Like any aspiring professional, Abigail Henderson wants to make a difference in her career. In doing so, she hopes to help the environment.

Henderson, one of the rising generation’s forward-thinking individuals, wants to create eco-friendly materials for a progressive company. Her path to get to that point: graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in coatings and polymeric materials from North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D.

She is on track to achieve her graduation goal by spring 2023.

Already she has gained experience in the soft skills of engineering, talking to suppliers and learning how companies can move forward while optimizing their products. Sometimes optimization occurs with a new approach.

“I am very much interested in creating new materials,” she said. “Packaging is something that I am very much interested in, but with more environmentally-friendly alternatives to the plastics and other materials that we use in packaging currently.”

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Her journey to NDSU started in the summer of 2017, while she was still in high school in her hometown of Hudson, Iowa. She had the opportunity to attend a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) camp, which she said was a positive experience for her and introduced her to the material sciences and research that was happening at NDSU.

It piqued her interest in the field, and after that she kept her focus on the North Dakota campus. She also did a couple of job shadows while in high school that further cemented her interest.

She started in fall 2019, choosing NDSU because it was a smaller school than others she had considered and with personable class sizes. More importantly, it had the current programs and research opportunities she was interested in pursuing.

The material sciences is a broad sweep, which in many instances points to the field of sustainability – another topic in which she is interested.

“I'm very interested in the field of sustainability – utilizing waste products to create new materials or to change how materials are used that can better serve the community,” she said.

Henderson hasn’t completed much lab work yet, but will do more of that going forward. She also plans to start doing undergraduate research under the tutelage of a faculty member, something she is looking forward to.

She is used to working with others, and said she once designed a solution to a unique problem with one of her father’s lawnmowers. It wasn’t a large project by any means, “but it was kind of fun to do,” she said.

Henderson also likes to look to the future as she tries to recognize some of the challenges of her chosen industry.

“Cost savings is definitely a challenge,” she said. “Traditionally, more environmentally friendly or sustainable materials are more expensive, and so that's an obstacle for many companies to make the switch. There also is potentially a time-cost element, I would say, on the manufacturing side.”

She has met her own challenges caused by the pandemic, saying it is sometimes tough to stay focused while working and studying remotely. To her, it has been both a burden and a blessing.

“I would say it is probably tougher to stay motivated,” she said. “I personally like the flexibility that a hybrid type work model offers, because I have experience being self-motivated. It’s nice for me that way, but I have definitely seen elements of my classes that are neglected more because of the online model.”

Despite those challenges, she is looking forward to a new year and hopefully a new approach to her work. She said she is enjoying her time in North Dakota and at NDSU.

“I really like the small town, community feel to it, but in a larger setting than I am used to,” Henderson said. “It's definitely larger than my hometown, and so there are a lot more opportunities with businesses, with different community elements. It's also great to be able to go on a walk around campus and see friendly faces, even if you don't know everybody. It has a homey vibe.”

She said she appreciates what she has learned – and continues to learn – at the school and the care and forethought of her instructors.

“They really care about students and the success of students,” she said. “Specifically, Dr. (Ali) Amiri in the mechanical engineering department. … He's been able to connect me with different opportunities to learn and grow in ways outside of the classroom.”

After graduation, the world is her footstool. Where she ends up depends on the job.

“I’m not tied to any specific location,” she said.

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com