Meet the 2022 Winner of the ISD Distinguished Leadership Award in DEI, Grace Burleson

The winner of the 2022 ISD Distinguished Leadership Award in DEI Investigates the Broader Context of Engineering

During her time in the Design Science program, Grace Burleson has made the most of her opportunity to take an integrative approach to engineering. Grace has also helped to promote the impact this work can have on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as evidenced by her receiving the 2022 ISD Distinguished Leadership Award in DEI.

She decided to continue her education by pursuing a PhD after earning a dual MS in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Anthropology from Oregon State University. She chose to enroll in U-M’s Design Science program to continue her advanced studies in an interdisciplinary program that emphasizes the broader context of engineering design.

“The work I am doing sits on the boundaries of a few traditional academic disciplines: mechanical engineering, anthropology, international policy, information science, and education,” Burleson said. “The Design Science program in ISD provides me with the resources to work at this complex intersection.”

Love of ‘investigating questions and problems’
During her time with the Design Science program, Burleson has enjoyed the challenge of being a PhD student. 

“I love being able to investigate questions and problems that deeply interest me,” Burleson said. “I truly believe there is a gap in engineering education and practice. Too many systems and products are designed without fully considering their impact on society and many technologies amplify injustices. I enjoy pursuing one small piece of that large puzzle.”

While working on her studies during a global pandemic was challenging, Burleson is proud of what she has been able to accomplish in her advanced graduate research work. That includes studying ways design methodologies can better incorporate the complex social, political, and economic systems in which engineered solutions are situated. 

“Specifically, I study and work in engineering practice within the global development sphere with a critical lens,” Burleson said. “Historically, engineering has been problematic in many ways, sometimes protecting and perpetuating neocolonialism and dependency between states, unsuitably allocating resources and funds, falsely assuming general objectivity, and neglecting historical injustices, complex socio-cultural, political systems, and ethics.”

Studying contextual factors
To accomplish her research goals, Burleson has investigated the role contextual factors have in design processes. Contextual factors are elements of a technology’s broad context-of-use that could affect how that technology would be implemented and used in practice, what social, cultural, political, and economic factors would influence its use, what local resources and skills might be available to maintain it, and how it is affected by infrastructure, institutions, and policy. 

“I hope my research can result in a framework or list of strategies for incorporating contextual factors into design processes, particularly in global health settings, as a way to support engineers’ sustainable product development and implementation,” Burleson said.

Awarding DEI Efforts

As she graduates and moves into the post-ISD phase of her career, Grace can take a recognition of her DEI efforts with her. Grace was the 2022 recipient of the ISD Distinguished Leadership award for DEI. This honor reflects Grace’s work in the Engineering for Change Fellowship, which works to support the international engineering workforce in improving the quality of life of vulnerable populations around the world. Grace also supported the Center for Global Health Equity during her time with the Design Science program, and currently serves as the student program manager for the Global Health Design Initiative, which trains undergraduate and masters students to collaborate with stakeholders to define problems and develop and implement solutions to address essential health care challenges.

Find supportive advisers
What advice does she have for someone looking to enter her degree program?

“Having supportive advisors whose expertise and research agenda align with your interests is probably the most important consideration when selecting a PhD degree program,” Burleson said. “This is especially true with Design Science, since the program is inherently less structured and less established than traditional academic disciplines. My advisors, Professor Kathleen Sienko and Professor Kentaro Toyama, are incredible sources of support for me and key to my success in this program.”