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Swaying Tower: Ariel Robinson’s Path to Civil Engineering

February 14, 2023

When she was thirteen, Ariel Robinson took a class field trip to the Willis Tower in her hometown of Chicago. Looking up she noticed that the tower swayed, which she found both frightening and interesting. A worker on the site explained to her that this movement was a deliberate structural aspect of the building.

By Ravyn Ladenburger

“I was hooked,” said Robinson. “I wanted to learn more about how things were built.” When she got home, she spent some time online and learned that she was interested in civil engineering.

Today, Robinson is working towards her Ph.D. in civil engineering at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering with a focus on environmental engineering.

“Environmental engineering focuses on creating structures to protect the environment,” said Robinson. “I use the principles of engineering, soil science, biology and chemistry to develop solutions for environmental problems, like pollution.”

Robinson graduated from the UK with her bachelor’s degree in 2020 and is set to graduate with her Ph.D. in 2025.

Robinson, who is a graduate trainee in the UK Superfund Research Center, was awarded the K.C. Donnelly Externship Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in 2021 for her work on the transport of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or forever chemicals.

“I work with emerging contaminants, specifically in water and wastewater,” Robinson explained. “My research focuses on how we can reduce exposures and risk to these contaminants that have harmful effects.”

Besides her extensive research work, Robinson is heavily involved in her community. She is a mentor of the UK National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the treasurer of the UK Black Graduate and Professional Student Association. Outside of UK, Robinson is the engineering director for the non-profit Nerd Squad, which organizes STEM clubs for girls in Lexington. She encourages young girls to be excited to learn about science, mathematics and engineering.

“It’s really impactful for these girls to see that someone like me is an engineer,” Robinson said. “I realized I was interested in engineering when I was thirteen, but I didn’t know any black women engineers. That’s discouraging.”

Robinson is passionate about representation in engineering education. After graduating, Robinson wants to become a professor. “I genuinely love teaching. I like explaining things to people. That’s where I see myself making the most impact,” Robinson said.