Sophia Santillan

Graduation Year: 2001

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science
Master's
PhD

Career Highlights:

  • U.S. Naval Academy as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering

For Sophia Santillan, mathematics turned out to be her gateway to engineering.

"I've always liked math, and engineering is an application of math," said Santillan, (B.S.E. ’01, M.S. ’05, Ph.D. ’07), who is now in her second year at the U.S. Naval Academy as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Although she always had a keen interest in math, she hadn't always planned on a career in engineering. As an accomplished competitive pianist in high school, Santillan had thought she would pursue music at Northwestern University. She applied to Duke on a whim, not expecting to get in. After enrolling at Duke's Trinity College, she later transferred to Pratt and double majored in mathematics and mechanical engineering and materials science.

Though her entire academic life took place at Duke, her career took a small, but important, detour. After her undergraduate years, she taught math at two private high schools.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after being an undergraduate,” she recalls. “I happened to meet the dean of the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), and decided to give teaching math a shot. I had a one-year fellowship to learn how to teach. I gained a greater appreciation of the fundamentals of teaching. It was a great experience.”

She then taught math at St Georges School, Rhode Island, for a year before the engineering bug bit and she returned to Duke to pursue advanced degrees in mechanical engineering.

So far in her career, she has spent most of her time teaching, though she plans to begin her own research projects.

“The Naval Academy has great lab facilities, especially its system of experimental water tanks,” she said. “I plan to use one of the smaller ones to look at subsea pipelines and figure out the different forces and stresses they experience. Then we can figure out how best to design pipes to be resistant to damage.”

Originally published Summer 2009.