In high school, Brecca Gaffney says, she didn’t know what an engineer was. Even after securing a scholarship to a well-regarded engineering school, she couldn’t quite grasp the idea of a career in the field.
In November 2018, the DU alumna stood on a stage in Washington, D.C., accepting the prestigious L’Oreal USA Women in Science fellowship. The woman who essentially majored in basketball at the Colorado School of Mines could now consider herself to be one of the preeminent female postdoctoral scientists in the country.
As one of five L’Oreal fellowship recipients, Gaffney (MS ’13, PhD ’17) received a $60,000 grant to fund her biomechanical research. Accompanying the monetary award is recognition for her work in the community and for her role as a trailblazing woman in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I’m very humbled and grateful,” says Gaffney, who is conducting her postdoctoral research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “I would be nowhere near where I’m at without the people around me. Without my family, it would be impossible. But also from a research standpoint, starting at DU and being totally green and getting to this point, I’ve been so fortunate being around genuinely good people.”
Raised in Greeley, Colorado, Gaffney initially prioritized the sport that would pay for her undergraduate education: basketball. At the Colorado School of Mines, she was a four-year starting forward, one of the team’s top scorers and its leading rebounder. But when an injury took her off the court, the rest of her academic career came into sharper focus.
After a course in biomechanics her junior year, Gaffney realized she was passionate about studying the way humans move.
Pursuing graduate studies at DU’s Ritchie School of Engineering & Computer Science, she found the perfect match for her interests in associate professor Bradley Davidson’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. Gaffney centered her research on amputees, wondering how the body compensates for lost limbs and the connection that compensation may have to low back pain.
“It was incredible to be able to work with the really established senior researchers at an almost one-to-one ratio, which is not something you get at the bigger institutions,” she says. “The hands-on access … is second to none.”
The classroom is where Gaffney envisions herself, both in the short and long term. One of her current priorities is building relationships with middle and high school kids through the nonprofit Mission: St. Louis, where she volunteers weekly.
“I think it is our social calling to give back,” she says. “It’s really exciting to interact with people who are different than me and see how they’re pursuing their dreams. L’Oreal really emphasizes what they call ‘changing the face of STEM.’”
Gaffney tries her best to personify that phrase in a field, mechanical engineering, where women are even more outnumbered than in the other STEM disciplines. And in the next few years, she is hoping to secure a faculty position at a university, where she can influence and inspire the female engineers of the future — though she would rather they be seen as “engineers who are female” instead. She would rather the scientific community place accomplishment above identity.
“I think women in STEM, we’re not victims,” she says. “We’re equals. DU does a pretty good job of acknowledging the issue, talking about it, but not using it as an excuse, which I really appreciate.
“If we can diversify the minds contributing to science from a gender standpoint, from a race standpoint and approach the work from different angles, we really make the science better.”