About Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson is an interdisciplinary engineer with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines and an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from the University of Denver. Her career has spanned professional skiing to sports biomechanics to agricultural robotics to data engineering. As a person who is curious about lots of different topics, Sarah has embraced her tech career to transition between different industries and never get bored.
What lessons have you learned in your STEM journey?
There’s a lot of talk in STEM right now about ‘embracing failure’ and learning from it. I’ve always struggled with the word failure, and instead have chosen to reframe challenging moments around the small wins. Did I learn what didn’t work, or how to do it better next time? Did I increase performance from a baseline or average, even if it didn’t hit the goal I set?
When I pivoted from academic research into the startup world, I struggled for several months because my definition of success was much more in line with an environment that checks its statistics eight times before publication while scouring data for the minutest trends. I couldn’t keep up with the pace of startup life until I adjusted my definition of success to mean, “I got 6 hours of sleep and ate three meals and didn’t get hurt even though a robot caught on fire today.” That battery wasn’t a failure - my team got better at managing crises, and we all learned something about electrical systems, and now we know how to prevent these situations in the future.
What has been a critical factor in your success?
The most critical factor in my success has been my courage to speak up when things aren’t working for me, and to ask directly for what I need to thrive. While there are certainly many incredible leaders out there in the science and engineering space, there are also plenty who have been promoted for their technical skills rather than their leadership abilities - who don’t always intuitively know what their employees need. By directly asking for specifics – like to be able to work from home one day a week, to work on specific types of projects, to adjust the field travel schedule to accommodate personal needs, to structure check-in meetings in a certain way, to work with specific mentors on specific teams – I have been able to thrive faster and set a precedent for my teammates to also be able speak up about what is or isn’t working for them. It can be uncomfortable and scary to say “I need X to be successful here,” but it rarely ends poorly (and if it does, it’s probably not a company culture worth sticking around for).
What advice do you have for students and young professionals in STEM?
Do what you love, but when what you love changes, don’t be afraid to change with it. It can be exhilarating, highly rewarding, and extremely productive to work on projects that overlap with your personal passions, but be cautious about tying your professional identity to any one job title or company. Especially if you’re someone with a track record of changing your mind or being curious about solving different kinds of problems, your role and your employer are likely to change over the course of your career. Redefining your sense of self can be a lot harder than just finding a new job.