Grace D. O’Connell, Ph.D. is the associate dean of inclusive excellence for UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. She has long been committed to educating a diverse engineering workforce, and her technical elective, Designing for the Human Body (ME178) — which combines concepts of human-centered design with hands-on prototyping — has been one of her department’s few classes to achieve gender parity.
Grace’s own research focuses on understanding changes in mechanical behavior of soft biological tissues, such as the intervertebral disc (soft tissue of the spine), tendons, or ligaments. Her group uses both experimental techniques and computational models to study complex problems that contribute to lower back pain and osteoarthritis — the leading causes for physical disabilities in Americans. She earned her B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland and her Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University.
How did your career path lead you to your current role?
I served as faculty adviser for the Black Engineering and Science Student Association (BESSA), which allowed me to hear directly from underrepresented students. Learning about their experiences changed the way that I structure my own classes and group projects to ensure that as many students as possible feel included and welcomed in the classroom. As the vice chair of equity and inclusion for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, I formed student committees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Their efforts helped shape student programs and improved access to resources (e.g., knowledge about research and graduate programs, graduate student instructor training about inclusive teaching practices, and peer-to-peer mentoring).
What’s something that students and colleagues should know about you?
Although I’m a mechanical engineering professor, I don’t have a mechanical engineering degree. My first degree was in aerospace engineering. Since I used to fly planes in high school, it seemed like the best fit at the time. For graduate school, I pivoted to bioengineering because it was (and still is) a growing field with a lot of career potential. My Ph.D. research mostly focused on applying mechanical engineering principles to medical questions, which is how I ended up in teaching mechanical engineering.
Besides your work, what’s something that you’re passionate about?
Rock climbing! More specifically, bouldering. If I’m not working, I’m probably climbing, training for climbing, or thinking about climbing. On most weekends, I can be found in the mountains looking for new rocks to climb.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
I would love to learn the drums one day, but I’ve been too shy about creating a lot of noise —especially as a novice player.