With Popsicle Sticks and a Glue Gun, Penn’s Allison Pearce Got Her Start in Engineering

It was 3 a.m. at an engineering camp in Houston when insight struck Allison Pearce, now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.

Charged with building a “roller coaster” on which a marble could roll using nothing but Popsicle sticks and a glue gun, she was working with her partners to devise a way to make a vertical loop — a feat that would win them extra points in the evaluation. They were stumped.

“Popsicle sticks just aren’t bendy,” says Pearce. “They’re not loopable things.”

But then Pearce eyed the glue sticks that came with the glue gun. Using her hair straightener, she ironed them together until she had a material that could form a loop.

“I was proud of that,” she says. “And my hair straightener even survived!”

Her exhilarating — if sleep-deprived — experience at the camp helped Pearce narrow her focus on engineering as a career possibility. At Penn, after dabbling in biology and bioengineering and then discovering a love of computer science, Pearce now sees a future as a software engineer. A love for problem solving lies at the heart of all her passions.

As a high school senior, Pearce decided to leave behind her home in Texas to attend Penn, drawn by the appeal of the School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as some quirkier aspects of school culture, like the “fighting Quakers” mascot and the tradition of throwing toast onto Franklin Field at home football games.

She entered Penn as a bioengineering major — a notoriously demanding choice — but had some free time in her schedule, thanks to AP credits from high school. She elected to take Computer Science 110, “Introduction to Computer Programming,” her first computer science class ever.

“I fell in love with it,” she says. 

By Christmas break, she was eagerly sharing her knowledge of fractals and Java with her family. That enthusiasm only grew when she joined the lab of Brian Litt, a professor of neurology and bioengineering, as part of an independent study the following semester.

Litt notes that it was a rare occurrence for him to take a freshman on in this capacity.

“I never take freshmen,” he says. “Of course, that was before I met Allison. [Her] calm, disarming manner and her bulldog-like tenacity, always with a smile, eventually won me over, and I reluctantly agreed.”

Making an exception for Pearce has paid off, Litt calling her a “formidable scientist” and a “trusted, fully independent, functional part of the lab.”

Pearce began by working on a project that used computer science techniques to study epilepsy. One of her mentors in the lab, Ph.D. student Drausin Wulsin, suggested that Pearce might want to consider switching her major.

“He kept telling me, if I really like this computer stuff, it might be a good idea as an undergraduate to focus on computer science and pursue bioengineering later,” she says.

She took that advice to heart and signed up for additional computer science classes in her sophomore year, continuing to work in Litt’s lab all the while. 

She was also selected as a Rachleff Scholar, an opportunity for engineering undergraduates to learn more about the demands of research, graduate school and careers in the field.

“It was a good experience,” she says, “but during this whole process I realized that being an academic is not actually what I want to do.”

Meanwhile she continued to take computer science classes, enjoying a hardware engineering class she took the spring of her sophomore year. Though she hung onto the idea of double majoring in computer science and biology for a time, she now is fully committed to computer science.

Last fall, Pearce interviewed for software engineering internships for this coming summer and received offers from Amazon, Google and Qualcomm. Ultimately, she accepted the Qualcomm position, which will entail attempting to program a computer that behaves more like a human brain.

“The goal is to make a computer that can use intuition, that can learn, that can recognize patterns,” she says.

Though she wants to keep her options open, Pearce finds a few aspects of the Qualcomm internships appealing. For one, it may fast track her into a job after graduation. And, unlike many tech companies, Qualcomm also has an office in Pearce’s home state.

“I grew up in Texas and I love Texas, so I want to go back one day,” she says.

At Penn, Pearce has filled her time outside the classroom and the lab with activities that complement her academic interests. She is treasurer of the student-run Women in Computer Science group at Penn and just recently competed in the 48-hour programming marathon known as PennApps.

She puts aside academics stresses with frequent workouts at the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center and cooking sessions with friends in Theta Tau, the co-ed, professional fraternity to which she belongs and where she serves as vice regent.

“It’s a great group of people,” she says. “It’s really helped to have a group of friends who are engineers and understand that, no, you cannot always have fun on a Tuesday night. You have work to do!”

And even though Pearce’s family has little understanding of the nitty gritty of her academic love (her parents are economists and her brother is pursuing a degree in liberal studies and math), they’ve been supportive.

“If I start saying too many computer words they’re just like, Allison that’s great,” she says. “My dad thinks its funny when I start ‘geeking out.’”

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