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Spotlight on Gateway Scholar Danielle Thomas

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

by By Arpita Sharma MPP/MPL 2017

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This past week, I sat down with Danielle Thomas, a junior working towards her B.A. in Civil Engineering at the University of Southern California, to catch up with this busy scholar. Thomas is someone that has distinguished herself for her hard work, ingenuity.  She was part of the winning team at the 2015 CTF Education Symposium, won two 2014 WTS Undergraduate Scholarship, and conducted research in environmental sustainability as a USC Gateway Research (formerly known as McNair) Scholar. 

As a USC Gateway Research Scholars Program, a program to encourage underrepresented minorities to engage in research, Thomas is conducting research under the guidance of Professor Kelly Sanders in the Sonny Astani Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.  In her research, she conducts a cost benefit analysis of installing solar panels on rooftops on the USC campus and using them to power electric vehicle charging stations as well as to provide electricity for other, on-campus uses. Thomas presented her research to faculty and students at the university on June 30th of this year. “We found that the average lifetime of a solar panel is 25 years. Over the course of the solar panels’ lifetime, USC would save 40 million dollars. The emission reductions in carbon dioxide over a year are equivalent to 1,500 cars driving on the road and panels could generate enough electricity to power a thousand homes for a year.” she shares. Thomas compared solar energy to the typical sources of electricity for the area and the average emissions released when that energy is generated. The displacement of those energy sources with solar energy, which is relatively clean, equates to emission reductions. There was not a calculated number of solar panels, rather the estimate was based on square footage, installation, maintenance costs over the average 25 year lifetime of the panels. 

In addition to her academic studies, Thomas works to bridge the racial gap among engineering students at USC. When she entered the Civil Engineering program at USC, she noticed the dearth of students of color in her classes. “I was the only black engineer in my civil engineering class of approximately 50 people, and I was one of five black students in the entire program.” she shared.

To raise awareness of this issue and encourage her fellow students to participate in engineering, Thomas joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). This year, she is the President of NSBE, and plans to run for a regional position within the national organization in 2016. “We have grown to about 50 members now, and our efforts were recognized at the national conference in March, as Large Chapter of the Year.” said Thomas. 

You may be wondering what motivates Thomas. The youngest of three in a single-parent household, Thomas learned how to be independent and take care of herself at an early age. “When I was growing up, my mother worked as a nurse in the ICU at the Los Angeles County Hospital during the night. When I saw my mom working so hard, I wanted to work equally as hard to make sure her efforts weren’t going to waste.” she shared. 

By the time she got to high school, her mother had transitioned to working during the day, from 7am to 7:30pm. She notes, “I needed to make sure I had dinner ready when she got home. It came down to a lot of self motivation and ambition and having very clear goals. I had to grow up a little earlier, but you need to be mature in a situation like that to know where you need to go and how to go about it.” 

And she did. She placed herself in the most rigorous classes available and excelled. She really enjoyed math in high school, and as she was considering future occupations, engineering seemed like a good fit. “Both my mother and father were USC alumni, and my family had been coming to USC since I was 5. It was definitely one of my top choices.” she shared. 

However, she does regret not applying to more schools. “I applied to Harvey Mudd College for early admission and I didn’t get in. Their decision really affected my confidence when applying to other universities for regular admission.” She has taken away a key lesson from her experience. “It's important to remember to have confidence, to know your strengths and accomplishments when applying. When you sets your sights too low, you are removing an opportunity for yourself.” 

She shares this lesson during her work with College Bound, a nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive programs and services to prepare students for admission into and graduation from accredited four-year institutions of higher education. “I was working with 4th graders and they were talking about how hard the math assessment test was. There were a couple of students who thought it was stupid because it felt so challenging. I ask them, ‘Where’s your mom? Would she want you to quit? Just keep trying, if you don’t try, then you can’t succeed.” 

Arpita Sharma

Arpita Sharma is a dual Master of Public Policy and Master of Planning Candidate at the USC Price School. She is interested in issues of health inequities, sustainable land use development and active transportation.  She expects to complete her degrees in May 2017. She can be reached at arpitasharma.net or at [email protected].