By day- Melissa White is an Instructional Assistant Professor at UF in the Engineering Innovation Institute within the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Her specialty: helping engineering students think more creatively.
By night- she's a dedicated dog-mom, bohemian furniture and jewelry designer, and startGNV's badass, behind-the-scenes organizer/ event planner extraordinaire. Get to know her seriously you will be so happy you did.
A little about Mel:
I was born and raised in Central Florida to Eileen and Walter White (yes, my dad’s name is really Walter White, and no I have not seen Breaking Bad). I am the oldest of three and was a bit of a surprise early in their marriage and they did not quite get to finish college at UCF. My sister, Heather, is one year younger than me and is the head Athletic Trainer at a college in New Jersey. My brother, Andrew, is 11 years younger than me and is a sophomore at Florida Southern College, where he is on their baseball team. My mom worked at a McDonald’s until I was 13 and my dad worked at UPS. Eventually they were able to become franchisees of Firehouse Subs. They got their store when I was 16 and that is probably when entrepreneurial concepts started clicking in my head. I was on financial aid at a private school and did not quite fit in with my peers. I had to work in my parents’ store, and it gave me first-hand knowledge on business. My parents sent my sister and I to that school to challenge us both academically and athletically. We won a state championship in softball.
After high school, I hung up my cleats and went to the University of Miami to study Biomedical Engineering with a Premed concentration. I loved my time at Miami and I bleed some orange and green, but I realized medical school was not for me, but I was able to finish undergrad in three years. I was clueless. I applied for one-year master’s programs that focused on merging business and engineering and landed myself in South bend, Indiana. Now, for all of you born and raised Floridians, we do not really get the idea of snow. Going to the University of Notre Dame was a totally new experience. I got a graduate degree in Entrepreneurship, learned about networking, gained a passion for human centered design, and left for a consulting job. I traveled the country while consulting in healthcare IT, gathered way more air miles than anyone should, and then I started feeling like a cog in the wheel. I was not feeling fulfilled. Here I had this engineering brain and yet I was not using it. I decided in April to start applying for graduate programs in Human Factors and started at North Carolina State University in August. It was there that I got my PhD. I started a nonprofit in the medical innovation community that received a $185,000 grant and worked heavily to improve the lives of graduate students. I took every innovation class I possibly could, while there. When I saw the opportunity at UF in the Engineering Innovation Institute to be faculty and teach what I am so passionate about, I could not resist and applied. When I got the position, it was only a matter of time before I found the community. It has been apart of me. My parents put the entrepreneurial bug in me as a teen and it just grew from there.
If you asked preschool Mel what she wanted to do when she grew up, she would have told you a doctor or a teacher… I did not ever envision the way it all turned out. I am both.
Now, I spend my time teaching my lovely little gators, volunteering with startGNV, crafting (more on that later), spending time with my wonderful boyfriend, and handling a house full of three dogs. We have Kona (3), Lyla (3), and Millie (puppy). My boyfriend and I actually met walking our dogs. He had Kona and I had Lyla. We only recently rescued Millie.
Any inspiring words for young female engineers like yourself?
Not just female engineers, but any minority in engineering. Whether you are female, part of the LGBTQ+, black, Hispanic, Asian, or whatever minority group you belong to, do not let it hold you back. The biggest hurdle to your success is yourself. Reach out and network with others. People genuinely want to pay it forward and help you. You just have to shoot your shot, and worst case you end up right where you are, but you will never know unless you try.
Tell us about your work at UF and why you love teaching?
I am an Instructional Assistant Professor at UF in the Engineering Innovation Institute within the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. I create and teach curriculum in Engineering Innovation and Engineering Entrepreneurship. I specialize in getting students to think more problem based and divergently. In short, I focus on getting engineering students to think more creatively. In 2019, I started this tradition where I would write a bucket list for each year. One of my items was to inspire others. I would post on my Instagram some of my progress towards my bucket list. Here is the quote I wrote for that Item on August 8, 2019:
“On July 23, I hit my one year mark at UF with the 🐊 and in that time I have taught 3 semesters... over 300 students total. As each semester ends, I get sad that I may never see those faces again. However, often the students drop by to say hi, ask for a reference letter, ask me to mentor them for their startup/senior project, or they take another class with me, and it is those moments that remind me that I matter and what I do matters and impacts others.
I learn more from my students more than they probably do from me. Every day is a new adventure. Thank you to the 300 students I taught and the countless others who have let me share my "wisdom" with you. You all have truly made my first year at UF memorable!
The three pictures are physical reminders that I can make an impact. The straw bag was made for me by a student to say thank you because I was her first female engineering professor at UF. The other is a graduation invitation from a student who invited me to celebrate in their accomplishments. The last is a note that was on my desk when I returned from helping my dad recover from his hip replacement. I do not know who wrote it, but to the person who did I want to say thank you for reminding me why I do what I do.”
I hit three years at UF this past summer and have now taught well over 1000 students. The feeling I had after that first year has not subsided. In fact, I am probably more motivated than ever to continue to inspire and to give it my all because I honestly never know who I am impacting. I continue to volunteer with startGNV to help bridge the gap between the university and the community. I want my students to truly know that I care about them.
Tell us how you found out about startGNV and how long you've served on the startGNV board?
Erik Sander, the Michael Durham Director of the Engineering Innovation Institute, arranged for Aidan Augustin to come and talk with my class my first semester at UF about his experiences as an innovator. After class, Aidan and I were talking. We learned that we kind of lived parallel lives. We lived in towns right next to each other. He went to the catholic private school, while I was at the episcopalian one. We were the same year in school. We knew some of the same people from Central Florida. We were between the same two undergraduate schools, but he chose UF, whereas I went to Miami. He kind of took me under his wing after that conversation and invited me to things. My first introduction to a startGNV event was that same semester when he asked me to judge Startup Weekend. I joined the board that January (2019) and have been here ever since!
Favorite moment/memory in the innovation ecosystem so far?
Honestly, I have so many, but the Onward and Upward Benefit Concert was great this past May. I went with my boyfriend and a few other kickass female engineering faculty members from UF and their spouses. We all had a blast. The one picture is me and my boyfriend, while the other is part of the startGNV board. This event just stands out in my memory because it was the first big event in this Covid world that we did in person. The community showed up. It reminded me and so many others how resilient and supportive this community is. We live in this amazing community that we have been isolated from for over a year and it was so great just to be outdoors, listen to music, and see people again.
Tell us about your vision for startGNV and Gainesville's innovation ecosystem? Hopes and dreams for 2021?
I am just excited to see how the community comes back together after this pandemic craziness. I think recovery, rebuilding, and recognizing what the new needs of the community are after all we have endured are the next steps moving forward. I hope we can come back and remind Gainesville what makes this town so amazing and why we love being apart of this community.
Any shameless plugs for why other people should move here?
Honestly, I stated earlier that I got accepted to UF for undergrad and chose not to go here. At the time, I thought Gainesville was a town with not much to offer. Like so many naïve young minds, I wanted to explore. I went to Miami, Notre Dame, then took a consulting gig and travelled the country with that job, and then ended in Raleigh to do my PhD. I honestly thought it was a weird twist of fate that brought me back here almost a decade after I rejected it. I was more open this time around as I knew some people here who worked at UF. However, Gainesville was more than I could have ever expected it to be. I have had other universities approach me about relocating and to me Gainesville is now home. My plug is to get out of your house or apartment and do something because there are cool people and things all over Gainesville, but you will never know just sitting on your couch.
What's the best thing your peers can do to help build the innovation ecosystem and why should they do it? What's the benefit for all?
Bring a friend. No like seriously. Drag a friend to an event. Try something new. The more people in the ecosystem, the better the ecosystem can be. It happens through organic growth so if everyone brings a person to an event than maybe that person will bring someone to the next one and so on.
Fun fact about Mel! She's an engineer by day and artiste by night! Tell us how you turn off your brain and about some of your badass crafting projects
I do not think it is actually possible for me to turn off my brain. I have a few mental health conditions. I have a rare disease and the surgery for it left me with nerve damage in half of my right hand. I had to retrain my hand to write and do basic tasks. That entire medical journey left me with PTSD. In addition, I have a hormonal imbalance that affects my mental health and anxiety. I am a huge advocate for mental health. I am open about my mental health with my students hoping that it may help destigmatize it and encourage some of them to be more open about talking about it or reaching out for help. Anyways, I digress. When I want to destress, I have found that a positive outlet for my mental health is to craft. I recently bought a house with my partner in Gainesville, and we renovated the house. I made some furniture from scratch. He challenged me stating that I wan not that “kind of engineer,” but I made a TV stand from scratch that could support his 65” television. (Note that he is a Nuclear Officer in the Navy with both a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from UF.) Eventually, once the house was mostly renovated, I got banned from using power tools because the garage was his man cave, so I took up crafting. I ended up making jewelry and other items. It started becoming a bit of an issue so I opened an Etsy shop and my mental health outlet turned into a mini side hustle. You may see me around at a local craft fair!