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VA Tech Graduate Tackles FIVE Degrees in FIVE Years

Gwyneth Schloer is going to have one of the busiest graduations imaginable: she’ll be receiving degrees at the ceremonies of three colleges. During the season of pomp and circumstance, she will participate in the formalities of the College of Engineering, the College of Science, and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Schloer is receiving undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering, economics, and Spanish. She also has maintained a job with Northrop Grumman for two of her four years in college, so she has certainly spent her share of time in classrooms and on the clock. Even with that considerable workload, she has worked equally hard to keep herself grounded and take time with friends and family.

Laying the foundation

Before coming to Virginia Tech, Schloer participated in the science fair at her first alma mater, Rock Ridge High School. Her final project was creating a microgravity simulator made from off-the-shelf components and her own 3D-printed parts. This effort won her a spot in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which she attended in Pittsburgh in 2018. The experience opened her eyes to the world of applications for science and engineering.

After this project, she more fully trusted her ability to apply the engineering principles and materials applications she was learning in the classroom, taking college-credit classes that brought to life a world of advanced principles. When she reached Virginia Tech, that confidence carried her straight into undergraduate research.

Her latest work has been creating liquid metal-embedded elastomers in the Soft Materials and Structures Lab of Michael Bartlett. In this research, Schloer has been honing the best methods for 3D printing metal into a form to make soft electronics. These devices, which have the feel of skin instead of rigid plastic, could someday be seen in a wide variety of applications.

Gwyneth Schloer works with 3D-printed soft electronics in the lab of Michael Bartlett. Photo by Alex Parrish for Virginia Tech.

Schloer’s place on the lab team is the development of manufacturing methods for liquid metal-based soft composite materials. Specifically, she has been working to 3D print soft electronics that work at maximum efficiency by controlling their shape, connection for electrical current, and positioning. She also has taken a strong leadership role, helping provide team guidance to rapidly adapt necessary changes to their approach.

“We collaborate with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with Eric Markvicka’s lab,” said Bartlett. “Her [Schloer’s] ability to communicate within our lab and across these two labs has been really important for the progress of our work.”

How to choose a major and another and another

Shortly before Schloer’s first year at Virginia Tech, her science fair award landed her in front of Northrop Grumman representatives. After listening to her interests and hopes for a career, they told her that a major in mechanical engineering would suit her well. She has stayed on that path and has been employed by the aerospace and defense company as a mechanical analyst since 2020.

Choosing economics and Spanish became logical as second and third majors because of the massive amount of transferrable credits Schloer brought from high school: no less than 79. Part of her motivation to come to Virginia Tech instead of another school was the amount of credit she could carry into her first year on the Blacksburg campus.

“I have lots of interests,” she said. “It started with the science fair in high school. I knew I wanted to do mechanical engineering. I really enjoyed economics in high school as well, since my AP Economics teacher was amazing. I kept taking those classes, and I found that because I brought in so many credits, I was able to take a bunch more classes than normal. I wanted to maintain my Spanish fluency from high school, so I took a few of those classes here and there. That made it possible for me to get the extra degrees.”

Schloer’s au pair growing up was from Costa Rica, so speaking Spanish was already part of her childhood. She values the ability to converse with people in other languages and has participated in the study abroad program to immerse herself in more Spanish-speaking cultures. While in Costa Rica, she even gave an engineering-related presentation in Spanish.

“It was really cool to bring my passion for engineering into my world of studying abroad,” she said. “It also showed me the importance of being able to translate engineering work into other languages.”

Within the next year, Schloer will also add two graduate degrees to her three undergraduate diplomas, having also capitalized on Virginia Tech’s accelerated master’s program to get graduate credit for many of her undergraduate courses.

Personal connections

The support Schloer has received from those closest to her has helped her become the person she is, strong and capable of handling a heavier class load than most of her peers. Of those people, she especially credits her father, a software engineer, for supporting her.

Growing up, she and her father would often engage in small projects together. The two built a mechanical keyboard shortly before she left for college, which equipped her with skills such as soldering. A 3D printer built by her father became the printer she used to create parts for the microgravity simulator that won the science fair award. She still calls on his expertise, especially when working on projects in his field.

“I can remember a distinct moment this semester when my senior design team got caught up on this code bug for hours and hours,” said Schloer. “I called my dad, and immediately after describing the issue, he knew how to debug the code. I don’t think there will ever be a time in the future where I don’t call my dad for help with some project because he always seems to know the solution.”

Her mother, also a software engineer, passed away at the end of Schloer’s first year at Virginia Tech. This was a difficult period for her family, but the legacy of her mother remains one of the best motivators as she looks to the future.

“She was a great role model for me in the STEM industry,” said Schloer. “She was a woman in the STEM field, one of very few, and she was a powerhouse. She was breaking the gender pay gap, she was intelligent, and she knew it.”

Schloer’s history with Northrop Grumman also comes courtesy of her mother, reaching back to Schloer’s earliest days. This connection unveiled in living color while she was at the Dulles Northrop Grumman building.

“When my mom was about my age in her young 20s, she actually worked for Northrop Grumman,” she said. “I was a baby, and I went to day care there every day. It’s kind of crazy now to walk into the same building where I’m working and know that I used to go to day care there.”

Schloer defines herself comfortably as an overachiever, and achieving five degrees in five years is concrete evidence of that. When she looks back on the last four years, though, the personal connections she has made are the factors that bring it all together and help her find balance. On weekends, she joins friends to traverse local hiking trails, get outdoors, and reset. These times of reflection have helped her keep her perspective and a healthy balance between work and life.

“Getting five degrees in five years has definitely been a bit of a challenge,” she said. “There definitely have been times when I’ve gotten stressed about the boatloads of work and extracurriculars, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time that I’ve regretted doing all the work that I’ve been doing. I really enjoy having such a well-rounded education.”

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