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Engineer, Alumna and Olympic Runner

Jacobs School alumna Sonali Merrill during one of her practices on the UC San Diego track.

Meet Sonali Merrill, a Jacobs School alumna, who also is a member of Sri Lanka’s Olympic track and field team. The San Diego Union-Tribune has called her “the accidental Olympian.” Here she talks to us about her passion for engineering and her experiences as a student athlete and engineering student at the University of California, San Diego.

What made you decide to study engineering?

I started out as a biology major, but I hated the first bio class I took due to the immense amount of “just because” memorization. One of my other requirements was physics and something clicked in those classes that didn’t in any of my others.  So I researched majors with physics in their curriculum and that led me to mechanical engineering. It was the broadest engineering major, and its versatility was the cherry on top.

What is the appeal of engineering for you?

It feeds my curiosity. The objective cause and effect relationship. The subjective design process.

It’s problem solving and creativity brought together.

After 5 years of education and almost 3 years of experience as a design engineer, I’m constantly being challenged and learning something new every day, which is a gift in itself.

Merrill is hoping to qualify for the world championships, which take place in Moscow this year.

What was the best thing about being a student at the Jacobs School of Engineering?

The superb engineering student organizations, like Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Teams in Engineering Service (now known as Global TIES). That gave me a connection to the industry, to engineers who were a five years ahead of me in their careers.  Being able to see what path they took to develop their careers made the impending job search less daunting.

For TIES, I was a founding member of the Kenya solar power project.  We used correspondence with a community halfway around the globe to define the project’s scope, gather dimensions, and determine what was feasible within our budget and timeframe.  Not only was it loads of fun, but it reassured me that I could transfer my textbook smarts to real life challenges.

What would you say to young girls to encourage them to pursue a career in science and engineering?

I’d debunk the myth that if you’re a science major, you sit alone in a room and do boring tasks.  There’s a myriad of career options in science and engineering where you interact with a variety of people and work in teams. Maybe I’d even start pointing out all the fun made possible by engineering i.e. Fruit Ninja or Kobe’s dunk (due to the science used in his knee treatments).

How did you get your current job?

Merrill stretches during practice.

Perseverance. After extensively researching Solar Turbines and hearing great things from employees I had met through SWE, it was my top choice. I applied three times, without getting an interview.  Finally, I handed my resume to Solar recruiters at DECaF and discussed with them my interest in their company. That meeting at DECaF is what put me through.

What was it like to be a student athlete at UC San Diego?

Student first, athlete second.  At times, I had to turn homework in early because I was missing class due to travel for a race.  Or take a day off from track practice because I had pulled an all-nighter for school.  It was the harder road, for sure, but I knew that going into it.  Otherwise, it was a blast spending 6 days a week doing what I love with teammates who I loved.  Looking back, I really am grateful that my professors and coaches never let me slack because my college experience prepared me to juggle work and training now.

What are your plans for the future?

To continue the journey!  My most immediate sights are set on the IAAF World Championships held in Moscow, Russia in August of this year.  It’ll be harder to get into this championship than into the Olympics due to higher qualification times.

2014 is also a big year for Sri Lankan athletics with the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. As far as the next Olympics in Brazil… ask me about that again in 2016.  In the meantime, I’ve got work to do!

Where can people see you race?

In San Diego, I will be taking part in UCSD’s Triton Invitational on campus in the spring, April 25 to 27.   Otherwise, I’d say to check my facebook page (www.facebook.com/ChristineSonaliMerrill). My meet schedule is updated on there regularly so anyone can follow me as I chase down the World Championship qualification.  I’ll even post a race video or two this year on it. So the real answer is – from anywhere in the world.


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