When Tranicé Warner graduated in 2014 as valedictorian of Cato Middle College High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, she'd been accepted to every college to which she'd applied.

She chose California State University, Fresno. Her rationale was simple: "I picked a CSU because I know these are teaching universities and I could have a closer bond with my peers and professors."

Warner also received a generous aid package and knew that the lower cost of a CSU would make a big difference for her and her family.

The civil engineering major was the top candidate in 2014 to the Lyles College of Engineering's Husband-Boeing Honors Program, and in September 2016, Warner received the CSU Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement—the highest award given to student scholars in the California State University system.

 

An Escape Through Education

Warner's transformation to exemplary undergraduate began with a mother's wish. "I am not just a first-generation college student, I am the only person in my family to attend. That holds a lot of weight with my entire family and community," she says.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, as the daughter of a single parent, Tranicé's mother often worked three jobs to provide for Tranicé and her sister.

It is her mother's story that has fueled Warner's drive for education since childhood: "She graduated high school fourth in her class and wanted to go to school for interior design, but she really couldn't afford college."

Her mother did everything she could to ensure her daughters had the chances she didn't have.

"My mom homeschooled me from the time I was two years old to make sure that I got ahead," says Warner. "She told me the only way that we were going to be able to escape would be through my education. Because of her, I am able to do the things that I am doing now."

It was her mother, too, who moved the family from Kansas City to Charlotte, North Carolina, so Tranicé could attend a better school.

 

Increasing Access for All

The budding engineer chose the focus of her research at Fresno State—geotechnical engineering design and water resource management—in part for very personal reasons linked to early childhood struggles.

These experiences now inspire Warner to focus on increasing access to the most basic of necessities—water.

Specifically, she thinks that better design can help to solve water management issues, especially in California. "I believe sustainable development and sustainable municipal design are integral to guaranteeing that everybody has the resources they need," explains Warner.

She's contributed to a project developing biodegradable plastics in a full-cycle water treatment process. Additionally, she has worked to investigate the best ways for replenishing groundwater deposits in the state's Central Valley.

It's when talking about her research that the young engineer becomes truly passionate, her eyes lighting up as she shares the details of the work she's completed under the mentorship of engineering professor William Wright, Ph.D.

It was Dr. Wright who guided Warner in the development of biodegradable plastic using cyanobacteria in fall 2015. "This process utilizes genetically modified cyanobacteria to digest carbon compounds in waste water leachate to create polyhydroxalkanoate (PHA), which is a fully biodegradable resin," Warner explains.

PHA can be used for wrapping food; spraying on trash to make it biodegradable; and even suturing wounds, since the compound is naturally found in the human body.

What excites the 20-year-old most, though, is the hope that this technology might be used around the world to increase access to clean water.

 

A Woman Transformed

When Warner first arrived at Fresno State as a freshman, the transition wasn't easy or simple. As a woman of color, she remembers standing out in the engineering program.

"I didn't see anyone who looked like me, I was the only one in the honors program, and up until this year, the only [woman of color] in the civil engineering major," she says.

Warner wasn't fazed, though; she used it as an opportunity to enlighten her peers.

"I always have to be open to teaching them how to be culturally aware," she says. "At the same time, I am learning patience, which is something I will need in the workforce because I know I will face similar things in my career."

Warner also feels empowered by her academic leaders. "I appreciate my dean, Dr. Ram Nunna, and Dr. Gregory Kriehn, the director of the honors college, for really supporting me," she says. "If it wasn't for them affirming that they believed in me and that I am here for a reason, I probably would have transferred somewhere else."

 

Making an Impact on STEM Students

Early on in her time at Fresno State, Warner sought guidance from Hernan Maldonado, the director of Pathways: Student Services at the Lyles College of Engineering. It was there that she discovered the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), whose mission is "to increase the number of culturally-responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community."

Warner soon became involved in NSBE's Technical Outreach Community Help (TORCH) program, eventually creating a STEM curriculum that she taught at underprivileged schools in the Fresno area.

The work has been a powerful way to transform her own experiences of feeling alone as an African American woman in the engineering college into a path to creating more diversity in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Her focus is specifically on increasing interest in STEM among underserved high school students.

"A lot of these kids are told that they are not good at math and science and to stay away from it," notes Warner. "The work is bigger than just teaching someone math. You have to go in and really connect with a student first … After that, you can teach them anything."

These are relationships Warner wants to continue forging long after she graduates from Fresno State in 2017. Her career plans include starting her own engineering consulting firm, but also mentoring more aspiring engineers.

"What I am doing now is setting the foundation so that I can bring somebody else up," she explains, adding that a professorship may also be in her future.

"Throughout this journey I haven't seen a lot of representation from my community. I want to be that support for other people, because I know how important it is."