Amy Doroff BSGE 2015

Emily Scott
1/14/2016

Dean Cangallaris presents Amy Doroff with the Illinois Innovation Prize
Dean Cangallaris presents Amy Doroff with the Illinois Innovation Prize

Six weeks into Amy Doroff’s freshman year of General Engineering at Illinois, she wanted to quit.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just couldn’t do physics,” she said. “I came to the ISE advising office and told them that I just couldn’t do physics and I wasn’t going to be an engineer anymore.”

Doroff spoke to Heidi Craddock, assistant director of undergraduate programs and chief academic advisor for ISE, who encouraged her to not give up yet.

“Amy’s such an analytical thinker, problem solver. You can just see it any time you talk to her, the wheels are always turning,” Craddock said. “. . . I could see it in her, that she had what it took, she just needed someone to believe in her and remind her to believe in herself.”

As Doroff walked out of the office, she said that the next time she came back, she would have some good news to share.

Three years later as a GE senior, Doroff has more than enough accomplishments to share. She was awarded the Dan Levengood Excellence in Ergonomics Award for a project she completed at a John Deere summer internship, as well as the third-place Illinois Innovation Prize from the Technology Entrepreneur Center. She also completed an internship at Whirlpool Corporation that has led to a full-time position she will begin after graduating this December.

Doroff acknowledged she has come a long way since she attempted to quit during her freshman year, but that she could not have achieved all she has if it were not for the support she received from the department of ISE.

Her interest in engineering began when she attended Girls Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Camp at Illinois at the age of 12.

“I built bridges that week and then got to crush them. I thought maybe if I continued to go through engineering, I’d get to crush more things,” Doroff said. “So, I decided that engineering was a good idea.”

In high school, she visited several universities and decided to attend Illinois because she felt it was “like having a small, private engineering school across the street from a large, public university.”

Doroff chose ISE — and GE specifically — because wanted to make sure she could receive important skills outside of just engineering.

“The ISE department seemed like it would give me a chance to learn all the different sides,” she said. “I was right, it did.”

During her freshman year, Doroff became involved in the Society of Women Engineers and in her residence hall. She later became a resident advisor because she wanted a chance to mentor.

Then one day during her junior year, Doroff was walking to Engineering Hall when she saw a recruiting tent for John Deere set up on the sidewalk. She spoke with a recruiter and ended up getting an internship opportunity.

“I like to say I got a Frisbee and a job,” she said. “More or less, that’s what happened.”

That summer, she went to work at John Deere’s Harvester Works factory in Moline, Ill. Two weeks into her internship, she was assigned to a high-profile engineering project that involved working on a lock collar. A lock collar is a part that goes on a combine’s rotating shaft to prevent it from moving laterally. However, the process for installing the lock collar Deere was using was unreliable, causing the company to receive many warranty claims and making it unsafe for assembly line operators.

In less than twelve weeks, Doroff ended up creating a tool that fixed both of these problems. Harvester Works leadership took notice of what she had created and nominated the project for the Dan Levengood Excellence in Ergonomics Award at John Deere’s Global Ergonomics Conference in Sept. 2014.

The day she attended the conference, Doroff was only thinking one thing as she looked around the room at other innovators from Deere.

“When I saw these people three decades my senior, I thought, I hope to be one of these people one day,” she said. “I was sitting there thinking, maybe I’ll be as good as them one day. And maybe I’ll have the opportunity to come back and actually have a shot at this.”

She watched a few presentations before leaving to go home — she wanted to get back so she could go to Control Systems class the next day.

Later that evening, she got a call informing her that her project had won the award.

“I wasn’t there to see it. I went to Control Systems, that was a hard class for me,” Doroff said with a laugh.

Doroff said she thinks she was able to make such an effective, award-winning tool because she could see the problem from multiple angles. In high school, she worked at Advocate Health Care for four summers as an assembler of patient food trays, which allowed her to get a perspective that she believes most engineers don’t have.

“When I went to work at Deere, I had the ability to come up with things in different ways because I knew it from the operator side as well,” she said. “The main solution I made for a project was to make it safer to come to work every day. And it happened to be something that could be globally implemented and standardized across the enterprise.”

When she returned to school the next semester, Craddock nominated Doroff and her John Deere project for the Technology Entrepreneur Center’s Illinois Innovation Prize, an award that recognizes the most innovative student on the Illinois campus.

“When we saw the call for nominations for that prize come through, she immediately came to mind, because we had talked about her project, what she had done, and why she had implemented it,” Craddock said.

Doroff received an email that she had been nominated and said that at the moment, she couldn’t think of why she could’ve been nominated.

“I thought I had some strong accomplishments, but I still wasn’t in that headspace of thinking of myself as one of the best innovators on campus,” she said.

She submitted an application and made it to the interview round, where for the second time in a year she found herself in a room surrounded by people she thought to be far better innovators.

“I was just struck, thinking: ‘I hope to be as good as them, I hope to be worthy of being in this room one day,’” Doroff said.

She ended up making it to the final round as the only undergraduate student to do so. She was awarded the third place prize and $1,500.

“The judges were quite kind to me,” Doroff said. “They said they recognized a lot of potential in what I had done, and I had been the only undergraduate in the competition, and my project had also been over the span of less than twelve weeks — some of the PhD research that was going on had been over the span of years.”

After the award ceremony, she was approached by a representative from a company asking if she’d be willing to do a project for them. She then decided to take this opportunity further and start a company of her own with her award money.

She and Alex Rubocki, a fellow GE senior and Doroff’s lab partner from Control Systems class, incorporated Hunter Madison Design LLC, a small tool design company that is named after two of Doroff’s golden retrievers.

“Neither of us really wanted our name on the company, but my dogs didn’t care,” Doroff said.

They’re now finishing up their first design project that they worked on over this past summer and into this year.

“It’s been kind of hectic,” Doroff said. “I’m also a peer tutor and a full time student in my free time.”

This past summer, Doroff had the opportunity to work as an assembly engineer for Whirlpool Corporation at their Amana, Iowa location. She ended up loving the work and the company itself.

 

“At Whirlpool, I kind of had a different approach to things,” Doroff said. “I think that really speaks to the ISE curriculum. The ISE background has taught me that a true leader is not just successful in the goals in their job description.”

Before she started her job this past summer, she wrote the word “Whirlpool” on a piece of paper and wrote her job description goals.

“Then I said, but what are my people goals? And what are my goals to sustain the organization as a whole? And what are my goals in other categories?” she said.

She began to find opportunities outside of her job description that could add value to the company, including being a recruiter, building the relationship between Whirlpool and the ISE department, and working on a morale initiative.  

Above all, she had enthusiasm for everything she could do at Whirlpool, including manufacturing and operations, which has always been her passion.

“Manufacturing works well for me, because I’m a morning person,” Doroff said. “Manufacturing can start at six or seven o’clock in the morning, so oftentimes I’d drive to work with my headlights on. And I’d get there, and I’m yelling, ‘It’s a great day to make refrigerators!’”

Her love for manufacturing led her to be accepted into Whirlpool’s three-year manufacturing leadership development rotational program that will begin in Jan. 2016.

In this program, Doroff said you may find her anywhere from Tennessee to Iowa getting excited about making things like refrigerators, ranges, and small appliances.

“I have a lot of enthusiasm for making things. At the core, I am someone who started in operations,” she said. “I used to be the assembler and I used to try to come up with new innovative ways to get the trays down the line faster. Now, as an engineer, I just have a broader chance to do that. I’m really excited to go to Whirlpool and have a shot at that. And hopefully one day, I’ll make my way into different leadership areas once I’ve learned the whole company.”

Leadership has always been Doroff’s goal. She said that after learning all parts of whatever company she works for, it would be her dream to have a position such as a factory manager or regional director.

Doroff is quick to credit a lot of her success to the advisors and faculty in the ISE department who have encouraged her since the time she wanted to quit six weeks into her freshman year.

“If they had let me quit at six weeks in engineering, I wouldn’t have had the chance to make it safer to go to work at Deere, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to increase assembly yield and be a leader at Whirlpool, I wouldn’t have a chance to influence other students, to stand up in front of my peers and have something to say,” she said. “These are the people who got me here.”

The fact that Doroff so readily contributes much of her success to the help she has received along the way is what Craddock believes makes her a great leader.

“There are not that many leaders that are willing to do that,” Craddock said. “But those that do will go a lot farther, and people will want to follow them. Amy will draw people to her because they want to be a part of that.”

From being the student who started out thinking she couldn’t do physics to now being a physics tutor, Doroff acknowledged that she has undergone a great deal of change throughout the years that has ultimately prepared her for the future.

“I’m going to have a lot of pictures to take with a lot of people who I hope to stay in touch with. I told the ISE department that I hope I always have a place to come back to and visit, because I really believe in this program. I really believe in the people who are here,” she said. “It took an entire engineering school and maybe not one village, but two — Champaign and Urbana — to raise me through college. I think that above all else, I’ve gotten a problem-solving degree here, and there’s nothing that I can’t do with that.”

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