Breaking the Mold

Photo of Dalyn in nursery

Dalyn McCauley | Faculty Research Assistant | North Willamette Research & Extension Center

Member of Engineers Without Borders USA; Member of ASABE; 2019 Grant A. Harris Fellowship recipient

Central Point, OR | First Generation College Student

Aiming High

Neither of my parents completed four-year degrees. Although my parents were very supportive of my sister and I attending university, we were highly influenced and inspired to pursue higher education by our grandfather who was a professor at the United States Air Force Academy.

I was born and raised in Oregon. Growing up I spent a lot of time outdoors and have always been passionate about nature, seeing the world, and environmentalism. My hobbies include backpacking, soccer, cycling, and recently learning to play ice hockey and tennis. Scuba diving is a huge passion of mine. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and dive around the world, and I hope to complete my dive master certification in the next couple years. One of my unusual skills is the ability to live in a 300-sqft tiny house on wheels with my partner, German Shepherd, and cat. We built our tiny house from scratch and now we are settled in Portland enjoying the urban tiny life.

International Inspiration

My undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering provided me with many unique and exciting opportunities. My favorite of which was studying abroad at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. This was such an incredible and fun experience that widened my world view, allowed me to work on cross-cultural teams, and got me passionate about international travel. After my semester abroad I got involved in the OSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders. In my last year of undergrad, I traveled to rural Cambodia on an assessment trip to plan out a design for a water distribution and filtration system for a small village. This trip was incredible and really sparked my interest in Water Resources.

I was in Cambodia for three weeks with Engineers Without Borders and stayed with a host family in the O’Rana Village for 10 days. It was a powerful and transformative experience as I was able to appreciate and see the complexity and challenges of water resource issues globally. It was also humbling because the community was very capable of designing and building their own water infrastructure, as our team of student engineers heavily relied on local NGOs, plumbers, and homeowners to guide us through the design process. The bigger challenge was addressing the socio-economic and political concerns regarding the water distribution system. We were challenged by questions like: Who is going to maintain the infrastructure when we are gone? How do you regulate a common-pool resource and prevent over-drawing the aquifer, over-drilling wells, or aquifer contamination? Who oversees the finances and how do you prevent corruption? Seeing the complexity and importance of natural resource issues got me interested in water resources and is the main reason I decided to continue my education in that direction.

I was also involved in the MECOP program at Oregon State University, which is an industry cooperative program that provides two 6-month internships to students. MECOP was an incredible opportunity to jump start my professional career while still in school. I worked as an engineering intern at a metals manufacturing company and a medical device manufacturing company. Both had their pros and cons, but mainly I was yearning to have more of a global impact with my work, which ultimately lead me to pursue a master’s degree in water resource engineering at the University of Idaho. My thesis work focused on developing sensor systems that used site-specific weather data to better inform agricultural decisions.

Diving In

We are currently working on a sensor-controlled irrigation study for nursery production systems. Our project presents a novel irrigation control system using lysimetry. We developed small scale lysimeters, referred to as mini-lysimeter, which provide a direct measure of actual evapotranspiration (ET) via a change in mass of containerized crops. We are comparing mini-lysimeter controlled irrigation to the more common soil-moisture controlled irrigation, and a traditional timer-based irrigation schedule. Initial results show that mini-lysimeter and soil-moisture controlled irrigation can produce plants of equal size while using 10% and 20%, less water than the timer-based irrigation, respectively. We hope that this work will show growers that sensor-controlled irrigation is a feasible approach to improving water use efficiency in container nurseries, and this technology is a worthwhile investment in the face of climate change and water scarcity.

A podcast featuring my M.S. thesis work is out on the We Measure The World podcast. "Are growers ready for site-specific decision support tools". You can listen to the podcast here: Podcast Link

Confident in My Own Skin

Being a woman in a male dominated field, both engineering and agriculture, has presented many challenges to me. I have faced many situations of sexism and harassment, as well as professional conformity, trying to fit in with the norms of those working in the industry. I was trying to fit the mold of what I thought, and what society told me, an engineer was, male and masculine. I de-feminized myself thinking that was the only way that I would be taken seriously. I changed the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way I stood. All this did was distract me from my genuine skills. I have come to learn that the confidence that comes with being my true self and leaning into my unique skillset is more powerful and gets me further professionally than pretending to be something I am not. I am a good listener, I am collaborative, I am detailed and thoughtful, all these attributes make me a great engineer and scientist. It is far too common for women engineers to feel like they have something to prove, which can be a great motivator, but can also be detrimental to our mental health. Realizing that I am enough, and that I am an asset, has brought me a lot of serenity and allows to me find more joy and success in what I do.

Starting school and job hunting can be overwhelming. There are so many possibilities and pathways that you could pursue. My advice would be to not be afraid to take a risk, veer from your current path, or pivot your goals and ambitions. While it is important to stay focused in order to progress in a field, it is also important to try new things to find what sticks. My path has not been straight forward, and I don’t expect it to be in the future, but by jumping on new opportunities I have landed on a career trajectory that excites me and gives me purpose.