Flood Warning: Bio Engineer Maddie Keefer Makes Flood Development Sustainable

Madeline Keefer ● Quality Engineer ● John Deere

For biological engineer Maddie Keefer, green living and sustainability is not just a trend, it’s a lifestyle. The North Carolina native studied engineering at her dad’s alma mater North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT).

As a fan of sustainability service projects like the Beachkeepers Beach Clean-Up put on by clubs like the National Honor Society in high school, Maddie followed her friends’ advice to study biological engineering.

“I felt a great deal of pride in contributing to the upkeep of the beach near my home” says Maddie. “I chose biological engineering since it focuses on the many ways in which engineers design and create sustainable solutions to some of Earth’s biggest problems.”

Growing up on the North Carolina coast in Morehead City, Maddie knew all too well the consistent threat that flooding caused every hurricane season. Throughout her collegiate and post baccalaureate career, she studied flood and water management to find ways to divert and better utilize flood water.

During her sophomore year at NCAT, Maddie assisted in writing a grant for $15K from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fund a project on flood and runoff management.

“Stormwater drains contribute to pollution, so let’s divert that water to a floating garden,” said Maddie, who worked with a team to create an engineering design proposal that would redirect water from storm drains to a water a garden of thirsty plants. Under Maddie’s leadership, the undergraduate team of biological engineers from her department entered their prototype for Floating Island on a Roof for Rainwater Management in a student design competition for sustainability, competing against over 50 teams from across the country. While the team didn’t technically “place”, they impressed the judges and received honorable mentions. The prototype for the project is still on display at NCAT, and continues to be a point of pride for Maddie.

“The opportunity to represent this project in this design competition was an awesome experience and huge success for me,” said Maddie.

“One of my regrets is not studying abroad during my undergraduate years at NCAT,” said Maddie, who reached out to a professor in the Netherlands about conducting flood management research for the Fulbright Fellowship post-graduation. In 2016, she earned the prestigious Fulbright Award — a competitive national award that provides funding for research, master’s programs, and teaching opportunities.

She describes the application process for the fellowship as tough, but worth the reward. In order to apply, she created a grant proposal, wrote a personal statement, provided letters of recommendation and transcripts and earned approval from a host institution abroad. “It’s a long application process, but if it was easy, everyone would do it.” Maddie became a semifinalist in January 2016 and didn’t find out she won the Fulbright Fellowship Award until April 2016, a month before her graduation.

As a Fulbright Scholar, Maddie began her studies at Delft University of Technology in the South Holland Province of the Netherlands. She examined how natural salt marshes could systematically prevent hurricanes, reducing wave height, using a simulated case study from Hurricane Irene in New Jersey. She relied heavily on her bio engineering background from classes like hydrology, fluid mechanics and hydraulics.

Her Fulbright Fellowship required significant technical aptitude. Maddie sometimes experienced imposter syndrome, questioning whether she lacked the technical knowledge to contribute to projects even though, the majority of the time she was making substantial contributions.“I sometimes had a lack of confidence in my technical ability, but engineering truly teaches you how to be a problem solver,” said Maddie. “I realized I was equipped with the skills, education, and leadership to aid me in me delivering successful projects.”

Currently, Maddie works at John Deere as a Quality Engineer, improving agricultural technology, and plans to earn her master’s degree in a field related to agricultural sustainability.

She encourages women to take advantage of opportunities, ask questions, and cultivate relationships with professionals in the field. “If you have a dream, it’s helpful to talk to people that have been there and done that,” said Maddie.

She hopes to inspire other young women to pursue STEM through mentorship with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and through initiatives like John Deere Inspire, where she volunteers at elementary schools teaching students about technology and agriculture.

“It’s the coolest thing I’ve done in 24 years so far,” said Maddie about her Fulbright Fellowship. “Goals are never too far reaching; you may be closer than you think.”

#NewGradGoals: This story is part of a new series highlighting women in engineering who are recent graduates. Whether doing cool research or starting their own companies, we hope to highlight the women in engineering who are just getting started! Know someone who should be featured, recommend them here or tweet us @wogrammer using the hashtag #NewGradGoals!

This story was written by Kristen Shipley, wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter @perfectlyk.