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Dr. Maria Holland, a 2006 graduate of CRHS, returns home and visits with senior biomedical science students

mariaholland (11/30/18) When Dr. Maria Holland made plans to return home to visit family for Thanksgiving, she also made plans to return to her alma mater. Holland, a 2006 graduate of Coon Rapids High School (CRHS), visited with senior biomedical science students on Nov. 20 to talk about her journey to becoming an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Holland is in her second year as an assistant professor in the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering, the bioengineering graduate program, and the college of engineering at Notre Dame.

During her visit with biomedical students at CRHS, Holland described her research in the area of computational biomechanics, using solid mechanics and computational tools to address important questions about complex soft materials. She focuses on the brain, addressing questions about development and how it relates to the brain’s form and function (or dysfunction).

Her studies have taken her all over the world. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tulsa in 2011, and after studying Mandarin in China, she landed at Stanford University where she completed her master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering.

After visiting classrooms during her graduate studies, Holland was inspired to do the same in her hometown.

“I received an excellent education (here),” Holland said. “There are a lot of students in high school who may not know what opportunities are out there, when it comes to continuing education or what it might be like to be a professor and this allows me to share my experiences.”

Holland’s visit with CRHS students covered a wide variety of topics ranging from her favorite teachers when she was in high school, to her studies, to her traveling abroad, and whether or not she is working in the field she dreamed she would be.

Being able to give back to the school that helped her lay the foundation for her career path was a motivating factor for Holland to visit CRHS, but what is it she wanted students to learn from her visit?

“When I talk to high school students, and those who might not be interested in engineering, I always try to emphasize how broad engineering is,” Holland said. “Mechanical and biomechanical engineering are both very broad studies so there are many different things you can do by taking either path.”

Holland also said that she really wants students to understand the importance of communication skills.

“There are differences between the stories that people tell and the stories that people see,” Holland said. “I didn’t want to be a mechanical engineer, because I did not want to work on cars. They are the same thing to me. But that’s not all you can do in engineering, there is so much more out there.”

She doesn’t want students who might be interested in engineering to have misconceptions about the industry. One of her primary goals as an educator is to share a broader vision of what engineering is and who engineers are.

During Holland’s four years at CRHS, the biomedical sciences and engineering program was not an option. Now, after seeking a career in the field, she was asked about the importance of the STEM programming in education.

“I believe that some form of technical literacy is important for all students,” Holland said. “I would like to see students receive a stronger background in STEM so they are given the opportunity to make a better informed decision. The ability to have some idea about what STEM is and what the possible careers are in high school, I feel like you could get a four-year head start compared to what I had.”

Looking back on her high school days, Holland said that biology, engineering and science were almost the last thing on her mind when it came to seeking a path in college.

“I actually considered going into English,” Holland said. “I really enjoyed my classes with Ms. Carlson and enjoyed reading so much, but at the same time, I didn’t want to stop enjoying it if I chose English as a career path.”

Holland did have an interest in physics and calculus during high school and began her studies in engineering physics at Tulsa before making the switch to mechanical engineering.

It wasn’t until grad school that Holland became interested in researching the brain.

“I think the questions we are asking about the brain are interesting,” Holland said. “People are always very curious when they hear that a mechanical engineer is studying the brain and it gives me an opportunity to talk about my work.”

The main goal of Holland’s research is to understand the mechanics of cortical folding, or how the brain gets its characteristic wrinkled shape, both in normal development and in cases that lead to the developmental disorders such as autism.

A topic of interest during her visit with CRHS students was her travels between undergraduate and graduate studies. Holland was involved with a student group called Engineers without Borders and participated in sustainability projects in China, which led to more opportunities.

Holland, who is also fluent in Spanish, joked that as a social person, it gave her one billion more people to talk to.

“I am very extroverted and I do enjoy talking to people and being able to form relationships,” Holland said. “Science and research is very much a global community and I have been able to do research in China and spoken at universities and hope to do the same in Latin America.”

While already having achieved so much at a young age, Holland was asked if she had a dream job or if she was currently fulfilling that dream.

Holland said that she is truly loving what she is doing right now, but more than thinking of a dream job, she describes them as alternate careers and that she needs to continually acknowledge that there are other options available to her, but ultimately she feels right now she is making an impact in her field.

“Another aspect that I really enjoy is that I have the opportunity to continue to research, but I also get to teach,” Holland said. “In my field there is a limited impact, but yet there is a global impact because it is such a limited field. I work with one Ph.D. student right now but over my career, I want to have over 100 Ph.D. students, and if I can make an impact on my students and change what they’re thinking about and change their backgrounds and skills so they can contribute more productively, that is also very important to me.”

While she makes an impact on her students at Notre Dame, seniors at CRHS were fortunate to join the list of students to be impacted by Dr. Holland.