Senior Spotlight: Deborah Owolabi, Building Tomorrow

When as a Houston high school student Deborah Owolabi ’16 enrolled in a summer engineering program, a professor posed a question she never forgot: if humans were limited to just three industries, which three are most essential for survival? The room quickly settled on the food industry and medicine, but students were stumped as to the third.

“Civil engineering,” the professor answered. “Since the dawn of time, people have been civil engineers, building homes and shelters and constructing roads to develop surrounding areas.”

Knowing at that moment she was destined to become a civil engineer, Owolabi was soon drawn to Columbia by the interdisciplinary focus. At SEAS, she has worked closely with Professors George Deodatis and Shiho Kawashima and Lecturer Julius Chang, learning to integrate the theory and practice of building complex structures. She’s also served as a work-study intern at the IEOR Department, her “second home,” for three years.

“It’s exciting to get to partake in the building of something that never was, and being able to drive past projects that I’ve worked or interned on is absolutely amazing to me,” Owolabi says. “Many times engineering is only seen for including science, technology, and math, but being an engineer, and for me a civil engineer, incorporates art, beauty, and aesthetics.”

Owolabi and 10 other civil engineering seniors recently completed their senior design project, a proposed network arch bridge including all components of its design, construction, and impacts on all levels. The project was on display at the School’s annual Senior Design Expo, held on May 5.

Outside the classroom, Owolabi has served in senior positions on the boards of the National Society of Black Engineers at Columbia and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., on and off campus. She has also performed extensively with the Columbia University Gospel Choir.

Recently named a SEGUE Scholar by the National Science Foundation, Owolabi will remain at Columbia Engineering for another year, conducting research with Kawashima and earning her master’s degree in construction engineering management. In the longer term she plans to enter industry and earn an MBA, aiming for projects that are “purposeful” and improve people’s lives.

“Getting an engineering degree from this school is not a small feat,” Owolabi says. “All the work and stress have prepared me to enter the industry knowing that I have the ability to learn, to work on teams, and to strive for excellence in everything I do.”

—by Jesse Adams

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