It turns out, business cards made from laser-cut cherry wood go a long way.

Not many students can say they were offered an internship after their first year in school, but graduating mechanical engineering senior Genevieve Gural, of Clifton, Virginia, knew what it took to stand out at her first-ever Engineering Expo. Not surprisingly, the recruiters at construction machinery company Caterpillar admired Gural’s woodwork.

“I had always done woodworking when I was younger, so when I came to Tech I decided to try out one of the woodshop classes offered by the College of Natural Resources and Environment,” Gural said. “I took a slab of cherry wood, sliced it into thin sheets, and then brought them back to my dorm. Once there, I used the makerspace to sand down the sheets and laser cut my contact information into each card. I felt sort of bad afterwards — there was sanding dust everywhere.”

Gural began her undergraduate career as a member of Hypatia, the College of Engineering’s living-learning community for women. For two semesters, she used the community’s makerspace, the inVenTs Studio, and studied alongside other prospective engineers.

After the Caterpillar internship in summer 2014, she returned to the community as a professional development committee member and mentor to four first-year women as they navigated the early stages of Virginia Tech engineering.

“The culture and spaces in Hypatia heavily swayed my decision toward attending Virginia Tech. It is one of several programs run by the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED). When I joined the program my freshman year, I helped out with Women’s Preview Weekend, where we invited high schoolers to the university, showed them around, and helped them understand what it’s like to be an engineering student,” Gural said. “I took part in other CEED programs during my sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school. That’s how I found out about Hypatia.”

From 2015 on, she became an inVenTs Community leadership team member, helping students in this co-ed STEM community use the in-house makerspace. Having always focused on rockets — building and launching models throughout her childhood into young adulthood — Gural also became an advisor for the inVenTs Rocketry Team.

But Gural’s hands-on mentality did not stop at woodwork and rocketry.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rocket person through and through,” she said. “But joining Baja SAE was the best decision I made here at school. The people, the depth of commitment, the professional connections — I loved everything about it.”

Introduced to this off-road vehicle design team at the beginning of her first year at Virginia Tech, Gural was asked if she wanted to try driving the vehicle at the university’s off-campus test track.

“During my first time driving it, I completely wiped out,” Gural said. “I took a sharp turn, and the car went rolling off the track. It’s almost a rite of passage. I was in head-to-toe safety gear, so I came out unscathed. But in that moment I knew I wanted to join. I didn’t know anything about building and optimizing cars, but everything about it seemed awesome, and I wanted to compete with the team. It was just plain fun.”

Working on the vehicle, Gural met a number of upperclassmen, professors, and other design teams at the Ware Lab. These groups of people helped her with coursework, offered professional advice, and encouraged Gural to pursue a leadership position with the Baja team.

“I became the team captain my senior year. My primary goal was to get underclassmen from all engineering majors involved with design,” Gural said. “I brought them to competitions, gave them ownership of components, helped them gain confidence, and made them understand that they’re star players on the team. This way, we have effective knowledge transfer when the seniors leave and a substantial talent pipeline for years to come.”

Gural says her other best decision at Virginia Tech was choosing to take courses that teach design, analysis, and casting through VT FIRE, the Virginia Tech Foundry Institute for Research and Education — through which Gural also received several scholarships. There, she has been able to cast all sorts of metals and gain valuable materials science experience.

“Working with VT FIRE has been an invaluable part of my undergraduate studies. While the foundry courses I take are outside of my major, I have gotten to see how important they are to my field,” Gural said. “They’ve helped me understand how parts are manufactured and put mechanical engineering theory into practice.”

Baja advisor Professor John M. Kennedy encouraged her to take his mechanical design course, which yielded Gural an even stronger passion for interdisciplinary work as well as firsthand experience in the foundry.

"Genevieve is a scholar in the truest sense of the word and at the same time a person of highest character,” Kennedy said. “She has devoted her time at Virginia Tech to expanding her knowledge in mechanical engineering and beyond and to serving the university community through her leadership on a large design team, committees, and organizations. Having been in academe for over 30 years, I can think of no other student that can trump her combination of intellect and character."

When she entered college, Gural had her mind set on spacecraft mechanics, and she wondered how certain out-of-major experiences, such as her internship with Caterpillar or VT-FIRE courses, would align with her career goals.

“Although this particular internship [with Caterpillar] was outside of my desired field, I decided to take it and ended up acquiring many skills that helped me later on,” Gural said. “I got hands-on experience with machine testing and operation, and I also developed skills in building relationships and working in a professional environment. I tried new things I wouldn’t have normally been able to experience, like running tests, organizing track time, working with technicians, and physically going out in the field. It is still, to this day, one of my favorite internships.”

With this new take on learning, Gural continued pursuing job opportunities that would bolster her strengths as wells as introduce her to new responsibilities in leadership and communication — all of which led her to other co-op and internship opportunities with GE Aviation, UTC Aerospace Systems, and SpaceX. This coming summer 2018, Gural will get to intern with her second Elon-Musk-led company, Tesla.

“What attracts me to the Elon companies is how similar they are to working on the Baja team,” she explained. “It’s all about the culture. Working with intelligent people — often for long hours — toward one specific goal is empowering, especially knowing that we all want a high degree of quality in the work we do. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

If Gural has a word of advice for her fellow undergraduates, it’s on the importance of students finding what genuinely interests them and committing to those areas.

“Your path will not be straight,” she said. “If you find one or two things you care about, invest time in them and figure out ways to make those things better. Doing so will help make a positive impact while you grow as an individual and develop your career.”

Gural’s experiences at Virginia Tech have all contributed to the bright and integrated outlook she has on engineering, which she will bring back to Blacksburg this fall when she returns to campus to pursue a master’s in mechanical engineering.

“One of my greatest assets is that I have garnered experience in mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, and materials science. Having a background in those areas, as well as experience in networking and collaborating with people from other disciplines, has made me a much more holistic engineer,” Gural said. “Getting to know people, understanding their interests, and getting them to where they want to be is what I want to do, no matter where I am in years to come.”

Written by Alec Masella

Photo of a smiling Genevieve Gural holding a model rocket that reads "SpaceX"
Photo courtesy of Apt3 Photography.