Annie Adams — Building Bridges

Sometime last spring, Annie Adams and two other student members of the Society of Civil Engineers taught area middle school students about structural engineering. Together, they talked about how to build a bridge out of balsa wood, looking at the stresses and forces involved and where the bridge could potentially come apart.

The kids reacted. They laughed and asked questions. They came away with the idea that engineering is fun and an important part of our daily lives.

A lot of what Adams has done during her time at Duke involves building bridges. A double major in mechanical engineering and economics, Adams came to Duke from Scarsdale, N.Y., looking for new challenges. The daughter of a Duke medical alumnus and a North Carolina Central law graduate found those challenges in the classroom, in a study abroad program in Australia and in a variety of student organizations. Along the way, she helped other students strengthen their connections to each other, to the community and to the larger world outside Duke.

"I like to try new things, new groups, new clubs, new activities, but I also like to impact each of these groups by doing something new with them," Adams said. "With each of the groups that I have been involved with, I have learned something new, created an impact and left behind, I hope, something that was not there before. The purpose has always been to motivate Duke engineering students through mentoring and academic programs or connecting them with our community and schools."

The work with the middle school students is one such example. For two months, the three Duke students met with the middle schoolers to teach them about bridge design and to build a working model that would be tested at a Society of Civil Engineers meeting at Duke.

"The kids did really well," Adams said. "It was exciting seeing them try things and work at something they hadn’t done before. At the end, at the society’s meeting, some of their bridges ended up doing better than some of the bridges made by Duke students. I was proud of them."

From joining the crew team during her freshmen year to singing gospel music as a sophomore, Adams has sought out a long series of new experiences at Duke and learned from every one.

In the classroom, "well, just about every engineering class is a challenge," she said. "Coming to Duke, I knew I wanted to study engineering, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was good in math and science, and I’ve always liked to figure out how things work. What I really want to do is fly an Air Force jet. I didn’t want to join the Air Force, so I always figured the next best thing is to learn how to design one."

Where she made her greatest mark, however, is through student organizations. As president of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), she helped the small group grow both in numbers and in energy, making it a more important part of the Pratt School. In September 2002, the society held its regional conference for the first time ever at Duke.

As a leader in the Society of Women Engineers, Adams again helped energize a small group and form a freshmen mentoring program to provide support and encouragement for new female students entering Pratt.

At Dukengineer, the Pratt School’s student-run magazine, Adams and her co-editor led the magazine through its first redesign in a decade. Their work has resulted in a new look and a new commitment to give students an opportunity to write about the issues they tackle in the classroom.

"I started writing for the magazine as a freshman," Adams said. "Part of the reason was I wanted to figure out in new ways what I’m doing in the classroom. Writing about it is a good way of doing that."

The long list of leadership roles earned Adams the William J. Griffith Service Award, one of the university’s highest honors for student community service.

Student organizations can be frustrating to run, but Adams’ colleagues said her warm and open spirit and energy served her well.

"When Annie became the president of NSBE, the organization gained new life," said student Jonelle Stovall. "Through working with Annie, our chapter was rechartered and became recognized by our national board. Annie was fun, and exciting to work with. Each event was full of new surprises."

Each of these organizations has an important purpose, Adams said. Through them, she was able to create relationships that have served her well at Duke.

"Being black and being a woman in engineering wasn’t something I really focused on a lot here," said Adams, who is heading to Wall Street to work for Salomon Smith Barney before heading to grad school. "But the fact is there are so few of us. We have to motivate each other and provide encouragement. That’s why I joined these societies. They helped us learn the idea that we can do anything we wanted to.

"I never had a black professor in my engineering classroom. I never had a female professor. It would be nice to see that happen. And there’s support in the school for that. I really appreciate what Dean [Kristina] Johnson is doing. She’s brought in seven new female professors in the last couple of years.

"What we tried to do in these groups, through mentoring programs and the like, is to ensure that the students coming behind us are more likely to have that support."