When we heard of Lysa’s story we knew we had to feature her on Black Girls Graduate. Her talents and wisdom far exceed her age and her personal narrative is one of perseverance and triumph. As an exchange student from Rwanda, Lysa never takes opportunities for granted to show excellence in everything she does – which is how she landed her internship in environmental engineering.
Learn more about her journey through STEM below!
Name: Lysa Uwizeyimana
Hometown: Kigali, Rwanda
School: Syracuse University
Undergraduate Major: Environmental Engineering
Minor: Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises
Internship Company: Syracuse University, Environmental Engineering Department
Internship Title: Research Assistant
Twitter & Instagram Handles – @itsleezur
Why did you choose the college you went to?
I applied to different schools in America but specifically Syracuse University because it was one of the only schools that had environmental engineering as a major which was relatively new at the time. Syracuse also gave me a bigger financial package than any other school which is the main reason why I choose to attend.
What made you come to school in America?
I always wanted to come to school in the U.S. I think the U.S. has the best education system in the world and I also attended an English school during my high school years so I knew I would probably end up here.
How did you pay for college? Specific scholarships or grants?
A third of my tuition is paid by Syracuse University and I also get a grant from the Rwandan government that pays for another third. I applied for the Rwandan grant when I got my visa to come to the U.S. The last and other third of my tuition is paid by my parents but during my sophomore year I was able to pay it off myself by being an RA.
Most influential college professor and/or course?
The most influential professor I’ve had thus far is Professor Alexandra Kostakis. She’s my entrepreneurship professor and she challenges me to become fearless in thinking about starting a business. She encourages me by saying “I can do this” but more importantly she gives me the tools I need to do so in her class.
What’s your favorite college memory?
Having breakfast in the Shaw Hall dining area with friends during my freshman year. And I also enjoyed the experience of being a RA. It was challenging but it was also really exciting.
How did you receive this internship? Do you have a mentor?
How I got my internship was pretty interesting because I didn’t really apply, it was basically through a connection. I was talking to the career coordinator and I told her that I wanted an internship. She mentioned that the person in charge of all the labs was looking for interns and so while we were talking, he happened to come into her office and she introduced us. He asked me my GPA, which was really good at the time, and directly after that offered me the internship.
And over the past two summers of working with him, he’s actually become my mentor. He pushes me, he stretches my mind, challenges me, and he’s even made me cry. But I’m grateful for him because he’s helped me to be disciplined and always give my best.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I start at 8:30 am and end my day around 6:00 pm. In the lab, we analyze samples to see if it’s the soil or the water and we look for different ions or contaminants. Usually, I work with one instrument a day. Everything is very slow – some instruments will take up to 8 hours to run, so my time in the lab depends exclusively on what I’m working on for that day.
Some days I’m monitoring something and I have to wait about 20 minutes to add a reagent, then I’ll come back in 20 minutes to add something else so it’s usually a really slow process when analyzing samples and it takes a lot of patience. The “fun part” of the day, for me, is bottle washing because you don’t really have to think so much about what you’re doing. We use bottles for collecting samples or to prepare reagents so they need to constantly be washed and some of the procedures are intense like you have to wash them in acid, etc., which I think is pretty cool.
How does this internship fit into your long-term goals?
When I decided to do research over the summer I was thinking about my future as an engineer. In the future, it will be my job to analyze the data and figure out what’s causing this or that. The work that I’m doing now like testing the data in the lab and gathering all the information is usually the job of the lab technician but I thought it would be good to know both sides so when I work as an engineer I know what the lab technician is doing and I’m not completely lost. I really don’t want to do research for the rest of my life because I think it’s too time consuming but I did want to experience how it would be if I were to pursue it.
What has been the most challenging moment of your internship?
I would say when I first began the internship last summer. It was challenging because I was just starting research and I had a hard time understanding the project. I believe they gave me a hard project in general so I was trying to wrap my mind around the project – what exactly were we doing and why was this important, coupled with trying to learn how exactly we extract the data. Somewhere in the middle I got lost and had no idea what I was trying to find because trying to do both at the same time became too difficult.
My supervisor is also the kind of person who will keep giving you work and sometimes he would get frustrated because he assumed that I knew the things I was being asked to work on but I had never seen this stuff before in my life. I was only a sophomore at the time and this was graduate level research. I understood that he wanted to treat me like a grad student but I wasn’t intellectually there but now it’s much easier because I understand the project and I know how to use the machines.
How do you feel you were uniquely suited for this internship? Give us your advice for current or interested interns.
For me, I had a very good GPA and that helped but I don’t think you absolutely need a good GPA to do research because research requires different skillsets. However, I would say you have to be passionate about what you are trying to intern in. I realize not everyone will be passionate but I think it helps when you’re eager to learn. I was genuinely interested in learning and my internship project directly related to my major so most of the things we covered, especially technical terms, I had seen in class so it proved to be a good application of what I was already leaning.
In your opinion, what are the most detrimental traits you can have as an intern?
Trying to do the bare minimum. I feel like I used to do that before, especially last summer when I first started the internship. I was in at 8:30 am and out at 4:30 pm. But I think that type of attitude has its disadvantages. When you take an internship you should realize that this is your chance to learn as much as you can and you should try to absorb everything to get the full experience. It’s up to you to put in the work and learn how much you want to learn, especially with research. My mentor always told me that if you want to stay at a low level you’re always going to stay there but if you want to upgrade yourself and achieve more you can always do that too. So I think it’s always a choice – you can choose to grow and learn, or not.
How would you describe your office culture? Happy hours, game nights?
It’s a good working environment. Our supervisor helps with that because he pushes all of us but doesn’t micromanage. I work with alot of graduate and PHD students. Everyone is very helpful, especially with the projects because we all understand the urgency in getting things done so when you don’t get something, you will always find someone who’s willing to help explain it.
As for happy hour, we have Friday night beer tasting and I think they make the beer themselves, which is kind of cool. And recently, we made ice cream in the lab using hydrogen so that was fun and we do things like that to take little breaks in between all the research.
Favorite Quote (or lyric)?
I don’t have a favorite quote or lyric but I do have a favorite scripture. It is Philippians 3:7. It reminds me of how everything in this world is a lost when compared to knowing Jesus. Yes, education is important and work is important but at the same time, being righteous and trying to get to Heaven is the most important.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
I think of my mom and how she doesn’t like wasting time. She told me that if/when she has to wait for someone, she makes sure to be productive in that time – reading emails, etc.- because even if that person is late, her time won’t be wasted. It’s something that I’ve been trying to apply in my own life. This really taught me that even if people are late, I shouldn’t make excuses but actually plan ahead to make the most of my time in every moment.
Beer, Wine, or Juice?
Mango juice. Mango is my favorite fruit.
#TeamNatural or #TeamRelaxed?
I’m going natural so #TeamNatural. I cut my hair in May 2015 and now I’m transitioning. I’m going natural because I feel like – yes, I do like relaxed hair and it’s easy to manage – but I’m in this space where having healthy hair and even being healthy as a whole is more important than how my hair looks. My hair was just being destroyed from relaxers and it didn’t look good so I knew it was only a matter of time before my hair would keep shedding off. Recently, I just decided to cut it off and have natural, healthy hair.
Back home in Rwanda, getting a perm was so natural because we were subconsciously taught that if you wore your natural hair it looked bad. So I’ve even had to change my way of thinking about natural hair as I’m going through this journey.
Most played song on ITunes?
Papa Outai by Stromae.