Micron engineer Renee Pinnock ’10 continues to support the National Society of Black Engineers, a group that provided her with a valuable sense of community at Virginia Tech.
Many Hokies are asked what brought them to Virginia Tech. For Renee Pinnock ’10, becoming a Hokie was an easy decision, based on the university’s academic reputation and award-winning dining facilities.
The more relevant question for her is: “What kept you at Virginia Tech?”
Pinnock said the strong community within the Department of Chemical Engineering and the university at large motivated her to stay in Blacksburg. Lasting friendships forged in the Thomas Hall residence hall, her chemical engineering study group, and the Virginia Tech National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) helped her grow, laugh, and celebrate the good times throughout her rigorous undergraduate experience.
Joining NSBE was a crucial part of Pinnock’s experience at Virginia Tech to prepare her for the real world, making it an easy decision to give back to the organization that gave her so much.
Building the foundation with community
From the moment Pinnock stepped foot on the Blacksburg campus as a first-year student, Virginia Tech did a tremendous job at communicating what support programs were available, she said, specifically through the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED). Bevlee Watford and Tremayne Waller were instrumental in Pinnock signing up for groups and programs like the Black Engineering Support Teams (BEST) peer mentoring. Pinnock credits BEST for helping her develop a strong peer network and also introducing her to NSBE.
NSBE is dedicated to uplifting Black students across engineering fields. Its mission is to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community. Its programming, including conferences and networking opportunities to explore internships, made a lasting impact on Pinnock.
After finding confidence and solidarity in the organization, Pinnock took on leadership roles, serving as chair for both Virginia Tech conference planning and the Region II Fall Regional Conference. These additional responsibilities sharpened her communication skills and improved her time management, goal-setting, and presentation abilities.
NSBE lays the path to industry
Finding time for an internship as an undergraduate was difficult because of Pinnock’s academic drive. She enrolled in classes every semester, including summer sessions. But she knew an internship was an important step to smooth the transition from academia to industry.
“These internship and co-op opportunities are crucial because many companies look for that experience with full-time applicants,” she said. “So approaching and entering my senior year without that internship or co-op experience was a concern for me.”
The NSBE Fall Regional Conference ultimately helped her land a chemical engineer internship with Eastman Chemical Company for the summer after graduation. The conference gave students, such as Pinnock, the opportunity to connect with companies and regional NSBE members through interactive events and workshops.
“The projects I worked on during my internship were challenging and rewarding — hands-on learning helped drive home concepts. This internship helped to further strengthen the foundation of learning for me,” Pinnock said.
Mentoring the next generation
Pinnock serves as chair for Micron’s Black Employee Network, which strengthens the relationships of Black employees among one another and the entire Micron community. She said her student experience planning university and regional conferences for the Virginia Tech NSBE chapter sharpened her leadership skills and broadened her perspective, making this role a good fit.
“NSBE is near and dear to my heart. Because of the tremendous impact it had on me, I work with the Virginia Tech chapter to give back to students who have had similar experiences – students who may be introverts or need help getting out of their shell,” Pinnock said.
Like Pinnock, 2023 chemical engineering alumna Kimberly Ikediobi found a supportive community within the Virginia Tech NSBE chapter – serving as chapter president during her senior year – and also secured internships through NSBE events.
Ikediobi worked with Pinnock as a Micron intern during the summer of 2022. She secured the internship by presenting a five-minute pitch about herself at the Virginia Tech NSBE Scholarship Auction. Pinnock had represented Micron at the event to offer three scholarships and two internships to interested students.
Pinnock and Ikediobi had nearly identical undergraduate experiences, from both studying chemical engineering with a minor in chemistry to interning at Eastman and serving on the Regional NSBE E-Board.
“These similarities and Renee’s ability to move through the ranks at Micron showed me that I can also be a successful Black woman in STEM,” Ikediobi said.
Giving back through industry partnerships
Micron, where Pinnock has worked for nearly 12 years, supports the Virginia Tech NSBE chapter by hosting students in its Washington, D.C., office. In addition to experiencing the ins and outs of a professional setting, the students learn how all engineering disciplines can contribute to the microchip field.
“When most people think of chemical engineering, they don’t think of microchips. But as a chemical engineer, there are numerous facets involved in building microchips,” Pinnock said.
Creating a microchip takes several months. Pinnock likens the process to building a house — you start with a silicon wafer (laying the foundation); then you deposit a layer of chemicals (framing the house); chemicals then etch away certain parts of the microchip (putting up drywall); chemical engineers clean the microchip to monitor it (putting in electrical); and then you repeat these processes to build the final product. Throughout, the chemical engineers have to monitor the flows to ensure they are within specific temperatures, pressures, and limits in order to create a quality microchip.
Chemical engineering department head Steven Wrenn has witnessed the growth of data analytics and microchips in the chemical engineering industry. To adapt to the increased interest, the department offers computational and data sciences as one of three tracks for undergraduate chemical engineering majors at Virginia Tech.
“The fact that Micron wants to hire our engineers is a testament that data analytics is impactful in chemical engineering. Renee also lends legitimacy to the fact that chemical engineers are in demand in the microchip industry,” Wrenn said.
Pinnock’s service on the department’s advisory board for the past seven months has paved the path to increased collaboration between Micron and the department.
“The Virginia Tech chemical engineering department has given so much to me. It helped mold and shape who I am today. I am passionate about giving back and helping others. Being able to serve on the Chemical Engineering Advisory Board is a terrific opportunity to do just that,” Pinnock said.
Since joining the board in October 2022, Pinnock and her fellow board members have helped the department improve and adapt the immersive, five-week Unit Operations Lab, a full-time lab experience that traditionally takes place the summer before a student’s senior year. Students apply the concepts they’ve learned in classes and academic labs to real-world problems by completing eight laboratory experiments within a group of three to four students.
In its original form, the lab could sometimes interfere with student internship opportunities, as Ikediobi learned firsthand. She worked with Micron leadership to shift her internship start date till after she completed the lab in July. But Pinnock and her fellow board members wanted to make it easier for students to experience both opportunities. They met with the faculty members who run the lab to walk through different scenarios. Moving forward, students will have the option to take the lab during an academic semester, or during the summer either in Blacksburg or abroad.
“Renee has had an immediate impact on the department as a board member,” said Wrenn. “She not only has the technical expertise, but the personal skills to articulate what’s needed. As a recent graduate, she’s seen firsthand the need in industry and wants to ensure today’s students are prepared.”
Industry partnerships help ensure that students are prepared for life in the workplace. They can provide feedback on the curriculum and insight into what skills current graduates need to succeed.
“The industry partners lend the perspective to help answer students’ questions like ‘Why am I learning this?’ They help bridge the gap between education and job training,” Wrenn said.
In a 2022 O-Zone Summit presentation to NSBE students, Pinnock shared what it’s like working at a top 100 company and how working hard at Virginia Tech can pay off. Prior to her talk, Pinnock spoke with students individually to help them feel more connected to a broader community of engineering professionals. Her attentiveness has made a strong impression on Ikediobi.
“Virginia Tech alumni like Renee really care about coming back to speak to the next generation of students. It inspires us to do the same for generations to come. Passing the torch along is what NSBE is all about,” Ikediobi said.
From the lab to the national stage: Mariama Alidu hones her leadership skills with NSBE post
The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) continues to foster community and personal growth for students in the College of Engineering. Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Mariama Alidu first discovered the organization during a pre-collegiate visit. Growing up in Africa, Alidu was fascinated by engineering but wanted a better understanding of the available fields. NSBE helped her realize the endless possibilities within engineering and created a shared experience with others who faced similar challenges and opportunities.
“Through my involvement with Virginia Tech NSBE, I have gained valuable skills that have been useful both in my Ph.D. studies and that I hope to use post-graduation,” said Alidu. “As a member of NSBE, I work with other members to achieve common goals. These experiences helped me develop my collaboration skills, including working effectively in teams, resolving conflicts, and leveraging individual strengths — all of which I use when working in the Bortner Lab.”
The self-proclaimed STEM enthusiast is committed to sharing that passion with individuals around the world. This spring, she was elected as international committee chairperson for the national NSBE organization.
In this role, Alidu will work to facilitate the growth and success of Black engineers worldwide through international outreach initiatives and networking opportunities. Alidu aims to increase access to resources, provide support and guidance to existing and potential international chapters, and foster a sense of community among NSBE members on a global scale. One of her first initiatives included traveling to Liberia to help charter a new NSBE chapter at the University of Liberia.
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