February 12, 2021
From developing the first computer-aided design (CAD) system to inventing an electrical signaling system for railway engineers, Black engineers make a difference every day. As part of Black History Month, UL is celebrating its Black engineers for their significant contributions in securing a safer and more sustainable world.
LaTanya Schwalb, who works in UL's Energy and Industrial Automation division, is one of those engineers. She is at the forefront of innovation, helping to define and measure the performance and safety of large-scale battery energy storage systems, a critical technology for the entire electrical grid. Battery energy storage systems are used to help transition resources from fossil fuels to wind, solar and hydro in order to meet global decarbonization goals.
"Trust plays a huge role in my work,” Schwalb said. “People rely on the power stored in these systems and communities must be confident that energy storage systems will perform safely as intended within the larger network.”
Having moved to Chicago as a child, Schwalb graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. She joined UL’s Consumer Products division in 1998 to work with a wide array of industrial control products.
When did you know that you wanted to be an engineer?
I was always curious about how things worked. I liked taking things apart and then figuring out how to put them back together. My older brother, who spent his entire career with UL and started as an engineer, used to travel a lot. He fed my curiosity because he'd tell me about all the different products he'd see on his trips. His stories ignited my interest in engineering because I wanted to understand how everything around me worked.
Were you involved in STEM classes growing up?
My school didn't have too many science-oriented clubs, so I participated more in science fairs. And in high school, I took as many science courses as I could, such as biology, chemistry and physics, plus math, which I enjoyed immensely. I also volunteered my time to tutor lower classmen in math.
How does your job build trust in products and solutions?
I work in renewable energy on the industrial side, and I'd say that about 60% of the customers I work with are brand new to UL and the world of certification. They've developed this unique product and they want to sell it to a customer or install it at a particular site for energy storage use. And they're looking to UL to provide clear direction on how to navigate the certification process. By working with them, we're building trust with the customer, the product and the solution. Communities rely on us to evaluate those battery systems to see if they will operate safely and as intended.
Like many UL engineers, you've moved around in the company to test different products and services, is there one role that stood out for you?
I started right out of college in UL's consumer products division as a project engineer. I evaluated and tested laboratory and measurement equipment, along with the occasional pressure washer and fence controller. A few years later, I moved to UL's Consumer Technology division, where I worked with information technology equipment, including power supplies, lithium-ion batteries, telecom equipment and audio-visual equipment. It was during my time with consumer technology that I had my first wow factor. I'd just evaluated a construction site radio when I saw the same model in a big box store, and that was pretty neat because I'd had a hand in the radio's testing. Whenever you get to see your customer's brand and products in the bigger scheme of the world around you, it's very gratifying.
What's the best part of working for UL?
The best part is that no two days are the same. Some days I'm developing a testing protocol or deciding what models of a product family should be tested. Other days, I’m discussing our standard requirements to help customers understand how they apply to their specific product. These energy storage products are substantial and very expensive, so how we navigate their complexities is challenging. Because of these different layers, we draw on our analytical skills and our planning, problem-solving, and logistic skills.
What do you think when you hear Black History Month?
I think of innovation. Blacks come from a long heritage of unrecognized talent, but the contributions made by African Americans throughout history is mind-boggling. I feel that I'm able to work where I am today because of these people, both known and unknown, who have paved the way for me. It’s their resourcefulness and spirit that opened doors and allowed me to work for a company that acknowledges my skills as an engineer.
It’s people like my brother, Ralph Parker. He is such an inspiration to me. Ralph started out as a UL project engineer before moving onto several managers, general manager, vice president, and president roles at UL, both in the U.S. and Canada. He retired from UL in 2016 as the Vice President of Operational Excellence and the site manager for UL’s Vancouver, Washington, location.
Black History Month is also a source of pride. Whether in the arts, politics, sports or technology, Blacks have contributed and innovated so much over the years. I feel like I'm building on their legacies through my contributions.
How can we encourage more Black people to pursue STEM careers?
It's vital to engage kids early in life, then continue to connect with them in grammar school and even high school. What's even more important is showing African American students how STEM careers contribute positively to the world.
Whether performing product safety certifications or designing new flavorings for soft drinks, kids need to know how STEM classes relate to the real world. Think about the next time you go shopping for a new dress or a new pair of shoes and you see that the item you want is on sale. How do you if it's really a deal? How can you quickly determine the discount? The math kids learn in school prepares them for the world, and we need to start framing STEM that way.