Alumni Corner – Kofi

Kofi Afriyie_Head shot

What is your major?

I major in civil engineering at the illustrious Morgan State University.

How did you get interested in STEM?

My college career is rooted in STEM, because I am always focused on solving problems! Growing up, I was intrigued by how products were developed, and STEM is the brainchild of the future in which we are heading.

How did you find out about i-Trek?

I found out about i-Trek from Christopher Gaines, my former Calculus professor and a colleague of Niaja.

What have been doing since participating in i-Trek?

After the trek, I interned in Los Angeles where I worked on an earthquake-engineering project. This involved assessing the spatial correlation of tall reinforced concrete buildings and ground motions.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy soccer and taking trips.

What is something you are really looking forward to?

I look forward to using my degree to change the world and visiting one country on each continent.

Would you recommend the i-Trek program to current undergraduate students? Why or why not?

I-Trek is one of the most useful programs of which I have ever been a part. From networking with students, faculty, and CEOs, all participants benefit from the diversity of thought and obtain great insight into the different paths to take after graduating college. As a team, we also built strong bonds with people from all over the country, which is essential in building out a contact base for professional networking.

What skill are you most proud of possessing?

I am most proud of, and thankful for, my intellectual creativity. It is what keeps me up at 3AM writing in my “idea book.”

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I definitely see myself out of graduate school and working on my goal of creating a company that forms a healthy coalition between business and engineering.


image How is Graduate School Free?

By: Niaja Farve

Coins and calculatorThe most common justification given to STEM students for pursuing a graduate degree is the promise of a “free” education. Rarely is there an explanation for why this is the case and how it works. Is simply being accepted and registering for a program enough? While the large majority of STEM students never pay out of pocket for their graduate degrees, they do work for them. Graduate school is generally available without out-of-pocket tuition expenses because you, as a graduate student, are now a researcher. In return for the knowledge you create through your research, your advisor, department or institution takes care of your academic fees. Therefore, as a graduate student you are employed by the school — you now have a full time job! However, it is not your only job. You are a still a student expected to fulfil certain academic requirements prior to receiving your degree. So yes, your graduate diploma may not cost you money, but it will not simply be handed to you.

There are several ways to achieve a debt-free graduate experience — each has its pros and cons. The following options are specific to STEM graduate programs.


Research Assistantship (RA)

The majority of your academic fees are paid for by serving as a research assistant. This is the default title for a graduate student conducting research. Most research institutions will require you perform research every semester, regardless if that is how you plan to pay for your semester. To obtain an RA appointment, you typically need to seek out a professor with funding for an open research position that you would fill. Therefore, although you may be in love with a lab and the research they do, if the professor does not have funding, you cannot hold an appointment with that lab unless you have your own way of paying for your academic expenses.


A fellowship is the ideal way to pay for graduate school. Fellowships are comparable to scholarships. They are given based on merit, although applications will ask about your research experience. Fellowships allow you to have more control over where you do your research. You are essentially a free student to a professor. If they have the time and resources for you, there is not much incentive for them to turn you away. The only caveat is that fellowships come in varying amounts. Therefore, you will need to make sure you understand how much funding the fellowship provides and for how long.

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

A teaching assistantship is exactly what it sounds like: an appointment for a semester where you help teach a course. Most programs will generally require you to hold an appointment for at least one semester. While serving as a TA, you are still expected to progress with your first job (research) and depending on your schedule, your own courses. Therefore, a TA position  typically functions as a third job that you have to balance.


Grants are funding specifically for a research project. A graduate student would most likely only apply for a grant with an advisor that will serve as the primary investigator. This route is generally only pursued once you have joined a lab and have a clear project. Since it is given based on a set research proposal, a grants limits the flexibility of your research.


Last but not least, loans. Loans are an extreme effort taken in very rare cases.

SuccessEach STEM graduate program is different and has varying funding methods for students. While most programs leave it to the student to decide how they will find funding, some programs take care of everything as soon as you are accepted. This article is meant to help inform you about the options that exist. Make sure to know all the facts before making a decision on where you want to earn (and pay for!) your graduate degree.   

Environment Pays the Price for Convenience

Once upon a time, the single-serve, freshly-made cup of designercoffee was only available from a barista. But now all of these mainstream coffee blends can be found right inside our very own kitchen cupboard thanks to the Keurig K-cups. Since they were made famous in 1997, K-cups have slowly become the preferred way America wants to enjoy its coffee. With each pod, a single serve can instantly be brewed without worrying about cleanup or making too much, or even about it ever tasting ‘bad’.

Hot coffeeThis seemingly perfect invention does have one major stipulation. The plastic used to create the K-cup must be able to resist  high temperatures  (such as those that come from being in contact with boiling water). Because of this, the plastic of K-cups is made to be virtually unreactive and therefore when it is thrown into a landfill, it causes major harm to the environment. It takes a longer time than most materials to degrade, and has become a major concern to environmentalists. John Sylvan, the original founder of the K-cup, revealed his bleak outlook to The Atlantic online newsletter in a recent interview. No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable. It bothers him so much that he doesn’t own a Keurig machine. He sarcastically made the remark, it’s like a cigarette for coffeea single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.

The plastic used to make the pods is a special #7 type plastic arranged in 4 combined layers designed to keep the coffee inside safe and dry. It is such a specific type of plastic that only a handful of cities are able to recycle it, and even they are finding it hard to do so with the large volumes of pods coming into the facilities each day. As reported in the The Atlantic, the best estimates say the Keurig pods buried in 2014 would actually circle the Earth not 10.5 times, but more than 12.

coffee beansEven with all the unfavorable aspects of the pods, people seem very committed to their daily K-cup coffee fix. James Ewell in Business Insider explains that People want convenience, even if it’s not sustainable.A typical Keurig machine costs about $100 and the pods have an average cost of  $0.65 to $0.75 each. If this same customer were to get his coffee twice a day from the local coffee joint, he would expect to spend between $7 and $10. In less than 2 months, this consumer will have paid for the machine and be drinking each subsequent cup of coffee for less than a dollar. With the economical benefits and the convenience of having the machine nearby, the environmental harm each pod creates is being carelessly overlooked. These thrifty K cup users seem to forget that undegraded K-cup plastic can end up in farmland and even underground water. This can decrease water quality and decrease locally farmed produce. This ofcourse would increase our local taxes, and our grocery bill, not to mention,  ruin our health and our planet’s health.

Modern society is quickly implementing a more sustainable lifestyle. There are more solar panels installed today then there were 10 years ago, styrofoam is banned in the Washington,  D.C. area (and more of America hopes to join in), single-use plastic bags are being banned by cities and states, and even major corporations like Ikea now provide more environmentally friendly options to customers and employees. In a time when saving the planet has jumped to the top of many people’s priority list, K-cups seem rather out of place. Besides, the cost of a drip coffee machine is much cheaper than a keurig machine. If more people could  keep in mind the increasing environmental harm K-cups are causing and switch to more sustainable options, perhaps we can begin to to fixour daily coffee fix before it demolishes our wallets and our planet.


i-Trek Volunteer Karen

Hi Karen, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with you telling us about yourself.

My background includes a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, a master’s degree in Business Administration and 15 years’ experience in the aerospace industry. Currently, I am enjoying my time as a stay-at-home mom, with an energetic 9 year old son, as I have the opportunity not only to spend lots of time with my family, but to give back to the community as well.

What is your role on the i-Trek team?

As Project Manager for i-Trek, I assist both the Trek and Fundraising Committees with the planning and coordination of various activities relating to the Treks (Research Projects) for underrepresented students.

Why did you want to contribute to the i-Trek Team?

When I first came across i-Trek, I had recently completed a volunteer assignment with a non-profit organization assisting Central American entrepreneurs. I got excited about i-Trek since I could relate to their mission on a more personal level and I was impressed with their leadership team. Since I was a female student in a male dominated technical school many years ago, I was sure that the support and encouragement provided by i-Trek would be greatly appreciated by many underrepresented students. So, I wanted to help out.

Where do you see i-Trek going in the next 5 years?

I believe that i-Trek will make big advancements over the next 5 years particularly in the number of Trekkers/students that they will be able to support. This will come in part from their ability to improve the sustainability of the organization. As they increase their donor base and improve their communication and association with corporations and professional organizations, the resulting increase in funding will allow them to reach out to more and more students each year.

How did you become interested in STEM?

As a child, my family took a vacation to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and I was fascinated during our tour of the launch facility. I remember thinking, “It would be so cool to work here someday!” That thought stayed with me for years before I decided to attend an engineering school in Florida and major in aerospace.

What single moment/experience helped to shape your current STEM career?

After joining The Boeing Company right out of college, I learned quickly that there were many different opportunities for an engineer to pursue (systems, structures, payloads, etc.). After spending several years in technical design organizations, I made a big decision to switch to Customer Engineering (Account Management). This change allowed me to work directly with the airlines regarding their aircraft purchases and touch upon many different aspects of the manufacturing process. My experiences in this customer focused organization helped me improve my business, communication and planning skills and enabled me to travel the world. This decision at Boeing really shaped my STEM career and led to great opportunities at other aerospace firms as well.

You have been a huge impact in planning the first i-Trek mini Trek. What activity do you think the students will be most excited to participant in?

The agenda for the mini-Trek is packed with learning opportunities and fun events for the students. They are going to have a great week touring campuses and engineering labs, listening to presentations and working with some talented mentors. A big part of the process will be learning about their fellow Trekkers and brainstorming different ideas for their 2016 research project. However, my guess is that they will be most excited to participate in the Boston scavenger hunt. Who doesn’t love a fun game around the city?!

Where do you see yourself (career wise) in the next 10 years?

That’s a tough question. By the time my son completes high school (~9 years), I just might be back in the corporate world full time. Anything’s possible!

What kind of things do you like to do in your free time?

I live in the Seattle area, which is full of great outdoor opportunities. So, every weekend is filled with family adventures, including hiking or skiing in the Cascade Mountains, running or biking on our local trails, or enjoying a neighborhood whiffle ball game. Recently, my son fulfilled his summer 2015 goal by climbing with us up Mount Rainier to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet! Never a dull moment.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?

I travelled a lot when I was working full time, including many, many trips to Europe, a visit to Singapore, a meeting in Mexico City and a couple trips to Sydney. I also spent a couple weeks in Brazil during an international study tour while earning my MBA. A few years later, before my son was born, my husband and I, along with some of our friends, chartered a sailboat on Saint Lucia. What a crazy adventure that was! Today, my occasional family travel consists of hiking trips to Hawaii, which is wonderful. With all our local adventures around the Pacific Northwest, world travelling is not so important to me anymore, but I have to admit a relaxing vacation to Fiji or a hiking trip to New Zealand would be pretty nice!