Commencement 2008: First Woman Leader of Rensselaer’s Car-Building Club To Start New Career With General Motors
Photo Credit: Rensselaer/Mark McCarty
Troy, N.Y. — Laura Wontrop knows all about cars and
In fact, after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute this May, the 21-year-old mechanical engineering
major will join automotive giant General Motors as a vehicle
definition engineer, and play a key role in solidifying the
design of next-generation concept cars.
Wontrop will be responsible for working with and organizing
the work of a team of GM engineers, marketers, planners, and
forecasters who are charged with the task of translating
conceptual renderings into real, revving, running automobiles.
It’s a task that sounds tailor-made for Wontrop, a
self-professed “American car buff” who has spent her four years
at Rensselaer building race cars, seeking out leadership
opportunities, fund raising, representing the university, and
making the Dean’s List.
“I think one of my strengths is that I speak both ‘engineer’
and ‘non-engineer,’” Wontrop said. “Helping the two groups
communicate is critical.”
The daughter of a systems project manager and nonprofit
administrator, Wontrop said while growing up in the small
farming community of Glen Arm, Md., cars were symbols of
independence, and represented the freedom and ability to visit
friends and fun destinations in distant towns. From the age of
about 13, when Wontrop wasn’t in school, she was either
watching auto racing on television, building something with her
father, or working on cars with fellow enthusiasts — mostly
older neighborhood boys.
Soon after starting classes at Rensselaer, Wontrop joined
the university’s Formula SAE team, which every year designs and
builds from scratch a formula-style racecar to face off against
other college teams in national competitions. Wontrop was the
first woman to hold a leadership position on the team, and in
her sophomore and junior years took charge of the team’s
fund-raising campaign, budget, and publicity efforts.
“Laura played a very significant part, as the team leader,
in ensuring the team’s exceptional performance in 2008,” said
Euan Somerscales, professor emeritus of mechanical, aerospace,
and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer and faculty adviser of
the university’s Formula SAE team.
During her first three years, Wontrop was the sole woman
member. More women have since joined the Rensselaer Formula SAE
team, and Wontrop expects the trend to continue.
Thanks to her experiences as the lone female car enthusiast
in rural Maryland, and for a time the sole woman member of
Rensselaer’s Formula SAE team, Wontrop said she is not at all
intimidated to take her first steps into the traditionally
male-dominated automotive industry.
“It’s a situation where you have to work harder to get the
respect of your peers, but once you get it, you’re at an
advantage,” she said. “If you jump into the situation, and show
that you know what you’re talking about and can hold your own,
you’ll have their respect forever.”
Wontrop credits the 30 to 40 hours she spent every week
working with the SAE team with enabling her to secure
such an exciting job with GM. Having the opportunity to apply
the theory she learned in class to an actual problem, and
having an outlet for creative problem-solving and hands-on
engineering, contributed significantly to her success.
“All of the job offers I’ve received over the past few
months are because of my experiences with the SAE team,” said
Wontrop, who has also worked for the student newspaper, the
university admissions office, and who will graduate with a 3.5
GPA. She is also a member of the Rensselaer Professional
Leadership Program, the Phalanx Honors Society, and spent two
summers participating in highly sought-after summer internships
Wontrop also credits the technological influence of her
father and the strong communications influence of her mother as
important factors of her success.
“Of course the engineering work is important, but it’s just
as important to be able to effectively explain what it is
you’re doing and why it’s important,” she said.
Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161