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UW Chemical Engineering Standout Balances Competition and Academics

June 24, 2016
Audra DeStefano, right, and Assistant Professor Dongmei Li discuss membrane technology in a lab.
Audra DeStefano, right, and Assistant Professor Dongmei Li discuss membrane technology in a lab.

Audra DeStefano is used to pushing herself to reach the finish line, wherever it might be.

As one of the top students in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Chemical Engineering, she excels with an extremely challenging course load. She’s also one of the top competitors in the region in distance running. Her specialty is the steeplechase, a track and field event that combines distance running with a hurdle and water jump.

UW gained a top student when DeStefano began attending in 2012. In addition to being a four-year honor roll member, she was a member of the National Honor Society and was the valedictorian of Campbell County High School in Gillette as a senior. She carried that academic prowess into Laramie, and has earned Mountain West Academic All-Conference and Scholar Athlete honors every year since 2013. DeStefano also has earned all-academic honors from the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association three straight years.

“I considered a few other schools, but the biggest factor for me coming to UW was the financial aid for academics,” she says. “Also, I felt like you could control more of what happens in the classroom. I didn’t want to be stuck in a large place with no say in how I was being taught.”

DeStefano remembers the personal interaction she had with the department faculty and staff on her first visit to UW. That made quite the impression.

“No other school made the effort to reach out like that,” she says. “That was nice -- to feel like you could be useful and wanted here.”

On the track, she’s one of the most accomplished Cowgirl distance runners in history. She owns seven top-10 all-time marks in indoor and outdoor track, and is the all-time record holder in steeplechase in the UW women’s record book. Her performances have qualified her for three NCAA West Preliminary events. This season, she ranked 13th in the NCAA West Region but missed her final event of the year with a foot injury.

Why would someone who competes from August to May want to take on the additional work required for an engineering degree?

“I took the hardest major I could think of,” DeStefano says with a laugh. “Honestly, though, I always liked math and science, and I wanted to apply them.

“With chemical engineering, if I didn’t end up in the engineering field, it’s simple to turn that into a pre-med degree. There was flexibility. I really like the engineering part, and I think I’d like to stay in it.”

She’s beginning a QuickStart master’s program in chemical engineering under the guidance of UW Assistant Professor Dongmei “Katie” Li.

“Audra is a truly exceptional student and has earned her degree and high GPA without any ‘concession’ from faculty,” Li says. “Another trait Audra has is that she always gives others credit and never mentions her own mental toughness and outstanding time management. The motivation and work ethic with which Audra pursues her studies and personal development are absolutely outstanding.”

Li also nominated DeStefano for a UW EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) Own It! Award earlier this year, noting that “respectful, driven and bright students like Audra should be recognized.”

While most of her friends are enjoying a relaxing summer break, DeStefano works full time in the lab under the support of a research grant from Wyoming Water Development Commission. The research focuses on engineering commercial membrane surfaces to hold up against produced water from oil and gas wells. The water subsequently can be reused for other purposes, including in the energy exploration loop, to reduce waste.

“The faculty here are great,” DeStefano says. “I end up missing a lot of school for track, but they are super understanding of that and helpful. Sometimes you miss tests, and I really appreciate all the extra work they’re willing to do to allow me to take make up tests.”

She estimates she has a year to go for her master’s, and after that she will begin looking for a job. And although she’s a graduate student, DeStefano has one more year of eligibility remaining to run indoor and outdoor track.

She’ll continue to research and take classes during that time as well, leaving her with very little time to, as she puts it, “get into any trouble.” She knows the end result of all her dedication to academics and athletics will be worth it.

“In distance running, a big portion of being successful is going out and getting the mileage every day,” she says. “Doing the work at the beginning ensures the end result is good. That’s true of school as well.

“Distance running teaches you a lot about using your time well throughout the process. Having a challenging course load is valuable for an athlete, because it keeps you focused.”

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