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Drivers of Innovation: Early Education Key to STEM Success

In honor of Black History Month and National Engineers Week, Doniece Bolds reflects on her journey to becoming a project engineer at UL and the importance of teaching kids the possibilities of STEM.

Headshot of UL engineer

February 21, 2022

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, February also brings National Engineers Week from Feb. 20 - 26. This annual celebration by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) promotes an understanding of engineering and technology careers. The NSPE dedicated this week to help build a well-educated and diverse engineering work force. As these two celebrations overlap, we interviewed one of UL’s talented engineers, Doniece Bolds, about her path to engineering, her work at UL and what Black History Month means to her.

Bolds works as a project engineer at UL’s Research Triangle Park facility in Durham, North Carolina. She is part of UL’s Built Environment team, where she started in 2015. She has recently switched from working with personal flotation devices (PFD) to focusing mainly on flame retardant parts and garments for various personal protective equipment (PPE).

How did you get into engineering?

I always loved puzzles, Legos and building things, but I didn’t learn what engineering was until I was in seventh grade. That was when guidance counselors started talking to us about our futures and had us take aptitude tests. I always landed in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, like engineering or accounting.

My dad always encouraged me to go after what I wanted and allowed me to pursue my passions, encouraging me to seek opportunities. He was in the Marine Corps for four years, and then he always worked in a factory. He instilled the importance of education in me and my sister.

I thought I might become a doctor or veterinarian, but I realized I didn’t have the stomach for it after volunteering as a candy striper for two summers in high school. I love math, so accounting was my Plan B, but I always wanted to build, fix, or tinker with things. Engineering made sense.

What brought you to UL?

After graduating from North Carolina State University in Raleigh with my bachelor’s degree in textile engineering, I worked at two different wire and cable plants as a design engineer. I built the wire and cable customers ordered through our system. Working with low- and high-voltage wires and cables, I learned UL Standards. I worked with a UL project engineer — sending samples and getting certifications — and realized I liked the work he was doing. I decided I wanted to go into testing. So, when the PFD role opened at UL, I applied and got the job.

How does your job build trust in products?

I think people trust the UL Mark. They know we’re not trying to sell products and that we’re known for safety.

With the pandemic, I’ve truly seen the importance of my role. As so many people need PPE now, I’ve realized that what I do is helping to protect the world — not just one community or firefighters, but people everywhere. Being in this department and knowing the scope of what we’re taking on, from uniforms to PFD to various masks, it’s hard not to think bout how UL helps protect people.

What’s the best part of working for UL?

The best part of working for UL is going to the store, or just being out and about, and recognizing not only the logo but the product it is on. The first time I saw a product I certified, it felt really big and exciting. It was a child’s life jacket, and I thought, “I did this. I helped get this certified and to the market.” There’s a sense of pride in seeing your work out in the field, knowing it’s safe and that people can trust it.

The great thing about UL is that it’s almost a selfless company. We don’t have to have safety standards, so it’s nice to think that our origins are really about helping the community and people. As an engineer, I want to be impactful and to be part of something I can stand behind with pride. I’m helping the world with my work, and even UL’s sustainability efforts have made me much more environmentally conscious.

What do you think of during Black History Month?

I always think of resiliency, which can be good and bad because it always feels like our fight to overcome. Black History Month tends to shine, though, and always makes me think of overcoming. I typically reflect on social media and with my sorority about people I look up to. I also try to find a good documentary to watch that helps me connect in that way.

I also think back to my very first report in school that I was excited to complete. It was about Garrett Augusts Morgan, Sr., who invented the traffic light and gas mask. He was the first engineer I ever researched.

How can we encourage more Black students to pursue STEM careers?

There seems to be a big focus on engineering and coding, but there’s so much more to STEM. Kids need to be introduced to the possibilities early and see the impact they could have with a STEM career.

If I hadn’t taken that aptitude test, I’m not sure I would have known what engineering is or that it was an option. I grew up in a small, semi-rural town. I took an engineering class in high school, and I was one of only eight kids in the class and the only girl. A lot of opportunities came to me because I was in honors courses. There were only about four Black kids in the honors track, so we didn’t see many other Black students. STEM was probably not as accessible to kids outside of honors classes because maybe there was an assumption that it wasn’t a possible future for some kids.

There’s much more and earlier access to STEM now, but it’s important to get into Black schools and areas where kids still may not have access to STEM programs. Companies should get involved with and recruit at inner-city schools and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and they should continue programs like UL’s Safety Smart. The earlier they are introduced to STEM and what it entails, the more they will understand the possibilities.