Kimi Bourland’s start in engineering wasn’t pleasant.
Although she picked a top engineering school in California, the college wasn’t a fit for her. She felt bullied as a woman in a male-dominated field; a peer in her first-year projects course laughed at her ideas.
So she returned to her hometown of Boulder and found her niche in CU’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Bourland’s perseverance paid off: she’ll graduate in December with a 3.907 GPA, a wealth of research experience and a new sorority formed under her watch. For her efforts, the chemical engineering major was named Outstanding Graduate of the College for fall 2017.
The daughter of two former professors, Bourland credits her parents and her participation in a “nerdy little robotics club” in high school with spurring her interest in STEM.
“At that point, I still didn’t know what an engineer was. I’m like, 50 percent sure I know what an engineer is now,” she said.
As a transfer student, Bourland said she struggled at first to acclimate to the new campus. But she joined the Global Engineering RAP, a residential academic program, and made close friends as they tackled the challenging curriculum together.
Bourland stood out quickly as a top student, said Teaching Professor Janet deGrazia. After the first exam, the sophomore’s knowledge and intuition led deGrazia to recruit her for undergraduate research.
"When one of my colleagues asked me to recommend my 'best' student to work in his lab, I immediately suggested Kimi," deGrazia said. "She has met all the challenges of research and succeeded beyond all expectations."
For three years, Bourland worked in the labs of Professors Rich Noble and Doug Gin, designing experiments to create and test nano-filtration membranes and learning from graduate mentor Sarah Dischinger. She even was credited as an author on a published paper.
Bourland’s research experience broadened during summer fellowships at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University of Houston.
“I was always interested in research,” she said. “I thought it was really cool, the idea of doing something new that hadn’t been done before. It was kind of a blessing that I came to CU, since it’s a huge research institution.”
Remembering her tough start in engineering, Bourland sought to form a social support system. Her friends in engineering couldn’t find time to rush the Greek sororities, so they formed their own chapter of Phi Sigma Rho sorority for women in technical fields. A year later, the chapter has 24 active members and has helped establish a colony at the University of Wyoming.
“The sorority really helped because it was something that wasn’t school-related that I could focus my time on,” she said.
Adding to her resume, Bourland completed a senior thesis and earned an Engineering Management certificate.
After graduation in December – Bourland will speak at the engineering recognition ceremony Dec. 21 – she plans to take a semester off before attending graduate school in pursuit of a PhD. And she plans to remain a familiar face on the campus that cultivated her moxie.
Wendy Young, associate chair in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, described Bourland as a unique and special talent.
“To me, she epitomizes what the Outstanding Graduate of the College should be,” Young said. “She has taken advantage of every opportunity that she has been offered and excelled at them all."