Source: Women in Higher Education 
By Hawa Allarakhia, M.Ed.

Career Moves: A Journey from Nuclear Engineer to Higher Education

Pingchein Neo is the director of international engineering programs at the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida. Previously, she taught nuclear engineering courses as a lecturer at UF. Neo discusses what inspired her to pursue nuclear engineering and how that led her toward higher education.

What inspired you to pursue a career in nuclear engineering?

When I was young, I enjoyed learning about physics. When I was in high school, my family took a vacation to England, and part of our trip was visiting a nuclear power plant called Heysham Nuclear Power Station, which had a visitor center.

I remember going there and learning about nuclear power, and that stuck with me when I was applying for college—only 25 universities in the United States offer nuclear engineering as a program. So, I moved to the United States from Malaysia to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley.

I know it’s not a very common field of study, but I’m glad I chose it, and there are few people in it.

Can you discuss your research in nuclear and industrial engineering?

I didn’t have the opportunity to do much research in those fields. After college, I worked primarily for a radiation detection company in California, which focused on security. They make cargo scanning machines at the border, and people scan the machines you see at the TSA.

Then, I moved to Europe and completed my master’s in nuclear engineering at ETH Zürich, a public university in Switzerland. After graduation, I worked in a nuclear power plant in Switzerland, and my focus then was on probabilistic safety assessment in nuclear engineering.

So, I had the opportunity to research the safety of nuclear power plants.

How would you describe transitioning from serving in the private sector of nuclear engineering to director of international engineering Programs in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at UF?

I first came to UF in 2011 as a lecturer in nuclear engineering, and I taught nuclear engineering classes for two years. Then, I heard that the College of Engineering wanted to start its international programs more intentionally.

I applied for the job, and my background in engineering, as well as my background being an international student, really helped me get the job, and I did.

I enjoyed being a nuclear engineer and working on renewable energy and safe, efficient energy, but I was passionate about working with students. Having the opportunity to go abroad for studies changed my life. I am from Malaysia, and coming to the United States changed my life.

I wanted to help other students have the same type of experience, so the transition has been easy. I have spent every day learning and growing. When I first started, we only had two engineering programs, and now we have about 15 programs. I find it rewarding when students tell me that going to study abroad changed their life and career path, which brings me joy.

What is the mission of the international engineering programs in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering?

The mission is to help engineering students at UF gain an international experience. While we use study abroad as a general term, we mean to include experiences such as internship abroad, research abroad, service learning abroad and taking classes.

We want to develop engineers with a global perspective who consider how their future careers will impact society.

What mentors and sponsors have had the most significant impact on your career?

So, I was hired to this position by Doctor Angela Lindner. She was the former associate dean of student affairs in the College of Engineering and is now UF’s associate provost for undergraduate affairs. She has supported our work internationalizing the engineering curriculum.

Dr. Curtis Taylor, who succeeded Dr. Lindner, was instrumental in securing scholarships and resources to help me work with faculty on developing programs.

I now have a new boss, Dr. Pamela Dickrell. She continues to support our work to help students explore international endeavors in engineering.

What was the hardest challenge you faced in your career, and how did you resolve the situation?

When I started my role, there was this notion that engineering students could not study abroad because their graduation would be delayed. I’m happy to say that I don’t hear that as much anymore because students know that they can study abroad or do an internship abroad, and it just takes time to change that culture.

Since more students have the experience, word of mouth and peer review have spread, so engineering students are making that part of their experience at UF.

Where do you feel vulnerable, and how do you overcome that?

I am fortunate that this has not happened too many times. When I feel vulnerable, I have a good support network of friends who are not in my field who help me stay grounded. I also have colleagues at work who are supportive and whom I can call upon to guide me and provide advice. Building those relationships has been crucial for me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell my younger self that I do not have to have everything figured out right away. It is alright to be learning and growing constantly. I would encourage my younger self to be confident and believe she can do anything.

How do you manage the balance?

I love traveling, so that’s a perk of this job. I get to travel and see new places. I have three dogs and a cat, so I love spending time with them. I think that they really play a big part in helping me be less stressed and more relaxed. I also like reading and biking and hiking and crocheting and knitting.

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