An Interview with SFSU Engineering Alumna: Melissa Abed

By Joyce Bulatao | May 1, 2021

Melissa Abed and her senior design project

Melissa Abed (Mechanical Engineering '19) and her senior capstone project: SolTherm Purifier - a solar thermal-powered water purifier

(More detail at


SFSU School of Engineering alumna, Melissa Abed, obtained her BS degree in Mechanical Engineering in Spring 2019. With an interest in design, failure analysis, material selection, and projects that consider sustainability or improved human interaction and connection, she has recently been admitted to the PhD Program in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. During her undergraduate years at SFSU, Melissa was a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Tau Beta Pi, and the MESA Engineering Program (MEP). Our student assistant and SWE officer had the chance to talk with Melissa, where she highlighted outstanding professors at SFSU, and discussed the pivotal point in her engineering career!

What was your favorite memory at SFSU?

“It would definitely be speaking at my graduation! It was an honor to be nominated by faculty and a privilege to speak to my peers! Standing on that stage made me think of all of the blood, sweat, and tears put into obtaining that degree and all of the amazing people that helped me get to that point.”

Were you a part of any organizations during your time in college? I’ve heard that you were a past SWE member when you were at SFSU. What was that experience like for you?

“Yes! Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Tau Beta Pi, and MESA Engineering Program (MEP). Being a part of SWE was an amazing experience! I enjoyed meeting professionals —all of them being women. It was amazing to meet successful women in the field and hear about their unique experiences. Moreover, it also gave me an opportunity to meet friends at SFSU.”

Why did you decide to pursue a career in engineering? And when did you know engineering was the right fit for you?

“STEM classes, especially math, always terrified me. I wanted to challenge myself and get over those fears. For me, it was a very mysterious field; I didn’t know any engineers and didn’t grow up around people in the field of STEM. Once I started taking courses in it, I fell in love not only with the course material, but also the innate problem solving that comes with engineering courses. I knew it was the right choice for me when even though at the beginning it was such a struggle, there was nothing else I could ever imagine doing. I want to emphasize that the moment I knew it was right for me wasn’t because I was naturally gifted at it and thriving. I don’t want anyone who isn’t excelling at engineering courses —especially introductory ones — to think that the field isn’t for them. I don’t think there are people that can and can’t do engineering. If you want to do it, you CAN do it. Don’t get discouraged”.

Why did you want to attend graduate school?

“Part of the reason why I want to go to graduate school is to utilize it as a pivot point in my career. As an undergrad, I only had one internship in the field of engineering. After leaving this internship, I knew that energy wasn’t the right field for me. However, due to my limited experience, it was really difficult for me to obtain a job outside of energy when I graduated. I think that going to graduate school will not only give me the opportunity to explore other options by having several different internships, but will also give me the expertise to do something I love. The other reason why I want to go to grad school is because mechanical engineering is so broad! As an undergrad, I felt that I learned a little about a lot of different things; graduate school will allow me to learn a lot about the specific material that I found interesting”.

Why did you decide on materials?

“As an undergrad, I really enjoyed any course related to materials (materials and manufacturing, composites, etc.)! For me, it was intuitive and I always wanted to learn more about the field since it’s the building blocks of everything around us. I think innovating in the field of materials is critical to helping us get to a more sustainable future and I’d love to be a part of that.”

What technical skills do you recommend students develop if they are interested in securing a job or internship in engineering?

“That somewhat depends on the field that you think you’re interested in. Companies don’t expect you to know everything for internships and entry-level jobs. For any position, I think it’s important to focus on perfecting your resume and working on your interview skills to get your foot in the door. What really helped me prepare for technical interviews was looking on Glassdoor and Google for interview questions for whatever position you’re applying for and practicing answering those questions. If you don’t know the answer, it’s okay, just do some research and try to figure out why the right answer is the right answer. Other things you can do to make yourself a more attractive applicant are learning how to use different softwares that are commonly used in the specific industry you’re applying for and obtaining any certifications that would be helpful in that field. These will give you a foundational base of knowledge within your field.

Another soft skill that will really help you obtain a job/internship is networking! I cannot emphasize this enough! Every interview I’ve ever gotten in engineering was through networking and not through applications I’ve submitted. Reach out to people on LinkedIn with jobs that you’re interested in and show them you’re genuinely interested in learning about what they do. They may end up referring you for the job if you have a good connection. The worst thing people can do is not respond to you!”

What were some outstanding professors and advice received from them at SFSU?

“Dr. Kwok-Siong Teh was an incredible mentor to me; he is a great listener and was always willing to go the extra mile to help me succeed whether it be academically or professionally. Dr. Brett Williams was and continues to provide excellent insight to me on how to navigate both the professional and academic worlds! Lastly, Dr. Fatemeh Khalkhal believed in me and gave me an opportunity in research when no one else would! Not only was she an excellent professor in one of my favorite SFSU courses, but I believe that her allowing me to do undergraduate research with her really helped my grad school application stand out and ultimately helped me get into the UC Berkeley grad program. I would absolutely advise students to foster good relationships with faculty and colleagues because they can be an excellent support system!”

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?

“I cannot emphasize this one enough… Internships, internships, internships! Get an internship every summer of your undergraduate career if you can. This will do 2 very important things: 1) Help you figure out what you enjoy doing 2) Make you extremely desirable for hire once you graduate!”

What advice/suggestions do you have for someone who may have started out in a field that they ended up not being interested in? Or no longer want to pursue for their career?

“Master’s or Doctorate programs could be a natural way to pivot into a different field. Other than that, I would recommend that you obtain the base knowledge about the field by taking courses, learning software tools, or obtaining certifications. Network with people in the field and see if they’d be willing to refer you. Lastly, modify your resume to make it sound more relevant to the job positions you’re applying for. I have a tailored resumé for every job that I apply to with keywords from the job posts”.

What does a regular day in your field look like?

“In my field, there’s a mixture between being in the office and being on project sites. A normal day in the office looks like your typical 8-5. Typically I’m reviewing designs and documents to verify that they meet owner and code requirements or drafting test scripts to test mechanical/plumbing/electrical equipment based on controls sequences of operations. I also do energy savings calculations and modeling. There’s definitely a lot more paperwork that I thought I’d be doing as an engineer.

A typical day in the field involves traveling to the project location, typically not more than an hour drive. While in the field, I perform site observations and installation verifications, reviewing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. I document my findings in photos, notes, and an issues log and compile reports summarizing my visit once I arrive back home. Other days in the field involve testing equipment with a programmer to verify they operate as expected.”

What is it like being a woman in your field? Anything that you feel different from your coworkers, or struggles you’ve had along the way?

“It can be frustrating; it’s still a male-centric field. It oftentimes feels like it’s more difficult to get my voice heard or taken seriously. I’ve gotten a lot of remarks like, “what are your qualifications?” or asked if I’m lost while in the field. I’ve done my best to speak up when I feel that I’m not being treated fairly. I think it’s really important to try to make a difference and stand up when you feel like someone says something incorrect. It’s important to try to make a difference to bring change in the industry.”