Electrical Engineer Rebekah Osborn Weighs Career Options

Written by Claire Cusick, 2004Rebekah Osborn

Whatever the future brings, Duke electrical engineering graduate Rebekah Osborn feels she is prepared.

"I’m thankful for my engineering courses," she said. "They taught me a good work ethic. And it seems trite, but they also taught me problem-solving skills."

Interviewed a day after graduation, the 22-year-old alumna looks forward to her first hard-core engineering job for the summer of 2004, and is considering her options for life beyond that.

Osborn, from Peoria, Ill., decided to major in electrical and computer engineering after taking Engineering 10 as a freshman. The course is a colloquium designed to introduce students to the study and practice of engineering. Osborn heard presentations from all four of Pratt’s engineering departments, from interdisciplinary research center directors, outside practitioners, and even student groups.

"I thought it was a really helpful, non-pressured way to learn which areas might interest me," she said of the introductory, half-credit class. "It was also nice because it was so laid back," she said.

During the class, what she heard about digital systems and concepts sparked her interest, and she decided to pursue that.

"I knew that I liked the idea of electronics more than bridges or sewer systems, and the class just confirmed that feeling," she said.

Her favorite class was ECE 164, Electronics Design for the Environment. Part of the curriculum was to perform a "virtual internship," which included working on a team. Osborn’s team, which built on previous work by physics and math majors, was called the unBLIND team. Blind stands for B rai L le IN terface D isplay.

Working with their mentor, professor Robert Guenther, the team worked through the semester attacking the problem of developing an affordable, refreshable computer Braille display. The goal was to enable the blind to read web pages, email and other electronic information.

The problem with traditional braille displays lies in the high cost of taking text from a computer and converting it into a Braille format. Such displays are simply not accessible to the average blind American.

Osborn’s team created an affordable, refreshable computer Braille display by utilizing bimetallics as the medium in which to create Braille characters instead of much more costly piezoelectrics (currently used in Braille displays). This way, a refreshable Braille display can be created for a fraction of the cost. (For more information, see http://www.virtintern.duke.edu/2003fall/braille/virtualtour1.htm).

During her summer breaks, Osborn took part in a variety of activities that helped shape her career goals. After her freshman year, she spent the summer at home in Peoria working with her church. She spent her sophomore summer as director of Project BUILD (Building Undergraduate Involvement in the Life of Durham), http://www.duke.edu/web/build/wwwa/wib.htm, a pre-orientation program for first-year students at Duke. The Project’s goal is to establish a sense of community between Duke students and the Durham community by exposing students to the variety of community service opportunities in the area.

"Project BUILD gives students an idea of what they could do during the school year – and many different things are possible," Rebecca said.

But this summer, she’s looking forward to the first job that will call on her technical knowledge. She’ll be working at MITRE Corp. in Washington, D.C. MITRE is a non-profit corporation chartered to conduct research and development in the public interest. Osborn will conduct telecommunications systems engineering research, focused on videoconferencing and networking for the U.S. Department of Defense.

She calls her work at MITRE "a bridge between engineering and consulting." She will gain experience in directing and conducting her own lab and technical work and overseeing contractors.

After that, she’s ‘95 percent certain’ she’s going to law school at Georgetown University Law Center, to focus on intellectual property law.

"It’s going to be a big change," she said, but she likes the idea of applying her technical expertise to the competitive, challenging arena of invention patenting and intellectual property rights.

Osborn admits she’s not sure she’ll like it, and if not, she’s OK with that. She plans to use law school as a tool to help her decide whether she wants to do ‘straight engineering’ for her entire career.

Determined and prepared, Osborn is pursuing her new life in much the same way she pursued her education: as a path to self-exploration and fulfillment.

Osborn graduated in May 2004.