Birmingham — Before she became an author and tenured professor of industrial engineering, Pamela McCauley was a mom at 15.
But she hammered home the message she lives by to students Wednesday at Seaholm High School: Don’t allow challenges to deter you from your dreams.
McCauley delivered a keynote address during two assembly sessions to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose national holiday is celebrated Monday.
McCauley, a STEM expert from the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at the University of Central Florida, urged students to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“I love your generation,” said McCauley, 51, who has been a professor for 22 years and whose expertise is in ergonomics, including occupational safety and health. “You can text seven people and solve a calculus problem at the same time. You have the opportunity to have the impact my generation only dreamed about, and we need you.”
Tessa Banks, 16, an 11th-grade student, described the address as inspirational.
“She showed us that you can overcome obstacles no matter how you feel about the situation at the time,” she said.
Principal Rachel Guinn said her phone was “blowing up” with positive comments from staffers following McCauley’s address.
“Some of the students met her at a conference and they loved and really appreciated her body of work, and they thought she’d be an inspiration to the whole student body, so that’s how the conversation started,” said Guinn. “She is very encouraging and inspiring.”
McCauley, who leads the Human Factors in Disaster Management Research Team at the university, previously taught aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. Her university biography says, according to the National Science Foundation, that she is among a handful of African-American women to be a full professor of engineering.
“Some students tell me they’re too creative or artistic to become involved in a STEM career,” she said. “But you need creativity in a STEM-focused career. STEM professionals can do almost anything.”
She presented a list of “engineering grand challenges” to students, including making solar energy affordable, managing the nitrogen cycle and restoring and improving urban infrastructure.
“My money is on you,” she said. “I believe in you and my expectations are high.”
Delanie Flynn, 16, an 11th-grader, said the speech resonated with her.
“She told us to do things ourselves and not to be impacted by other people and what they say about you,” she said.
McCauley reiterated the message throughout her speech: The most influential person in the world is not your teacher or your parent or your friend. It’s yourself.