As a sophomore studying electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, Sossena Wood was ready to leave the school and enroll somewhere closer to her suburban Washington, D.C., roots.
Many of her peers in the Pitt program were white males hesitant to study with an African-American female, she said.
"Males have a way of working with themselves; females have to be a little more assertive. I tried to collaborate ... but people weren't committing to me," said Ms. Wood, 24, now a graduate student researcher and doctoral candidate at Pitt.
After she weathered the stress of that year, Ms. Wood found barriers began to ease. She opted to stay at Pitt to finish her bachelor's degree and pursue graduate work in bioengineering.
She also became involved with the National Society of Black Engineers chapter based at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. Through meetings, seminars and service projects, she was able to share her experiences as a minority in a profession traditionally populated primarily by white males.
At the NSBE's annual convention last month, Ms. Wood was elected national chairwoman for a one-year term. She is only the sixth woman to head the society since a group of black students launched the organization in the 1970s at Purdue University.
With 29,000 members worldwide, including high school and college students and professionals, the organization aims to increase the numbers of blacks enrolling in engineering programs, provide support to retain them at the college level, and grow their ranks in the profession.
At Pitt's Swanson School, African-Americans make up about 5 percent of the 2,468 students in the 2012-13 undergraduate class. Total minority enrollment is 228, or about 9 percent. Women account for 23.4 percent of undergraduates.
Of the 523 students in the master of engineering program, 2.5 percent are minorities and 24 percent are women. Of 413 enrolled in the Ph.D. program, 4 percent are minorities and 23 percent are women.
As national chairwoman of the organization, Ms. Wood aims to showcase members' accomplishments in innovation as a way to make them more marketable to recruiters. "We are a technical organization and we need to show innovation to business executives to change the way we're viewed."
Another of her goals is to promote preparation for careers in science, technology, engineering and math -- the so-called STEM fields -- to pre-college students. "Athletes are great role models, but STEM majors are the ones that save our lives every day," she said.
Among the issues holding back younger students from pursuing such programs in college is inconsistent training in those subjects at the high school level, she said. "In the core curriculums of calculus and physics, the background is lacking."
Ms. Wood grew up in Laurel, Md. As a girl, she loved to sketch and wanted to be an artist, but her mother warned her it might be challenging to live on an artist's wages, so she tapped her aptitude for math and by high school had shifted her focus on science and engineering classes.
She earned an academic scholarship to Pitt and walked on to the track and field team, for which she competed as a runner for two years.
"Engineering and being an athlete don't really mix well so I had to give up track," she said.
Though she had attended meetings of the National Society of Black Engineers as a freshman and sophomore, she really stepped up her involvement during her junior year.
"I saw all that it stood for and it made me excited," said Ms. Wood, who eventually became president of the Pitt chapter, then accepted positions at the regional and national levels. She is also a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Society of Women Engineers.
She envisions teaching and possibly starting her own company to develop medical devices in the future. Her work experience includes stints at local engineering companies Ansys Inc. and Powercast Corp., as well as a research position at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Human Engineering Research Laboratory, Bakery Square, where she helped to develop an electrical simulated kitchen for patients with Alzheimer's or dementia.
"Sossena is very, very focused. I saw that in her the first time she came to talk to me about graduate school," said Sylvanus Wosu, associate dean of diversity affairs at the Swanson School.
He described her as an ideal model for all students because she sets challenging goals and achieves them, including enrolling in a competitive graduate program. Though she didn't have a bioengineering background, "she set her mind to getting in ... and she excelled. She picked up all the vocabulary in a new field and was articulate in presenting her materials."
She rose quickly in National Society of Black Engineers, Mr. Wosu said, because of her strong leadership skills, focus and confidence. "I do believe this is her time," he said. "She wants to give back to the community of students."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.