How did you decide to become a mechanical engineer? Was it encouragement from a teacher? A desire to understand how things work? A drive to improve technology? Haley Smith had pieces of those, but her distinguishing moment is a little more unusual: an article in an airline magazine.
While thumbing through the seat-back magazine midflight, she stumbled across an article about Hugh Herr, who lost both legs in a rock climbing accident and has since developed revolutionary prosthetic limbs.
As a high school student interested in engineering, but still exploring college majors, it was exactly what she had been looking for.
"I'm interested in the human body and what it can do and ways we can make it better, or mimic how it works," Smith says. "I think it has a lot to do with being an athlete."
A lifelong basketball player, Smith was recruited by CU Boulder and recently finished her final season as a starter on the Colorado Buffaloes Women's Basketball Team. She has been one of their leading rebounders and scored more than 1,000 points in her career.
Playing for a Pac-12 team while also tackling the kind of math and science classes required of mechanical engineering majors would make many students break into a cold sweat, but for Smith, it all comes down to time management.
"It's paramount. I finished my last game a few weeks ago, but I find myself just as busy as before. If you have spare time, you fill it up," Smith says. “I never had to stay up all night just to get something done. I was able to prioritize and make lists and use my planner and get everything done in a reasonable way and still have some sort of a social life."
Her discipline shows. She graduated with a grade-point average north of 3.67, was a three-time member of the dean's list, a three-time All-Academic Pac-12 team member, and a seven-time member of the Athletic Director's honor roll.
Leaving CU Boulder, Smith is taking on a new challenge: graduate school. This fall, she will hit the books at Stanford University, seeking a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with the goal of a career in the medical device industry.
"I want to work in research and development and get new limbs and devices to people who need them. It's super expensive right now and I want to find ways so it can be more affordable," Smith says.
One thing that will be immediately different as a graduate student is her time as a college athlete is coming to a close.
The transition is difficult for anyone on the outside to fully comprehend. She calls herself "retired," which seems like an odd word choice for a 22-year-old, but basketball has been a major part of her life since age four. She is now moving into a new stage as an engineer pursuing an advanced degree.
"It hasn't fully sunk in yet and will be weird when it does," she says. "I'm going to have to figure out how people exercise not as part of a team, but just to be healthy."