Yilda Irizarry-Valle, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering alumna who graduated with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 2016, was recently honored with the Young Alumnae Leadership Award, an award given for her stellar leadership in her work environment.
“I am absolutely honored to receive this award. To me, it represents an opportunity to motivate students and younger engineers, as well as a way to remind myself that I can do better every day,” Irizarry-Valle said.
The Young Alumnae Leadership Award is awarded by the National GEM Consortium, a network of leading corporations, government laboratories, top universities, and top research institutions that seeks to support bright students from underserved communities in their pursuit of master’s and Ph.D. education in STEM-related fields by providing full tuition scholarships, paid internships, and high entry level job positions. Irizarry-Valle was eligible for this alumni award as a recipient of the GEM Fellowship in 2007.
“Yilda was a dream Ph.D. student,” said Dean’s Professor Alice Parker of USC Viterbi’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “She is fearless, and able to keep calm and press on no matter how difficult the task at hand. And she is a lovely person!”
Irizarry-Valle’s journey to excellence was not easy. She grew up in Puerto Rico, and it was her talents in sports from a young age that actually presented her with the opportunity to excel in academics. At 13, her brother helped her to get a scholarship to play volleyball and study at Colegio San Benito, a private preparatory elementary school in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, changing the course of her life forever.
As a volleyball player for her school, Irizarry-Valle became close to many of her teammate’s families, who would give her rides to and home from games. “This was the key that made everything change for me,” Irizarry-Valle said. She recalls the father of a teammate suggesting that she pursue engineering. “Later on, I learned that he was a highly accomplished engineer, and I will be forever grateful for his suggestion,” Irizarry-Valle said.
Irizarry-Valle went on to study electrical and electronics engineering at the University of Puerto Rico- Mayaguez, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2007. The same year, she received the GEM Fellowship, an award for her excellence in engineering. Through this award, she received a scholarship that enabled her to continue her studies at the university and she received a master’s degree in 2009.
“The GEM Fellowship enabled an important transition in my life,” Irizarry-Valle states. Without the fellowship and her continued enrollment at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Irizarry-Valle said she would have never had the opportunity to intern at FermiLab, America’s premier particle physics lab, located in Batavia, Illinois. At FermiLab, researchers explore the smallest building blocks of matter to decode the mysteries of energy, time, and space. Irizarry-Valle calls her experience interning at the lab “eye-opening.”
“At FermiLab, I was exposed to a different world – a world of successful physicists, even Nobel Prize winners, and a world where I learned a whole new culture in my transition from Spanish to English,” Irizarry-Valle said.
FermiLab mentors, such as Dr. William Wester, encouraged her to pursue her doctoral degree, leading to her attending USC.
USC was another big transition for Irizarry-Valle, but a valuable one. “USC built my mental toughness. There were days I thought of quitting the program, but I stayed focused and completed my degree.”
At USC, Irizarry-Valle received the Viterbi Fellowship, a grant awarded to gifted engineering doctoral students, as well as the best scientific paper award for her research on how the brain works, which she modeled by designing an electronic simulation based on interactions between different cell types within the brain.
Upon graduation from USC, Irizarry-Valle began working at Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace security and defense company. At Northrop Grumman, Irizarry-Valle is part of the Future Technical Leaders Program, a highly selective program focused on developing the next generation of leaders.
Irizarry-Valle’s outstanding leadership and technical abilities led to her Young Alumnae Leadership Award. Her work at FermiLab, her impressive list of highly cited particle physics publications, her role in the Future Technical Leader program, and her commitment to self-improvement were all factors considered by GEM. “I hope that where I go, I leave a positive mark,” Irizarry-Valle said. “I hope to represent and inspire women of color, the Hispanic community, and others.”
“Every day, I wake up surprised and grateful by what I was able to achieve given my humble beginnings. Being the first engineer in my family, as well as the first in my family to receive my Ph.D., means a lot to me,” Irizarry-Valle said. “I hope to be a role model for others and inspire other engineers to pursue their dreams and not give up.”