CS major Charlotte Dorn takes an unforeseen opportunity and finds her path forward

CS major Charlotte Dorn works while staying at Cambia Community, the site of her summer internship.

At Carolina, earning a Liberal Arts degree offers those with a passion in the STEM fields a unique opportunity to supplement and enrich their studies, to consider application and impact, and be inspired by the world around them. For CS major Charlotte Dorn, Spring 2020 provided the unforeseen opportunity to reflect on the ways she can combine her interests outside of tech. These experiences have offered a unique lens and pathway forward, igniting a passion for her studies, a desire to give back to her community, and a reminder of the power of listening to one’s inner voice.

We asked Charlotte to share her journey through this spring and summer, but also to reflect on the experiences that have shaped her CS Carolina story.

What made you decide to attend UNC? 

Although Carolina was lacking the specific subject I wanted to study, that I applied to, what it did offer was the college experiences I dreamed of having. Coupled with the Morehead-Cain Scholarship, I foresaw this path to be rich with students vastly different from myself, travel to lands near and far, and a balanced life of fun, business, hard work, and unbound new experiences. 

This vision was in stark contrast to the image I had in my head of traditional engineering programs. I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but to my surprise, within my first two years at Carolina, I have received as much, if not more, hands-on engineering practice than my friends who chose accredited engineering programs. 

In the future, I want to encourage those that are like me, who might not fit the “traditional” model, to find their place and a special purpose at this school and in the community and world.

Undergraduate research and student-employment offer an opportunity for involvement on campus, but can also serve as an outlet for creativity. How did you get involved?

During my first tour on campus, I abandoned my group when they mentioned the Makerspace labs; I then spent far too long asking questions of the Student Assistant who was working that day. The summer before my first year, I emailed Kyle Glochick, who, with the other brilliant and welcoming staff at BeAM, accepted my unbound enthusiasm and offered me a job. 

It wasn’t long after I arrived that I became immersed in the world of design and technology. 

A few months into my first year, I was doing maintenance on the BeAM 3D printers, when my supervisor requested that I speak with a new UNC professor, Sridhar Duggirala, who had grand visions of autonomous vehicles. I was enthralled by the prospect of getting to help build a fleet of 1/10th scale autonomously driving race cars – and that’s exactly what I did. I started on the team doing just hardware: soldering boards, laser cutting chassis, and assembling the nuts and bolts. Eventually, I was sitting in on programming meetings, and before I knew it, I was whisked away to a conference in Montreal. Thanks to the hard work of the graduate students I was working with, UNC’s little car named Zoom Zoom which came in first place at the F1/10 autonomous racing challenge. 

This spring your plans for attending a study abroad program abruptly shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What could have been a disappointment has turned into a great opportunity. In which ways has this moment allowed you to gain clarity? 

I would say my brain is hardwired to understand and find joy in engineering and technology. I find myself in flow states, working for hours on end on debugging, soldering, or building. That being said, at the end of the day I often feel unfulfilled, like something is missing. I would attribute this to what felt like a disconnect between my work and my life. 

I’ve been learning to listen to intuition when it comes to making decisions and my passion for environmental conservation was something I had never explored academically. 

In February, it became clear that my semester plans would be altered, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I began to seek alternative options. Through a website, Workaway.com, I found what appeared to be the perfect landing spot. A small community in Louisa, Virginia advertised a long list of projects, from pedal-powered saws to solar panel racks alongside gardening, trail maintenance, and electric car repair. 

I started my stay at Cambia Community as a “Workawayer,” exchanging a few hours of work each day for room and board. As the United States progressively shut-down, my stay at Cambia evolved into a three month internship with the educational organization Rustling Roots.

Before coming to Cambia, I was still uncertain if sustainability was that perfect fit. Here, I’ve discovered a beautiful life that mixes technology and nature-inspired living. Projects all over the community sing songs that are both modern and timeless. We use a rocket-stove, a masterpiece of applied physics, with hand chopped wood from a small self-sustaining forest. We have an electric car, charged on solar panels that sit in the field where we grow tomatoes, sunflowers, and many other useful plants. 

As you have combined your passion for technology and sustainability, what have you learned?

One skill I am learning is a way of evaluating the impacts of technology. Devices like temperature sensors and solar panels make people feel more connected to the world around them, not less. And when you are more aware of the way you interact with nature, you’re more likely to make choices that don’t cause harm to your environment.

This internship left me looking at the potential advancements, from startups to small fixes, with a critical eye. Taking the time to evaluate the impact of actions, including the environmental effects and the social implications is the most crucial skill for those with technical ability. 

With great power comes great responsibility. A liberal arts education, connections with people of different backgrounds, and life experiences are what have helped me become more aware of the impacts of my ambitions. 

All students at UNC have the unique opportunity to embrace the lessons and insights from other fields of study. With their head down, a student can code their way into a high paying job or an app that reaches millions. But only when students explore the world around them and listen through other mediums, whether philosophy, environmental studies, public health, or women and gender studies, can they make their skills meaningful and worthwhile. 

When reflecting on your opportunities at Carolina, as well as your hopes for the future, what would you share with your fellow students? 

As a female-identifying student in STEM, I am aware of the harsh stereotypes that exist regarding emotional fragility of women in the field. But, I believe that empathy is incredibly valuable as a way to guide tech advances towards good causes. Emotions can serve as fuel for motivation for change – whether that be regarding climate change, poverty, racism, mental illness, or other prevailing issues. With this intention, I am allowing my strong reactions to careless environmental destruction to compel my education in technology.

I am also aware, as a member of an underrepresented group in STEM, that when I accept opportunities, I am normalizing inclusivity, opening people’s eyes to the value of diversity and inclusion, and hopefully making future females feel like less of a token student. 

In times as uncertain as they are now, it’s difficult to look towards the future. My hope is that as I leave Carolina, I’ll hold firmly to my values, an awareness of my privilege, and my role in my communities. I hope to have developed into a person suited to live a wholehearted life, with strong relationships and a mission of service to people and the environment. 

I foresee myself using a strong technical foundation in STEM to help create beautiful solutions by connecting the ideators with the implementers.

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