For Audrie Corral, attending Virginia Tech has been a four-year course in growing comfortable with being uncomfortable. Throughout her college career, the 2021 Outstanding Senior for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has demonstrated initiative and enthusiasm for learning everything from scuba diving to taking apart and cleaning giant machinery.

Although she considered a degree in chemistry, Corral’s tour of the VT-FIRE foundry during Women’s Preview Weekend, hosted by the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, sealed the deal: She wanted to study materials science and engineering at Virginia Tech. “That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Corral said after watching a molten metal pouring demonstration.

While another university promised a large scholarship, Corral chose Virginia Tech, where she was assured of scholarship opportunities. She has since been supported in the materials science and engineering department and at the foundry by scholarships from the Association for Iron and Steel Technology, the H.H. Harris Foundation, the American Foundry Society, and the Foundry Educational Foundation, and through co-op experience.

As a freshman, Corral became heavily involved with VT-FIRE, taking upper-level courses and volunteering to help with outreach events both at the foundry and in local schools.

“I love casting,” she said.  “I love that it’s like an art but it’s also a science.”

Corral appreciates the principles that must be followed in casting, and the fact that “you have to get a good feel for what you’re working with,” she said.

This spring, Audrie enrolled in the materials engineering department’s newest course in bladesmithing at the foundry, learning all about forging. “It’s another application of metallurgy that I’m really enjoying,” Corral said.  One day, she plans to buy her own forge. 

Audrie Corral
Audrie Corral holds two blades she forged in the MSE bladesmithing course. Photo by LeeAnn Ellis.

Growing into leadership

Working toward her metallurgy career goals, Corral joined student organizations that seemed exciting but also intimidating to her. She chose the Virginia Tech Human Powered Submarine Team precisely because she didn’t know anything about submarines. Corral became the team’s sponsor relations officer and eventually president, a role she currently holds.

Corral was instrumental in pursuing a partnership with a local dive shop that helped the team members gain scuba certification, and she became one of their three pilots. While some find the submarine claustrophobic, she feels safe inside its tight confines. 

As the sole materials engineer among aerospace and ocean engineers on the team, Corral has applied her unique knowledge and skills to developing ideas for manufacturing carbon composite control surfaces (used in steering), constructing a fiberglass composite hull, and casting an aluminum propeller.

Carving a career path

Corral joined the American Foundry Society Student Chapter to learn more about metallurgy as a career. Through attending conferences, she met a metallurgist who became her mentor during her first internship. That mentor will be Corral’s boss when she steps into her new job in the melt shop at Charlotte Pipe and Foundry in July.

During co-op experiences and summer internships, Corral proved that she was ready and willing to face any challenge and learn to do the hard, sometimes gritty work of her chosen field. At Charlotte Pipe, she worked with both metallurgists and environmental engineers.

When the staff prepared to clean out the facility’s wastewater pond, Corral surprised and amused everyone by volunteering to climb down into a huge, empty swimming pool to squeegee the surfaces.  She made a positive impression on plant metallurgist, Leonard Winardi. 

“We are particularly impressed with her personality and work ethic,” Winardi said. “She stays in the pouring deck for hours, even during the hot summer months, and she is always helpful to everyone.”

Corral spent seven months in a co-op position with Nucor Hertford, where she became one of the company’s caster operators and learned everything about the machine, including cleaning it. The machine is used to cast huge slabs of steel that are then rolled into sheets, Corral explained.

“The caster is this gigantic, monster machine,” she said. “They have to take out giant segments and clean it out, and I really like seeing the machine being taken apart and working on it and helping them out.”

“It helps you understand the process. If you know the machine, then you’re able to fix it. You know it well and it helps you do your job better.”

Finding ways to serve

Virginia Tech’s dedication to service was one aspect that drew Corral to the university, and this offered another path for her to hone her leadership skills. During freshman year she participated in a VT Engage alternative spring break trip, where students worked on home repairs in an impoverished area. 

That experience made such an impact on Corral that when she learned the project leaders were graduating, making it unlikely the project would continue, she applied and was accepted as a VT Engage STEP UP Leader. She led weekend volunteer trips and organized the same spring break project as her former trip leader.

“I love introducing my participants to service and seeing them transform into a cohesive unit,” Corral said. “My hope is that they too are inspired to seek ways to serve others [long] after our trip has ended.”

As she prepares to graduate and move into her new role with Charlotte Pipe, Corral has most assuredly grown “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

— Written by LeeAnn Ellis