April 15, 2014

Jessica Odell didn’t start her college career as an LSU student. She didn’t even start out as a biological engineering major. A Ruston, La. native, Odell started out with a challenge and let her willingness to learn propel her into future opportunities.

“It’s OK to start small,” said Odell. “Put yourself out there, take risks, and learn to sell your skills.”

Since graduating in 2010 with a degree in biological engineering, she has followed her own advice, starting with a position as a wildlife biologist for the Deepwater Horizon Incident Response team.

Learning through Response

“If I had sat down at that Deepwater Horizon interview and said, ‘well, I learned about microbial kinetics, and how to design an implant, and how to process corn,’ they probably would have dismissed me with a sideways glance,” said Odell. “Instead, I sat down and said ‘send me where you need me. I will get my boots muddy, I will paddle a canoe, and I will learn whatever you need me to learn.”

Odell became part of the Natural Resource Advisor (NRA) program on the response, working to advise crews on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service Best Management Practices. Nearly a year later, she was overseeing Environmental Technology Administration in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, while working with developers to design a suite of applications to track bird nesting activity.

Four years after the Deepwater Horizon Spill, Odell remains an active part of the response team, serving as the analysis coordinator for the Endangered Species Act Biological Assessment Team, making heat maps of species reactions to response activities.

“It is both an honor and a challenge, the most daunting of my career thus far,” said Odell. “Although the Deepwater incident was both a human and environmental tragedy, the response was powered by passionate people. It was ultimately the human endeavor that it became, that has made it the most memorable for me.”

Becoming an LSU Engineer

The daughter of a painter and a potter, Jessica Odell says her parents emphasized the correlation between science, math, music and the arts.

“My job recommendations pointed to engineering and architecture,” Odell said. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what engineering was at the time. A boy at the lunch table piped up and said, ‘My dad is an engineer, and I’m going to be one too. Trust me, it’s not for you. It’s very hard.’ This pushed an unforgiving button in my teenage ego, and I decided right then and there that engineering was exactly what I was going to pursue.”

LSU’s College of Engineering wasn’t Odell’s first choice; she tried biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at another state university before transferring to LSU for her junior year.

“I did some research and discovered LSU’s Department of Biological Engineering,” Odell said. “The curriculum was modern, challenging and unique.”

Odell said the program attracted her, because professors and researchers were asking tough questions about grey areas of the field.”

“To look at biological processes as a system that work like a harmonious machine is beautiful to me, and it has served me well in my career so far,” she said. “I was also intrigued by the fact that graduates were almost 50 percent women. The stats were nowhere near that where I started. So, I switched to LSU, moved to Baton Rouge, and got that niche I was searching for.”

Odell says her advice for anyone considering an engineering degree is to go for it, because there is no better way to get a return on your investment in school.

“Sometimes, I felt like I was bloodying my knuckles to the bone in my engineering studies, and the only thing that got me through was the promise of a bright future,” Odell said. “Hold on to that promise, because it is real. Every assignment you turn in, every test you pass, brings you one step closer to a future you cannot even imagine.”

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