From Student to Engineering Leader
Dina Agrapides, senior engineer at Cordis Corp., a Johnson & Johnson company, recently "retired" from her position as chairperson of the New Jersey FIRST Robotics Planning Committee after four years of being responsible for planning and executing one of the nation's two oldest regional FIRST events.
"Dina is one of those 'behind the scenes" people who always gets the job done," commented Randy Schaeffer, FIRST regional director. "She's an effective leader and great problem-solver."
At Sovereign Bank Arena, Dina can be found scrambling from one area of the arena to another in a t-shirt marked "Crew," and a headset through which dozens of other volunteers are constantly talking in her ear. It seems sometimes like everyone is pulling her in a different direction. Dina is energized by her strong desire to make sure that the overall experience of the NJ Regional is something that the kids can come away from and love.
Dina, a graduate of Hillsborough High School in Hillsborough, NJ, was a member of her own FIRST Robotics Team when she was a student. "The geek that I am," she says, laughing at calling herself a geek, "just had to jump at the chance to be a part of this." Her first experience with FIRST was a year of learning - the Ethicon engineers taught their small team a great deal - from the tensile strengths of various materials to using AutoCad. "The one thing I remember most about competing is that the motors would overheat. We would sit in the pit and hook-up fans and crack open ice packs to cool them off so they'd work again."
Despite all the technical challenges that had to be overcome, a FIRST regional competition was enough to inspire Dina to return to the team the next year. "You get awed by a FIRST Competition and it dawns on you that there really is a way to apply the things that you are learning in high school - there really is a point to it all."
Competing at the FIRST Championship was another learning experience for Dina. "You really get that sense of competition being stepped up a notch when you get down to the Championship. It really makes you focus that you need to network and learn from everyone. There's expertise from all over the world at the Championship, and it was really interesting to go around and learn how everyone tackled the same problems."
Participating in FIRST helped Dina select engineering as her major when she went to college. "A lot of my college entrance essays and interviews included questions like 'how do you show leadership?' 'do you have a mastery of problem solving?' and 'how do you demonstrate that you can handle teamwork?' FIRST really was that shining example that I used over and over again. I had been exposed to how the real-world technology is done." FIRST not only helped Dina succeed at Cornell University as a chemical engineer, but also helped her get her first college internship, a co-op position at Johnson & Johnson.
FIRST was there again when she accepted her first job at Cordis Corporation, a Johnson & Johnson company. "I walked in the door to start my first day and the guy in the cubicle next to me says, 'So we have this robotics program that we do here, do you want to join up? It's called FIRST.'" That was enough for Dina to get involved in FIRST yet again, ending up leading the Cordis team for a few years.
In her current position at Cordis, Dina is involved in the design of implants for heart patients where work is done in teams consisting of hundreds of people. The schedule for bringing a new product to the point where it can be used by patients is very demanding. All the pieces fit together like a puzzle and every component has to be ready on time. Dina says that her current work demands a lot of problem-solving - a skill for which her FIRST experience was a prelude. "Everything has to be done in the right sequence," she explains. "We're always analyzing the options available to solve a problem and picking the one that will work the best. Not unlike my experience with FIRST."
And what motivates Dina to devote so much time, energy, and creativity helping high school students? "As an engineering mentor I get to give back to the program that helped me so much. Mentoring helps me build leadership and business planning skills I need to do my job," explains Agrapides. But there is also the aspect helping young people prepare for their futures. "Essentially, I get to inspire and guide kids who are just like I was 10 years ago. My way to really pay back all those people who helped me get where I am is by doing the same thing for the next generation," she explains.