Sarah Appelhans smiles

What I study and why: I am an anthropologist who studies engineers as a cultural group. I got started in this field because I am a former mechanical engineer who worked for several years in industry. When I returned to graduate school, I became inspired by ethnographies of workplace cultures, which helped me understand my experiences working as an engineer. Several stereotypes about engineers circulate in pop culture (i.e. they are nerdy, anti-social, etc.). Like most stereotypes, they tend to fall apart upon close scrutiny. Nonetheless, engineers define themselves as a cultural group, and they do have particular beliefs, behaviors, and social structures that are interesting to me as an anthropologist. I am particularly interested in the cultural aspects of engineering that contribute to the marginalization of women and racial minorities, which persist despite several decades of interventions. I experienced some of this firsthand as a woman working in engineering. My ongoing research broadly investigates intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, and immigration status in engineering, with an ultimate goal of helping engineering move in a direction where a more diverse community can thrive.

What I’m teaching this fall: I am teaching two classes this fall: ES 100 Engineering Design: AI for Accessibility and EGRS 451 Capstone Seminar for Engineering and Society. In ES 101, we will explore the uses of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve accessibility for Lafayette students. We will also develop critical thinking about AI technologies and gain hands-on experience with a machine learning platform called Edge Impulse. EGRS 451 is the culminating experience for engineering studies majors. Part seminar, part practicum, this course asks students to think deeply and critically about the role of engineering in society, how to make responsible, sustainable change through technological interventions, and how to establish themselves as leaders in this rapidly changing technological world. 

What students can expect from me: My overall goal is to spark my students’ curiosity and give them the tools to follow that curiosity wherever it leads. It is important to me to get to know each of my students and learn about their goals for their lives. I will try to challenge each student intellectually and tailor as much as I can to each student’s interests. I also believe that mentorship is important. I have benefited from great mentors in my career, and I hope to pay it forward to my students, through advising, research opportunities, or other channels. 

I’m excited to be here because: I am thrilled to be joining Lafayette College. Liberal arts universities offer such great opportunities for interdisciplinary research and learning. There are so many avenues for cross-pollination, which I already perceive to be one of Lafayette’s strengths. As a scholar who has always situated myself between disciplines, I feel I will be at home here. Smaller class sizes also offer opportunities for me to get to know my students better, which I feel helps me to be a better teacher. 

I am also very impressed with the engineering studies program, which is such a unique and important field of study. I’ve been delighted to find that the faculty I have met thus far share my commitment to revolutionizing the engineering discipline, and they have already made great strides here at Lafayette. I feel proud to call myself a colleague. I also had the pleasure of meeting several ES students on my campus visit, all of whom have such interesting stories and accomplishments. It will be my privilege to serve as a guide to them as they chart their futures.  

Getting to know me: I am formerly a musician–violin and voice–although I have not had much opportunity to perform since I began grad school. My most consistent hobby is yoga. I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga for over 10 years now. I traveled to India in 2020 to practice with the lineage-holder of the Ashtanga tradition in Mysore. I continue to be in awe of the depth of knowledge in the yoga lineage, to which so many people have contributed through dedicated study and practice for their entire lives. I also find the yoga world anthropologically interesting, particularly its fusions with Western ‘fitness’ and ‘wellness’ cultures–who knows, maybe an ethnography of yoga is in my future!

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