UW–Madison engineering student finds purpose in multidisciplinary education, discovers passion for people, health, and the environment

January 26, 2021

Ana Diges, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is building a rich and purposeful education by pursuing multiple certificates and participating in a variety of educational programs. In addition to her rigorous engineering coursework, Diges is enrolled in the Nelson Institute’s environmental studies certificate program, is a member of the Nelson Institute’s Community and Environmental Scholars Program (CESP), serves as a project manager with Engineers Without Borders, and is pursuing a certificate in global health.

For Diges, these programs are what give her engineering education meaning. She said they provide the context for how materials science can be used to make the world a better place, and ultimately, are what inspire her to continue on in the major.

“[These programs have] been my saving grace,” said Diges. “You can learn transport and thermodynamics on their own, but really you need some sort of guidance or idea of how to apply it… [They’re] giving purpose to my engineering work.”

Throughout her college education, Diges has discovered a rich passion for people, health, and the environment. However, uncovering these passions has been a journey, leading her down a path that she did not anticipate when she first applied to UW–Madison.

Diges comes from a multicultural family and spent most of her childhood living in Spain, her mother’s home country. But when Diges and her family moved back to Wisconsin just in time for her to enter high school, Diges said the transition ultimately influenced her decision to pursue a STEM-focused career.

“Moving to the states was difficult and English was not my strong suite, so I decided to go into something that is more math and science based — I know those languages,” said Diges.

Having always enjoyed chemistry, Diges decided to pursue an engineering degree at UW–Madison. She had taken a materials science course in high school and was motivated to continue in the field. But after her first semester in the program, Diges was struggling to find inspiration. The materials science program is very structured and requires that students take specific classes at a specific time, which Diges said initially made it difficult for her to explore different passions.

Despite these challenges, Diges enrolled in Environmental Studies 260: Introduction to Ecology her second semester — a decision that would mark the beginning of Diges’ interdisciplinary education.

“It was probably the most fun class, and most interesting, [I have taken],” said Diges. “I looked forward to it three times a week. It was my joy.”

Diges said the environmental studies class was “a breath of fresh air” that fulfilled the passion she was craving at the time. From there, she continued to find inspiration from courses in subjects such as sociology and population studies, providing her with a new awareness of social and environmental issues, and eventually leading her to pursue certificates in environmental studies and global health.

Ultimately, Diges said these certificates have played a major role in shaping ideas for her future career. As an engineering student, Diges has been “exposed to a little bit of everything,” which has forced her to consider the many different ways of applying her knowledge. Drawing from her environmental education, Diges is currently interested in exploring how renewable materials can be used to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

“There are few world challenges that I can see that do not involve a material science input in solving,” said Diges. “After reading so much and learning so much in class with environmental studies, I now have a more clear path forward. I’ve found certain problems that concern me, and that I know that I can contribute to with my materials science degree. So that’s really exciting.”

In addition to pursuing an environmental studies certificate, Diges is also enrolled in CESP, a Nelson Institute program that provides undergraduates the opportunity to work with community-based environmental organizations. Now entering her fifth semester in the program, Diges said CESP has been a highlight of her academic career. It has given her the opportunity to connect with other students of diverse backgrounds and majors, all of whom share a common interest in building healthier and more sustainable communities.

“There’s just really, really interesting people that are admitted to [CESP], and it just continues to amaze me,” said Diges. “It pushes me to be better as well. I used to be really quiet in the program the first semester or two, [but] eventually you really find your place in a community that is really accepting — really willing to listen to everyone’s perspectives.”

CESP has also given Diges the unique opportunity to develop relationships with Nelson Institute faculty and staff. In particular, Diges said she had a close working relationship with Cathy Middlecamp and Rob Beattie, the co-directors of CESP.

Middlecamp, a Nelson Institute professor who recently retired after more than four decades at UW–Madison, was an especially influential person for Diges. In addition to her expertise in environmental studies, Middlecamp also has a background in chemistry, which Diges said made her someone that she could relate to, in that they both “shared a similar hard science background, guided by their love for environmental studies.”

Likewise, Middlecamp had nothing but wonderful things to say about Diges.

“I was privileged to meet Ana over the course of two years in CESP,” said Middlecamp. “Each semester, my admiration for her only but grew. To CESP, she brought a keen intellect coupled with a desire to use her talents for the benefit of others. She was an inspiration to us all!”

Along with CESP, Diges has also gained unique experiences by participating in the UW–Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which engages students in leading engineering projects in underserved communities across the globe. Currently, Diges is the project manager for a project aimed at implementing a water distribution system in Camarones, Ecuador, a community that has long been deprived of access to potable water.

One of EWB’s main tenets is to work in partnership with the communities they serve throughout every step of the process. It requires that students actively communicate and listen as they consider the needs of their project communities — something that Diges said has made her a more “culturally sensitive engineer.”

“[EWB] makes you responsible and conscious, and sensitive to other people’s needs,” said Diges. “Everyone that joins seems to have that ‘more than just an engineer’ mentality… Considering social aspects of engineering problems… It’s a fantastic, unique opportunity on campus.”

Diges will graduate from UW–Madison this spring, and while she initially planned to join the Peace Corps after graduation, those plans have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Diges looks forward to taking a year to explore her options. She hopes to build a career that uses materials science to addresses environmental and social problems and is currently intrigued by the possibility of working as a consultant, where she would have the opportunity to influence how businesses and governments address these issues.

But until then, Diges plans to continue to think outside the box, to seek out diverse perspectives, and take a multidisciplinary approach.

“We have so much knowledge collectively,” Diges said. “If we want to create real-life, long, sustainable solutions to problems we need to bring this knowledge together.”

And to fellow students, Diges said, “Don’t be afraid to go outside of your limits, because you might just create something that is really unique and new, and helpful to the world.”