PROFILE: Apple Math student Siobhan Powell

Posted on April 08, 2016

How one Queen’s student chose a path to grad school


CHOOSING GRADUATE STUDIES: Queen’s Apple Math student Siobhan Powell will be starting grad school at Stanford in the fall. She’ll be working on research into mechanical applications in renewable energy.

Fourth-year Mathematics and Engineering (Apple Math) student Siobhan Powell is whip-smart, academically talented and interested in a research field with great currency. She’s capping a very successful undergraduate career at Queen’s this spring but grad school wasn’t always a foregone conclusion for her.

“I didn’t plan on going when I first came here,” says Powell. “I remember, in first year when we had to choose our streams, specifically asking people about Apple Math: ‘Do you have to go to grad school or can you go directly into industry?’ because that’s what I thought I wanted to do.”

After second year, she took a summer job in corporate finance. Powell recalls the experience as an interesting challenge but one that ultimately helped her decide that business was not where her passions lay. Rather, she felt drawn to the research and development ­of renewable energy technologies. For the summer after third year, Queen’s professor Abdol-Reza Mansouri recommended her for a research internship at Inria (L’Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique) in southern France. There she worked with a group on the interpretation of data signals from MRI machines.

“I spent the first month catching up on all the literature and talking to the PhD students about their projects,” says Powell. “A three-month summer is very short but I got a taste of the lifestyle and what it’s like to do research.”

That experience, coupled with her own investigation into the fields that hold special interest to her, finally led to the conclusion that research and graduate studies are right for her.

“I developed a strong interest in wave energy and tidal energy,” she says. “I also learned that, for all the leading-edge jobs in that field, you need more than a bachelor’s degree.”

So, armed with a strong transcript and a list of researchers with similar interests, she started the application process. She applied to five of the most prestigious universities in the world, earning and settling on a spot at Stanford University in California.

“The professor is doing really interesting work and was really nice so I thought we would get along well,” says Powell. “The graduate students really like him and I got better funding for Stanford than any of the other schools. That turns out to be a big factor, too.”

So after a summer of family, rest and travel, Powell is off to her next grand adventure. To anyone considering grad school, she has three pieces of advice:

“First would be to start everything really early,” she says. “It all happens so quickly but you can find out what essays you need to write really far in advance so, if you pick a program early and start writing, you won’t have to during midterms in November.

“Another is that the professors at Queen’s are very happy to help. I needed six references for one application so I talked to a lot of faculty and they’re all so supportive. I felt bad asking them to send so many letters but they were very helpful. I turned to them a lot for advice.

“Finally, I’d say to be ambitious. I never thought I could get into Oxford or Cambridge or these places that sound all very far away and fancy but they want people like us to go there so they’ll pick us and it will be great,” she says with a smile. “I wasn’t very confident applying to these places and I should have been more so. So be ambitious.”

Learn more about graduate studies at Queen’s here.