commitments (although it would have been so cool to join). He helped to

alleviate some of the imposter syndrome that I was feeling since there were about 30 boys in the

class and only two girls, including me. I was incredibly lucky to be raised in an environment

where my loved ones and teachers were completely supportive of what I wanted to do. I know

that many other women are not treated with the same kindness and respect when they say that

they want to be engineers because “it’s a man's job” as the field is still 88% men.

When I started looking at schools, my parents wanted me to really shoot for the stars and

apply to schools like MIT and Caltech, and I much as I appreciated their perception of me and

my intelligence, there was no way those schools were happening. When it came down to it, my

top choices were Cornell, BU, and WPI. What really made BU stand out to me was the vast

amount of research opportunities that the school offered. In biomedical engineering alone, BU

has research labs in biomechanics, tissue engineering, systems engineering, neural engineering,

biomaterials, nanotech and more. Two labs that I was particularly interested in were the Ranzani

and Russo labs that specialized in morphable biorobotics. I wasn’t planning on attending a

school with required co-op programs because I wanted to graduate in four years, so a university

with a great research program was the best alternative to get hands- on experience during the

semester. It also helped that the biomedical engineering program at BU was ranked 10th overall

in the nation when I was applying. The other aspect of BU that made me fall in love with it was

that it was in a city. As someone who grew up in the suburbs, I absolutely did not want to attend

a small school in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always felt drawn into cities, something about the

more hectic nature of the people and the feeling that everything is always bustling made me feel

at home. BU’s campus is pretty integrated into the city which helped me feel comfortable from

the start, plus there are dozens of biotech companies with a 30 minutes walking radius that give

me ample opportunity to network with professionals to help me land a job after graduation."


Q: How were you introduced to SWE, and what spurred your passion for STEM?

"My freshmen year was particularly rough because of a culmination of unfortunate events

that seemed to be spurring from every part of my life at around the same time. I became more

reclusive than normal, I did not allow anybody into my inner circle, my anxiety started to

become unmanageable again as it was in my younger years, and I fell into a depressive episode

which caused my grades to take quite a hit. The imposter syndrome because of everything that

was happening was so real. I had genuinely considered dropping out of engineering after my

freshman year because I believed that if my grade were that low in my intro level classes, there

was no way I was going to pass the upper level classes. But nevertheless I gave sophomore year

a try knowing that my mental health had improved over the months between the end of the

spring semester and the start of the fall semester.

I was introduced to SWE my sophomore year at BU by one of my best friends on campus

Tu Uyen, who just so happens to be our chapter president this year! She was working the SWE

table at our annual Fall ENG Block Party when she dragged me and our friend Maia over to sign

up for the group so they could up the recruitment numbers for the year . I did not think much of it

at the time, but looking back it is one of the best decisions that I’ve made in college. Joining

SWE my sophomore year helped me create a sense of community within the College of

Engineering that I was desperately needing. While the group at BU is small, the girls within it

are so incredibly supportive and want nothing but for their members to succeed in life. The

opportunities that this organization has given me are incredible, and helped me break that habit

of constantly questioning my worth in the field. For example, last year I was able to attend the

WE19 National Conference at a delegate from the BU SWE chapter and had the opportunity to

connect and interview with recruiters at two of my dream companies that I otherwise would not

have access to in Boston. Being the Vice President for this upcoming year, my main goal is to

provide as many resources and opportunities to flourish to as many women in engineering as

possible at BU, as they deserve to realize their full potentials instead of being consumed by

imposter syndrome like I was my freshman year.

During my sophomore year of high school, one of the girls that I danced with at my local

studio approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining a non-profit organization that

she was starting. I was a bit skeptical at first because we were only 16 at the time and it seemed

like a large task for a teenager to take on, but she was a hard-working and reliable girl, so I

trusted her. The organization ended up being a group of about 15 or so girls, all freshmen and

sophomores in high school, who had a love for dance. Our group primarily served two purposes:

(1) choreographing a series of short routines to perform in retirement homes for the elderly as a

way to brighten their days with a little surprise, and (2) to perform at benefit-style events as a

means of raising donations that would be given to a friend of the founder who had unfortunately

lost one of her legs from the knee down to cancer.

At these benefit-style events, the girl that we were raising money for—who will remain

anonymous for her privacy—was always seen wearing long skirts or dresses that came down her

ankles and was on crutches, despite the founder telling me that her friend had a prosthetic leg. I

didn’t want to go up to the girl and ask her about it directly because I didn’t know her that well

and didn’t want to come off as intrusive or make her feel uncomfortable, so I asked the founder

what happened to her friend’s prosthetic. She told me that her parents had bought her one, but

that it did not fit quite properly which made it uncomfortable for her to wear for extended

periods of time, and that her parents could not afford to buy her a new one. This devastated me

as this girl was as smart, sweet, and considerate as they come, and she should’ve without a doubt

been dealt a hand in life that would make her situation more comfortable to bear.

At that point I had already had the idea in mind that I was interested in engineering, but

had no idea which field of engineering to pursue. From this interaction onwards, I wanted to

dedicate my studies to the field of prosthetics, working on techniques to reduce costs, improve

quality, and develop new materials or systems that would help to broader benefit those who were

most in need of them. This passion was so strong that I have not deterred from it since, as I am

now a rising senior studying biomedical engineering with a minor in mechanical engineering and

a concentration in manufacturing. My hope is to become a manufacturing/automation engineer

within implantable medical devices, specifically orthopedic prosthetics. With luck and hard

work, I might be able to open my own company producing prosthetics for families at more

affordable prices to make this crucial service more widely available, as every person in this

world deserves to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives without it potentially bankrupting

them."


Q: Difficulties that you have faced?

"My mental health was something that took me years to come to grips with. From the time

that I was about ten years old, I began developing a moderate case of generalized anxiety

disorder (GAD) that completely altered my personality. Before my mom was aware of what was

going on, she made countless comments about how “I was no longer that social butterfly that she

used to love.” She was right, but to me that is a very “sunshine and rainbows” type of

explanation for what was actually going on.

I cannot pinpoint exactly what triggered it, but it could have been a series of many events

pre-high school where I was routinely the victim of verbal and emotional harassment. I guess

that I was an easy target because I never fought back, I desperately wanted to feel like I was a

part of a group and wanted to believe that these kids had the best intentions, not realizing how it

was affecting me. The first breaking point was an especially heinous rumor that was being spread

about me in fourth grade that somehow managed to make its way to four different classes, to the

point where I had people that I had never had a single conversation with coming up to me and

harassing me about it. I decided to finally stand my ground after being routinely bullied and got

school staff involved who were able to dissolve the particular rumor in question, but after that

not a single kid bothered to speak to me. They accused me of being soft, weak, not being able to

accept a joke, you know the usual list of gaslighting excuses people throw out there. Considering

how young and impressionable I was, I developed severe trust issues that I am still actively

trying to fight with to this day. Middle school only made matters worse when I joined the

cheerleading team because of my mom’s wishes. Again, I would like to believe that my

teammates acted the way that they did because we were all kids who did not understand the

gravity of their actions, but being on the team made my life a living hell. I was the outsider and

not a day went by where they did not make sure I knew it. Multiple times I was ousted as being

the quiet “freak” and was the target of cruel pranks. My anxiety skyrocketed during this time and

took years to get under control, I became more isolated than before, reluctant to even enter into

conversations with others when they spoke to me because I assumed they were only doing so to

hurt me.

Moving on to high school, I had six friends that I had let into my inner circle which was

no easy feat to accomplish. Trusting someone meant taking months to get past the initial small

talk stage, I would not speak unless spoken to and would not share any personal information with

anyone. I hesitate to say this because I never went to a psychologist or a therapist to be

diagnosed as I was scared of sharing information with them, but between the ages of 13 to 15 I

genuinely believe that I was suffering from some form of depression. Without getting into too

much detail as I have never shared them with anybody, this was easily the lowest point of my life

mentally and every day I woke up terrified about what would happen to me and if it could get

worse. I concealed this from my friends and family as I did not want any of them to start treating

me differently. I already felt like enough of an outsider as it was. By the time that I graduated

high school, I had managed to find ways to cope with my mental health in relatively healthy

ways and can proudly say I went the entirety of my senior year without having a panic attack.

As I mentioned earlier, freshman year of college was rough on me mentally, and

subsequently academically. I started having panic attacks again, usually once a week or so, and I

had not really developed the ability to let people in quickly yet which made it difficult for me to

tell anybody what was going on with me. The slump that I had fallen into was arguably on par

with what I experienced with myself in high school which was terrifying for me. One day while I

was facetiming my parents I just broke down and explained what I had been feeling to them for

the first time in my life. The weight that was lifted off my shoulders from repressing those

feelings for years was incredible, though not enough to improve the situation I was in. As the

year progressed I found two people that I could genuinely trust to talk with about what I was

harboring which alleviated some mental strain, though the academic burden was still rough.

Knowing that I had support behind me helped me finish out my freshman year, and I am grateful

that I stuck it out because I am in a much better place now, and biomedical engineering is the

field that I belong in despite what I tried to convince myself to believe. If freshman year me

could see the present day me, she would be proud."


Q: Advice to current high school students?

"My best piece of advice for current high school students is to just be yourself. Do not let anybody

try to steer you away from your ambitions, regardless of whether or not others deem it “fiscally

responsible.” The truth of the matter is that if you are not pursuing something that you find genuine

enjoyment in, you will not be happy with your job later in life. It’s more important to take care of your

mental health than it is to be making six figures each year. And for those who aren’t quite sure what they

want to be in life yet, there is absolutely no shame in going into college undeclared or going into a trade

instead.

For my girls who are interested in pursuing engineering, do not give up. You may be

outnumbered, you may be made to feel like you aren’t intelligent or creative enough to be in the field, you

may feel isolated, but if engineering is what brings you joy in life do not let go of it. I guarantee you there

will be a group of others who have felt exactly how you may be feeling now and will want to help you.

Do not be afraid to reach out because those who do help will only want what’s best for you to pursue your interests."

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