2018 Features May 2018 Main Spring 2018

Flipping a switch, igniting success: Aleena Taufiq ’18

Aleena Taufiq ’18 recently landed her dream job as a data engineer working in artificial intelligence at Verizon, a career she never imagined four years ago.
After her first semester at SMU, Taufiq knew the pre-med track she had chosen was not the right path. Now the senior majoring in mechanical engineering and math runs an afterschool enrichment program she developed to inspire middle-school students to pursue engineering, math and science in college. And none of it would have happened without people like Jim Caswell ’63, ’66, ’70 and Chuck Lingo ’90 – neither of them an engineer and neither of whom Taufiq met.
Taufiq found her major when she signed up for an immersive design challenge offered by the Lyle School of Engineering’s Deason Innovation Gym and joined a team assigned to remake the Slurpee experience for consumers.
The fusion of brainstorming, problem-solving, designing and building sparked an unexpected result. Instead of refreshing the frozen beverage industry, Taufiq reinvented her future.
“I learned my passion through the project,” she says. “I fell in love with engineering.”
To encourage the next generation of students to find the academic direction that’s right for them the way she did, Taufiq developed the afterschool program Geared Up. Her curriculum blends fun, hands-on projects with talks about engineering careers by fellow Lyle students and other guest speakers. While Taufiq hopes some youngsters follow her footsteps into engineering, she devised the educational series to catalyze unbridled learning in all areas.
She targets low-income middle-school students because “that’s an important age to engage their interest in engineering, math and science, and get them to start thinking about college.” Geared Up launched last year at Dallas’ Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School and expanded this year to Life School Oak Cliff and Edward H. Cary Middle School in northwest Dallas.
“On the first day, the kids are always excited when I tell them I’m a mechanical engineer, and they get really excited when they hear I’m from SMU,” she says. “They may not know exactly what a mechanical engineer does, but they definitely know SMU.”
Support from SMU’s Caswell Leadership Development Program has been critical to her project’s success. Offered by SMU Student Affairs’ Community Engagement and Leadership Center, the Caswell Leaders program accelerates students’ leadership skills by enabling them to discover their gifts while combining their passions for academics and public service.
“I couldn’t do Geared Up without Caswell Leaders. The program provides so much – funding, mentorship and friendship. We have monthly meetings for reflections about our project, where we think of next steps and opportunities to move it forward,” she says. “We make really personal connections in the program. It feels like we’re a Caswell family.”
SMU created the Caswell Endowment for Leadership Development and Training in 2007 as a tribute to alumnus, educator and longtime administrator Jim Caswell ’63, ’66, ’70 while he was preparing to retire. The program seeks to extend his legacy of molding “reflective and authentic leaders dedicated to improving their local communities.”
SMU’s Caswell Leadership Development Program honors the late Jim Caswell.Ask anyone who knew Caswell at SMU, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you a story about a windmill. A four-foot version and assorted smaller models of the picturesque precursor of the wind turbine decorated his Perkins Administration Building office. Like the windmill’s agile gear system that converts a natural resource into energy to pump water or grind grain, Caswell guided students on a journey of self-discovering, harnessing their innate abilities and steering them toward successful careers and lives of purpose after graduation.
“He felt like students’ time at SMU was a unique opportunity for him to help them find their true direction and grow and develop into the people they wanted to be,” remembers his widow, Jackie Caswell Wallace.
Thomas Kincaid ’05 first got to know Caswell during his junior year when he served as student body president. He met weekly with Caswell, then vice president for student affairs but also an ordained Methodist minister, and continued to do so as a senior and student member of the SMU Board of Trustees. Then a finance major, Kincaid didn’t know that his true direction would become the ministry.
Now an Episcopalian priest and vice rector of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, he keeps one of Caswell’s small windmills on his desk as a daily reminder to carry forward the example of a “person who really cared about others.”
“Dr. Caswell taught me what it was to never be too busy to care about someone,” Kincaid says. “He had plenty of demands on his time, but he was able to make time for a student or find a place where his support would be useful.
Roy Turner quotes lessons learned from Jim Caswell.Caswell’s wisdom continues to influence Roy Turner ’88 as well. When Turner was a junior accounting major and president of Kappa Sigma fraternity, Caswell – then dean of student life – tapped him as a member of a student leaders advisory forum convened to examine campus challenges and strategize solutions. As president of the SMU Interfraternity Council the following year, Turner relied on the high ethical standards set by Caswell when working through issues governed by the group.
“Lessons from Jim that I’ve carried forward are to do the right thing, stand up for what’s right and hold everyone accountable,” says Turner, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City and a loyal donor to the Caswell Endowment. “I’m almost 30 years away from that experience, but it still resonates with me.”
Caswell understood the SMU student experience so well because he had lived it. He first arrived on the Hilltop as an undergraduate in 1959. He was active in campus life and served as president of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in social science from Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences in 1963, he went on to earn a bachelor of divinity in 1966 and a master of sacred theology in 1970 from the Perkins School of Theology. He also received a master’s and Ph.D. in educational management from Columbia University.
His career in higher education began as a graduate residence hall director at SMU from 1964–66. A short time later, he was named an instructor in Dedman College. Over the next two decades, he held a number of pivotal administrative roles, including dean of men, dean of residential living and dean of student life. As vice president of student affairs from 1988 to 2007, he became an iconic campus leader known as a caring friend, reliable sounding board, chief cheerleader and beloved mentor. His door was always open, and one of his frequent visitors was Chuck Lingo ’90.
Lingo never really needed words to communicate his ardor for all things SMU. Although he suffered from a debilitating neurological disease that impeded his speech, he refused to allow his physical limitations to curb his enjoyment of life. His Highland Park High School friends cherish their memories of the “Super Scot” cheering on their team at football games and pep rallies.
An estate gift from Chuck Lingo helps support the Caswell Leaders program.He enrolled at SMU in 1986, determined to capture all that he could in the classroom and fully participate in the Hilltop experience. He took a job in the Student Activities Center during the summer months, helping with AARO (Academic Advising, Registration and Orientation) and other tasks to prepare new students.
Fellow students admired his enthusiasm and can-do attitude. The Student Foundation embraced Lingo, eventually honoring him with the Mike Miller Outstanding Service Award. He served as a Student Senate committee member and was recognized for outstanding service.
Often decked out in spirit gear, the “Super Mustang” became a familiar sight in Caswell’s office. The two never missed an opportunity for some friendly facetime. Their conversations hopscotched across topics, from personal news to sports to current events, and usually ended in a goodbye hug.
When the University created the Caswell Endowment for Leadership Development and Training, Lingo was among the first donors. The friends shared a huddle and hug at Caswell’s retirement dinner in May 2007.
In the following years, Lingo attended many SMU Centennial Celebration events, never missed Celebration of Lights, his favorite SMU tradition, and faithfully remembered Caswell, his dear friend who succumbed to cancer in October 2007, with an annual gift to the Caswell Endowment, hand-delivered to the Student Affairs office.
On May 24, 2016, Lingo lost his battle with the disease that had claimed his mother years earlier, but he had taken steps to ensure his connection to SMU and to Caswell would endure: He bequeathed a significant portion of his estate to the Caswell Endowment.
“The Chuck Lingo gift exponentially increases our future opportunities to support the development of student leaders at SMU and further the legacies of servant-leadership and involvement established by both Dr. Caswell and Mr. Lingo,” says Stephanie Howeth, director of SMU’s Community Engagement and Leadership Center. “Thanks to their example and foresight, students today will learn and experience the many benefits of discovering their purpose as well as develop a passion for creating a more positive global community and SMU campus.”
The influence of Caswell, Lingo and many other donors lives on through current Caswell Leaders whose projects advocate for abused women, alleviate poverty with microloans, bridge international divides through language acquisition and inspire middle-school students to pursue engineering and math.
On an October afternoon in Dallas’ Cary Middle School, 18 boys and girls seated at cafeteria tables chatter, giggle, nudge and generally act like typical seventh and eighth graders. They have no idea they are about to witness the Caswell Endowment in action.
Aleena Taufiq explains how they’ll use the tools spread out in front of them – wires, putty, tape and batteries – to craft a simple LED circuit to light up polystyrene Halloween pumpkins. They get to work, and the cacophony builds as she moves from group to group, fixing a few glitches and praising their efforts. Soon tiny candy-colored bulbs and 100-watt smiles light up the room.
John Everett, New York Life Insurance Company, and Aleena Taufiq.“When I started, I was terrified of working with kids because I hadn’t before, but once you build a small connection with them, they’re so much fun,” she says. “They are very creative and aren’t afraid to try out their ideas.”
After the buses arrive and the class breaks up, a student wanders from table to table, rescuing abandoned materials. “I want to make more lights at home to show my family,” he says proudly. Just two hours earlier, that boy had no idea he could complete a basic electrical engineering feat so easily.
Taufiq makes sure he has everything he needs to wow his audience the way he has just impressed her.
That’s the reaction she was aiming for when she started planning Geared Up. She remembered watching bright high school classmates flounder “because they didn’t really see a pathway to college. They didn’t have parents or siblings who went to college, so they didn’t have that exposure and weren’t encouraged to continue their education.”
Her parents were both born in Pakistan, but met, married and became naturalized citizens in the Dallas area. Although higher education wasn’t an option for them, “they made it clear they wanted us to go to college,” she says.
She considers herself lucky that her mother “pushed me to make the most of every opportunity available in school.” As a high school student in her hometown of Irving, Texas, she played on the tennis team, worked on the yearbook, competed in state math, science and literary criticism competitions, and joined the National Honor Society. Because she had always excelled in math and science, well-meaning high school teachers steered her toward a medical career without introducing her to the array of disciplines where her talents could flourish.
The youngest of four children, she already had two Mustangs in the family – sister Tasmia Taufiq Noorali ’10, ’11 and brother Khurram Taufiq ’12 – and knew “SMU was a great school.” After receiving several scholarships, including the University’s academic Founders’ Scholarship and a Discovery Scholarship for students focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, she joined the class of 2018.
After her first semester, she knew she didn’t want to go to medical school, so she became a fearless explorer, diving into unfamiliar topics and developing new competencies.
Geared Up Goes NationalShe was selected for a multiyear research project led by SMU’s Wei Tong, a mechanical engineering professor specializing in biomechanics, in partnership with UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. They conducted tests on six taping methods commonly used in hospitals to secure intubation tubes, which keep airways open in acutely injured and sick patients. Preventing tube displacement can be a matter of life and death.
“There’s no standardized method, so we tested a lot of variables,” she explains. “We’re still working on the analysis, but so far, the easiest method seems to be the fastest and strongest as well.”
A Hamilton Research Scholarship allowed her to broaden the scope of her research last year through an ongoing project with mathematics professor Daniel Reynolds, whose scientific computation expertise encompasses biomedical applications. Among the skills she added to her portfolio was proficiency in a CAD (computer-aided design) program she used to create a three-dimensional rendering of a human lymph node for modeling the flow of lymphatic fluid.
“Both experiences taught me so much about different aspects of engineering, and it gave me such a good feeling to be part of research that can have real impact,” she says.
As she was in high school, Taufiq has continued to be actively engaged at SMU. She’s wrapping up her second term as a Lyle School senator in the Student Senate and participates in Theta Tau engineering fraternity and the Muslim Student Association.
Through Lyle’s “4+1” program, she will receive her bachelor’s degree in May and continue studying at SMU for another year before earning her master’s degree. She’s leaning toward a nontraditional trajectory for a mechanical engineer, “something more on the tech side of things, maybe in big data or tech consulting.”
Last summer, an internship she found through Handshake, SMU’s jobs and recruitment portal, took her to the Dallas office of New York Life Insurance Company for a taste of project management in the technology department.
After a few weeks, with a green light from her manager, she launched a weekly team-building activity dubbed “Fun Friday.” Little did her colleagues know that the gummy bear bridges they built and the edible cars they crafted with Rice Krispies treats and Life Savers candies were prototypes she was testing for Geared Up.
“It really broke the ice. People had fun and started talking to one another,” she says. “I think it created a friendlier work environment and much more of a community atmosphere.
She put those projects to good use when, in an unexpected turn, she teamed up with the STEAM Club at her alma mater, MacArthur High School in Irving, to launch a series of design challenges. Geared Up for high schoolers started before winter break and is continuing this spring. “It has been been amazing to go back to where it all started for me and inspire students who are where I was just four years ago,” she says.
Taufiq is also achieving her longstanding goal to expand Geared Up into a national program this spring. With funding from an SMU Engaged Learning Fellowship, she will travel to Harper McCaughan Elementary School in Long Beach, Mississippi, on February 16; Pioneer Middle School in DuPont, Washington, on March 2; and Shapleigh Middle School in Kittery, Maine, on March 30, where she will lead one-day, hands-on engineering extravaganzas for students and teachers.
“If the students step into the shoes of an engineer and get a taste of what it’s like to work together to create something or solve a problem, then they get excited and want to learn more,” Taufiq says. “I hope they become more excited about school, learning and challenging themselves.”
– Patricia Ward