There is a photo of Megan Conard that goes a long way in explaining why she won the prestigious Colorado Engineering Council Silver Medal Award. In the photo, it is blizzarding in Boulder, and Conard is helping cart a stack of pizza boxes across campus to an event for other engineering students.
Despite the challenging circumstances, Conard is smiling and giving two thumbs up to the camera. This enthusiasm for helping her fellow students and collaborating with others in the CU Boulder engineering community, while also embodying the highest rigors of academic excellence as a student, characterizes Conard’s stellar career as an undergraduate in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering.
In fact, when Conard was a high school student in Tennessee and deciding between universities, CU Boulder won her over with its culture of collaboration and community.
“I didn't want to go somewhere where people are pushing each other down to get to the top,” Conard said. “I wanted something where people are working together to get to the top.”
Conard has dedicated a lot of her time to doing just that. As the longest-serving Engineering Ambassador, Conard has given countless tours of the Engineering Center and shared her knowledge and love for the college. Conard has also let prospective students shadow her for a day and attend classes with her.
Jonathan Neptune, who worked alongside Conard as an Engineering Ambassador, looked to her as role model. “More than one prospective student even said it was her Engineering Center tours and Q&A that made them decide on CU Engineering,” Neptune said.
But Conard has been honest about the challenges she has faced when she talks with prospective students and peers. During her sophomore year, Conard almost had to drop out of school due to financial difficulty, until she utilized the resources like student jobs, ProReady, financial aid and academic coaching.
“That’s a powerful combination in a peer mentor, because the experience she shares is able to be both relatable and aspirational for new students beginning their journey at CU,” Scholar in Residence Kat McConnell said.
Advocating for the voice of others
Along with being a powerful voice for CU Boulder, Conard has also advocated for undergraduate students to be at the table when high-level decisions are made in the college. In this capacity, Conard has been a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, where she helped select Keith Molenaar as dean of the college and championed initiatives that increase mentorship opportunities and space for student organizations.
“As a student, I've tried to pioneer a lot of student involvement and be the student voice that's heard,” Conard said. “The most important takeaway from what I've done is that we should start asking students for their opinions.”
Conard has also been a fierce advocate for the voices of underrepresented students. She has been the only undergraduate student to serve on the Mechanical Engineering Department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Working Group Committee. She took the lead on analyzing the undergraduate-focused results from the 2021 Campus Culture Survey, developing takeaways and target areas for improvement based on the data. She then presented her findings at a department retreat.
“Megan’s comments are always helpful, insightful and forward-looking,” DEI Working Group Chair Janet Tsai said. “She understands the challenges of implementing DEI initiatives in our department and college.”
Conard co-hosted a lunch-and-learn for faculty and staff in mechanical engineering that focused on challenges and strategies for effective student support. She has also planned a Women+ in Mechanical Engineering Graduating Dinner to celebrate female and non-binary graduates of the department.
While embodying the spirit of service to community, Conard’s academic achievements have also been at the highest level. Her junior year, Conard participated in the Discovery Learning Apprenticeship Program, which allows undergraduate students to work alongside graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty as collaborative partners on original research. Conard worked alongside Professor Jana Milford and the ASPIRE Research Center to research vehicle electrification.
Conard developed a flexible modeling tool that linked changes in heavy-duty vehicles and power plant emissions to changes in air quality and the corresponding health effects. She then used the model to investigate benefits of electrifying vehicles in the Denver metropolitan area. With her research, Conard and her research group were able to consult with Colorado government and advise in a change to more electric buses for schools and public transportation.
Real World Experience
To gain professional experience outside the classroom, Conard moved across the country on two separate occasions for an internship with Phillips 66. In Billings, Montana, Conard worked to assess potential damages and risks during a shutdown and create contingency plans for discovery work. The next summer in Sweeny, Texas, she designed a system that pulled gases off a tank and introduced pyrolysis oil – a plastic production byproduct – into the refining system and helped drive the company toward a more environmentally friendly economy.
During her second internship, she was the only female mechanical engineer.
“No one ever thought I was the mechanical engineering intern. It was hard to get my questions answered,” she said.
But Conard did what she does best. She learned everyone’s names by heart. She worked hard. She was congenial despite the challenging circumstances. “And then I finally got to the point where I knew my project so well that no one else could answer the questions, so everyone had to come and talk to me.”
After the internship, Conard shared her worn-out coveralls with her classmates for a video they produced that analyzed the supply chain disruption issues related to gasoline and crude oil. In the video, everyone was happy to don the coveralls and walk in her footsteps.
After graduation, Conard plans to work at a biofuels plant with Phillips 66 in Rodeo, California, and believes returning to higher education for graduate school is in her future as well.