Sarah Mikulski is a McFarland Johnson Scholar and the top graduating senior in the undergraduate mechanical engineering program.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Commencement 2012 profile: Sarah MikulskiTweet
Mechanical engineering senior Sarah Mikulski wasn’t one to sit in the front of the class and grab her professors’ attention by throwing out answers to every question posed — though more than likely they would have been correct. Instead, when she started pulling in the top grades among her peers, it was the professors who sought her out.
“She first caught my attention sophomore year when she came to pick up her midterm exam. She got a 100 and I didn’t know who she was,” said James Pitarresi, chair of mechanical engineering and SUNY distinguished teaching professor. “But it wasn’t just one test. She continued to get 100s on every test I gave and it started to be a joke.”
While soft-spoken and extraordinarily humble, Mikulski makes an impression. She’ll tell you that she got an internship “by luck” and that she’s a member of “a few of the honor societies.” In reality, “She’s a powerhouse academically,” Pitarresi said.
The summer after her sophomore year she was accepted to one of the nationally competitive NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates at the Chicago Illinois Institute for Technology. She worked alongside a professor who was creating and testing a new prototype engine for a hybrid electric vehicle.
As a junior, Mikulski received the Watson School’s National Science Foundation S-Stem Scholarship and planned to continue on at Binghamton University to complete her master’s degree. That same year she interned at High Tech Industries, a metal fabrication company in Binghamton. “They would give me the metal sheets or the parts that they were making and I’d draw them on the computer,” she said.
Her “lucky” internship came the summer after her junior year when she landed a position as a cold box engineer at Praxiar in her hometown, Buffalo.
The company manufactures industrial gases and Mikulski was tasked to help build the large towers that take in air, cool it down and separate it into components — nitrogen, argon, oxygen — to be sold. “I looked at the pipes, put them under stress to see what failed, and then redesigned them,” she said. She also did calculations of components like lifting lugs. “When they’re building these cold boxes they have to lift them to place them on top of each other,” she explained. “You have to design the bolts to make sure they can carry the load.”
At the end of her 12 weeks at Praxiar, she was offered a job — which she’ll start June 1.
Mikulski is also a McFarland Johnson Scholar and the top graduating senior in the undergraduate mechanical engineering program, earning her the department award for Outstanding Academic Achievement in Baccalaureate Studies.
It’s hard to believe, but Mikulski claims she actually bombed her first physics test. “I had a big project due the next day and I was up until 4 a.m. working on it. I didn’t manage my time well in the beginning,” she said. “Then I started to understand the professors and get a better idea of what the big topics were and what they were going to test us on. And once I got into junior year, I figured out that your friends were there to support you and help you out so it got easier to manage everything.”
She admits to being unsure about engineering when she first came to the Watson School, not really knowing what it entailed. But get her talking about her favorite class now, the Science of Engineering Materials, and you can tell that this path is exactly where she belongs.
“You look at the chemistry behind the materials, like the crystalline structure of plastics and how stresses on it will cause it to react and how the atoms shift,” Mikulski explained, paused, and then laughed lightly. “I know, it sounds boring.” When she talks about it though, it doesn’t. And that tempered passion could lead almost anyone to sign up to be an engineer after spending a mere half hour with her.
This June she’ll head back to Buffalo to start her first real job. After that she’s thinking graduate school.
“I feel like I have the potential to do a lot more,” she said.