Humans of Fung: Tiffany Tao, MEng ’20 (ME)

On how her passion for STEM has inspired her journey to become a product design engineer.

Tiffany celebrates her MEng master’s degree at the postponed 2020 commencement. Photo by Matthew Tao

Tiffany Tao graduated from the Berkeley MEng program in 2020, where she studied Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Product Design. Since graduation, Tiffany has worked at Blue Goji, a wellness technology startup company focused on improving the health of users through fitness gamification. Now, she returns to the MEng program as an advisor for an industry-sponsored capstone project. Here, Tiffany shares more about her unique experience as an MEng alumna, capstone advisor, and her experience as a woman in STEM.

I am a first-generation student who grew up near Chicago, Illinois. My parents immigrated to the United States and opened a Chinese take-out restaurant which I grew up helping them with. I went to a public high school and quickly realized that I wanted to go out of state, so I did my undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Architecture. I loved prototyping and making things with my hands. I wanted to explore a little more about Mechanical Engineering, so I decided to do the MEng program at UC Berkeley.

Being at UC Berkeley was great since I had a lot of choices in classes in the different fields of Mechanical Engineering, in which I settled on Product Design as my concentration. Growing up, I always enjoyed talking to people, so I found Product Design to be a good mix of taking people’s feedback, talking to people, discovering what they need in their lives, and making things for them.

I enjoyed making things with my hands at a young age, so I have always wanted to make things for them [my parents] at the restaurant to streamline their lives. I remember growing up, I would make crab rangoons on the weekends with them, and it was such a tedious process since we’d make 300 or so in a day, so one day I thought to myself that I would make a machine so I wouldn’t have to do this anymore. Aspects and experiences like these made me want to build things.

Left photo: Tiffany helping her dad wash dishes in the back of the restaurant. Right photo: Tiffany (in the red) with her mom and brother at Hong Kong Kitchen. Photo by Nam Tao, Tiffany’s father.

When I was in the MEng program, I worked on the Blue Goji capstone project — doing that project resulted in a job as a Project Manager and Technical Product Design Engineer for Blue Goji. Coming into this role from the MEng program was interesting because Blue Goji is a start-up; we have around 15 -20 people at the Austin, Texas office. I’ve had to wear many hats, which has been exciting since I have to manage my tasks and divide technical challenges and approaches. You can’t be a manager and designer in a typical corporate setting, so I found a good balance at Blue Goji, which was a fantastic opportunity. I also definitely gained a lot of management, communication, and people skills. I’ve had to be resourceful in getting resources and communicating with manufacturers in Austin. Again, because Blue Goji is small in staff, I get to poke my head in different teams. For example, I do not have much experience with Computer Science (CS), but I have been involved in a few CS projects, which I did not think I would ever do, but I enjoyed learning and gaining that experience.

As a graduate student, getting to experience the capstone itself helped and prepared me a lot. It helped me figure out how I wanted to organize this year’s team. We were quarantined during my term, so we lost a Spring semester in-person, but UC Berkeley did a great job pivoting when the pandemic hit. Having the mentee experience, I got to see team dynamics and understand what working in a big team of 10 students feels like. Those experiences helped me make sure I heard everyone’s voices because there were times on my capstone team where ideas were not shared, so I think those feelings are like user research but on myself and my reflections of the experience.

“The [MEng] program taught me to be independent, which made me more confident about controlling and guiding my career path.”

Moreover, one of the biggest takeaways from being in the MEng program that I learned is that you have the power and ability to forge your own path. A lot of people who come into the MEng program are very smart, but a lot of them get nervous or scared of networking and talking to people. I was — and still am — one of those people. The program taught me to be independent, which made me more confident about controlling and guiding my career path. I loved talking to my career advisors in Shires. I talked to them once a month about resumes and career development, and they provided a lot of good advice and guidance about my career path.

Overall, the MEng program made me feel more confident about my career path. MEng’s classes helped narrow down my field, build confidence in my technical skills, and the program made me believe that I can do whatever I want that is in my possession.

The Blue Goji team has four capstone projects; three of them are in the Mechanical Engineering (ME) department and one of them is in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences (EECS) department. In the ME projects, we have one team where students will develop an omnidirectional treadmill outfitted with VR equipment for rehab patients. Currently, we have Infinity which is a unidirectional (standard) treadmill where you walk in one direction and can play games in VR at the same time. However, most older adult patients still feel motion sickness on the normal treadmills when fitted with the VR headset so we are speccing out an omnidirectional treadmill with all our sensors so we can track patient progress over time, with the omnidirectional aspect helping with the motion sickness. That is the main one I am the liaison for.

Left photo: Tiffany testing and prototyping on Blue Goji’s Infinity. Right photo: Tiffany installing Blue Goji’s Infinity machine at Chicago’s Rehab Center, Shirley Ryan. Photo by Matthew Kanter (left) and Tiffany Tao (right)

The other projects are based on incorporating EEG (Electroencephalography) and EMG (Electromyography) sensors into our infinity treadmills and VR headset in order to map the electrical activity and signal from your brain and muscles. These electrical signals will be matched to the patients’ gait and walking patterns in order to provide more data on what kind of cognitive loads they experience when playing different VR games. Infinity is not only a physical rehab tool but also a neurological machine. At the moment, we are trying to target patients with dementia and Alzheimers, by having patients play these games while being monitored by EEG and EMG sensors. In doing so, we can see deficits in memory and further see earlier stages of dementia and prevent it.

Initially, what really attracted me to apply to the MEng program was its professors. During my time in the MEng Program, I reached out to Professor Alice Agogino. She taught one of my classes when I was an MEng student, and she is so friendly! The professors here at Berkeley really care about the students. Purin Phanichphant is a Human-Centered Design professor that I often talked to. Purin is open and very friendly and gave good advice about portfolios and potential career paths for me. It was so nice to feel heard from people who are established in their careers; it makes me really optimistic about people in the world. As a young professional, it definitely can be intimidating, but definitely reach out to your network and the people around you. Don’t be nervous, the worst thing they can say is no. During my MEng experience, there were a lot of moments when I felt scared and alone. Job hunting can be intimidating, and I am glad that the MEng program exists because they train you for the real and professional world, so I recommend utilizing all of UC Berkeley’s resources!

My experience in STEM has been a bumpy one as a woman. In my first internship, I worked for Northrop Grumman, a defense company. The demographic of their workforce is a majority of older white men, so initially, it was a culture shock interning there and experiencing engineering as a male-dominated field. It was pretty intimidating because I went to MIT for my undergraduate program which has a good male-to-female student ratio, and so I had always felt like I could do as much as my male peers. It was insightful and rewarding, and I was fortunate enough to have kind managers throughout all my internships, but my internship experiences have definitely taught me how to shine as a female engineer in a male-dominated field. For my women in STEM, my advice is to talk to established female engineers. There were many times when I reached out to my alumni network through LinkedIn. Everyone I’ve talked to is friendly and wants to see the growth of women in STEM.

Tiffany on her first day of the MEng Program. Photo by John S. Li

To me, as a woman STEM means empowerment! Whenever I meet new people and tell them that I am a Mechanical Engineer, they are always surprised which surprises me! I am still unsure if it is the fact that I am a woman or if being an engineer, in general, is not a common career, but I take it in stride. I found that studying engineering as a woman at liberal schools like MIT and UC Berkeley wasn’t shocking for my undergraduate and graduate school peers, but the stigma of engineering being a male-dominated field was more pronounced in the professional workforce. Coming out into the world and introducing myself as a female engineer was often shocking to my employees and professional peers, but it’s through my skills and creativity that I hope I can change how female engineers are perceived.

STEM has also made me more confident about who I am and definitely has pushed me out of my comfort zones. During my undergraduate years, I experienced imposter syndrome but through doing the work at Blue Goji and doing the things I love, I feel empowered about my career and using my skills and experience for the good of people. All in all, I feel pretty powerful to have the potential and tools to help make an impact!

Tiffany starting her education at a young age and dancing on counter-tops to invite customers in. Photo by Mindy Tao, Tiffany’s mother.

Connect with Tiffany Tao and view her portfolio.

Learn more about Blue Goji.

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