“Megan could command an army with her motivation.”
“There’s only one Megan Culler. She’s the ideal college graduate!”
With such stellar kudos, it’s clear that Megan Culler deserved to receive the 2019 IEEE-USA Jim Watson Student Professional Awareness Achievement Award. Its purpose is to recognize IEEE members who volunteer their time, and share their professional experiences with students, to encourage active, lifelong IEEE membership.
Although it is a relatively young award—IEEE-USA first presented it in 2011—this year is the first time IEEE-USA selected a student as the recipient. Motivated, enthusiastic student members (Culler is now an IEEE Graduate Student Member) can be valuable in creating an appreciation among their peers. And certainly, Culler has tirelessly demonstrated just how important being an active, involved IEEE member throughout their careers can be. It’s safe to predict that Culler is the first of more future student recipients.
A 2019 graduate of Texas A&M University (TAMU), Culler is now pursuing her Master’s at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana. But at TAMU, where she served for three years on the leadership team of the IEEE Student Branch, she established her objective early on.
“My first year on the team was as recruitment officer,” she recalls. “In that role, I thought about what students want and need, and how to bring value to their membership. That’s when I made it my personal mission to involve as many of them as possible in student branch activities.”
Attending the 2016 IEEE-USA Future Leaders Forum in New Orleans was a major catalyst for her. “That experience,” she says, “was one of the best! It was all about building students, building young professionals, and inspiring speakers talking about leadership, involvement and developing careers.”
Greatly motivated by the event, Culler says she returned to campus eager to share her experiences and new knowledge with other students.
By the time she graduated in May 2019, Culler’s accomplishments spanned the length and breadth of IEEE Student Branch programs and activities at TAMU:
- She led or participated in planning and organizing numerous well-attended events, including career development workshops—where industry professionals discussed opportunities in their respective fields. In addition, she coordinated the first SPAx (Student Professional Activities) event at Texas A&M. Called IEEE Excellence Night, it included a salute to TAMU faculty members who are IEEE Fellows; and it offered invited speaker, Albert J. Rosa, professor emeritus at the University of Denver. (By coincidence, in 2015, Dr. Rosa had received the Jim Watson Student Professional Awareness Achievement Award.)
- She established a stronger bond with the IEEE Houston Section, becoming a champion for its Student Transition and Elevation Partnership (STEP) program. STEP helps graduating students move to IEEE member grade.
- In 2018, Culler was instrumental in working with the IEEE Houston Section Young Professionals to plan and promote the first IEEE devDay. More than 70 Houston-area young professionals and students attended the daylong conference to connect with engineers, hiring managers, and each other. Culler also frequently attended IEEE Section meetings and events—all the more notable because of the three-hour round-trip drive between the TAMU campus at College Station and Houston.
- During her two years as Student Branch secretary, Culler established a reputation as a versatile, effective liaison for a range of groups: students seeking information about the IEEE Student Branch and getting involved; companies interested in participating in campus events; IEEE Houston Section members who were coming to TAMU meetings and events; and IEEE and IEEE-USA communications.
- Motivated by the power of conferences to connect and inform, Culler attended the Region 5 General Meeting in 2017, as well as several other non-technical events. In 2018, she inspired a group of 10 Student Branch officers and members to join her at that year’s IEEE-USA Future Leaders Forum in Austin, so they could see and benefit from the power of IEEE networking and resources.
It’s little wonder that with such an impressive record of accomplishments, Megan Culler came to the attention of her nominator, Zhiyang (“Giovanni”) Ong. An IEEE Member currently studying at Texas A&M for his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, he saw her as a role model for other engineering students—both in the United States, and elsewhere.
“She had already announced that she would be going to the University of Illinois for her Master’s, but I believed Megan needed to be recognized for her tremendous efforts at TAMU,” Ong says.
He had little trouble securing the two member endorsers who are required for every IEEE-USA Awards nomination. IEEE Senior Member Christopher J. Sanderson, the current IEEE Houston Section chair; and IEEE Member Moriah Hargrove Anders, who was 2017-18 Young Professionals chair, both readily agreed.
“She’s a go-getter,” says Sanderson. “Megan understands the importance of volunteer leadership, and she puts ‘sweat equity’—time and energy—into whatever she does.”
Hargrove Anders is especially impressed with Culler’s communication skills. “She goes the extra mile with communicating; and Megan was always polite when interacting with the Section,” Hargrove Anders observes. “Often, she was the one reminding me, that I was overdue on an action item!”
A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Megan Culler was reared in an environment that celebrates engineering and inquiry. Her mother is an aerospace engineer at Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, and has held national offices with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. While Culler was growing up, her father used some of his background with large diesel engines and generators to teach her how to make automotive and household repairs.
“It’s been cool to see how some of the academic information I’ve learned, especially about generators and motors as they relate to the electric energy cycle, align with what I learned from my dad,” she says.
Culler chose Texas A&M because it’s her mother’s alma mater, and she originally planned to study applied mathematics. “But I realized the problems and opportunities with engineering are more challenging, so I switched to engineering my sophomore year,” she explains.
She’s especially drawn to the technical issues concerning securing critical infrastructure from cyberattacks and security for industrial control systems. As an undergraduate, she researched security for cyber-physical systems in a power grid. This summer, Culler is a fulltime Graduate Fellow, participating remotely for Idaho National Laboratory. She works with a team studying distributed energy resources, and their resilience to cyber threats.
Culler admits the COVID-19 pandemic has sometimes made it difficult to maintain her motivation and goals—a grievance many others have expressed these recent, unprecedented months. But the talents and drive of this ambitious young IEEE-USA award recipient are shining brightly toward the future.
Christopher Sanderson put it this way: “In my lifetime, I expect to see the great things that Megan will accomplish.”
Seeking Nominations for 2020 IEEE-USA Awards
IEEE-USA is now accepting nominations for 2019 awards — recognizing excellence, outstanding service and contributions in furtherance of its objectives. The deadline to nominate is 15 September. For a full list of awards and for more information on how to nominate, visit: https://ieeeusa.org/volunteers/awards-recognition/
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.