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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Commencement 2008: First Woman Leader of Rensselaer's Car-Building Club To Start New Career With General Motors

May 8, 2008

Commencement 2008: First Woman Leader of Rensselaer's Car-Building Club To Start New Career With General Motors

Laura Wontrop
Photo Credit: Rensselaer/Mark McCarty

Troy, N.Y. — Laura Wontrop knows all about cars and trucks.

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 with GM.

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
E-mail: mullam@rpi.edu