Melissa Schmitz

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Alumni Spotlight

Melissa Schmitz

BA in Physics and BS in Chemistry, Le Moyne College

Melissa Schmitz works with a VR simulator. Photo by Herb Vasquez.

What she does

I am an R&D engineer creating new product prototypes for the material handling industry, with a general focus on making use of the most cutting-edge technology available. In particular, my projects tend to focus on machine learning, vehicle automation, and extended realities (XR).
The lifecycle of these commercial R&D projects is significantly shorter than research projects in academia, so innovation happens at a comparatively fast pace. As someone who always found herself going on tangents with new ideas, an environment where these tangents are at the very least seen as valuable exercises—if not the next big thing—turned out to be a better fit for me than the hyperspecificity of the slower-paced academic research process.

How she got there

I prefer the small school environment, so I studied at a private school in Syracuse, New York, called Le Moyne College, where I graduated with a dual bachelor’s in physics and chemistry. I actually started out on a premed track as a biochemistry major. I was always generally interested in STEM, and while taking my first physics class with the incredible Dr. David Craig, I discovered how deeply interesting physics could be (especially quantum mechanics!).

My whole life I had been interested in getting to the root of scientific phenomena, but it just never dawned on me how crucial physics was to that fundamental understanding. Especially for young girls, physics is typically presented as dry and boring math, or with a focus on things like rockets and cars. I was never particularly interested in those things, so I ended up focusing a lot on psychology and human anatomy to understand my own experiences.

However, learning more about physics and math unlocked a deeper connection to the world around me as I became acquainted with the bottom-up thought process you typically apply in physics. I don’t come from a family with STEM or academic careers at all, so this took me some time to figure out, but I’m certainly glad I did!

Bringing a unique perspective

As it turns out, my background is very different from those of my colleagues, who all graduated with traditional engineering degrees. At first there was a big adjustment period, because I had to learn general engineering principles on the job. However, it actually turned out to be a positive, as I’m able to come up with fresh ideas because of my unique perspective and extensive academic research background. I might end up asking a question about something that at first seems obvious to most engineers but was actually overlooked.

Advice to physics students

Explore your career options in earnest. Even if you feel dead-set on pursuing physics or astronomy in graduate school or more generally as your career, it’s important to have a clear view of what’s out there so you can be confident in your decision. After all, it’s a big one that involves a lot of time and money!

While unintentional, being in a university setting biases you toward the bubble of academia. When you ask professors for advice, they may be inadvertently directing you to follow the same path they did.

So whether it’s taking an internship, participating in outside events like hackathons, attending career talks, or pursuing your own personal projects, I think it’s important that while you’re still learning who you want to be in college you give various things a chance. After all, even if you find a particular class exciting, you may hate the work of applying it (or vice versa). You can research your options all you want, but nothing compares to lived experiences when you’re trying to figure out how you want to spend the next several years of your life!

I didn’t end up pursuing academic physics like I thought I would, but I still got a lot of value out of my degree and my research experience, both of which have helped me grow in my career. //

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