Sheryl Ponds, a 1987 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Tickle College of Engineering, has always been interested in the environment and in making the world a better place.
Her recent work focuses on helping to alleviate range anxiety, the biggest sticking point keeping auto owners from opting for electric vehicles. “People imagine the what-if scenario of running out of power in between charging stations,” said Ponds.
To be part of the solution, in 2019 Ponds founded Dai Technologies Corporation, which provides tailor-made turnkey installations of EV charging stations for homes, multifamily developments, and commercial settings, including curbside parking in the Washington, DC, metro area.
“We basically have to build out the network, to make it more viable for the average driver,” said Ponds. “It doesn’t matter if you are talking about more eco-friendly vehicles or better preparing buildings for earthquakes—engineers take on the challenges that shape society. At our core, that’s what we do.”
A Pitch from Professor Fred Brown
A DC native, Ponds became interested in the environment at an early age. For her eighth-grade science fair project at Washington’s Rabaut Junior High School, she made a solar array out of trash bags. “The bags were my panels,” said Ponds. “A lamp was the sun. Putting them together resulted in a flow of heated air that could be used as a power source. I came in second to someone who built a robot. To him, robots were a hobby. But my project was something that stuck with me.”
When she was a senior at McKinley Technology High School, she received a letter from Fred D. Brown Jr., the head of UT’s Minority Engineering Scholarship Program (which is now named in his memory). The letter contained a recruitment pitch and the promise of a significant scholarship. “They basically said ‘We want you,’” recalled Ponds. “Up until then, I hadn’t really considered UT. But when I really thought about it, I wanted to be in a true college town, with an airport that allowed you to fly directly to DC.”
Arriving at UT in the fall of 1981, Ponds was quick to take to campus life and opportunities. She became an active member of the Black Cultural Programming Committee and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, finding her voice and making friends in both organizations. Professor A. J. Baker supported her and drove her to succeed during the tougher times on campus.
A scholarship program born out of the oil crisis of the 1970s provided her with a way to return to her passion for helping the environment by developing practical solar energy, but that soon hit a snag. “The oil crisis came to an end and prices really dropped, so I had to pivot,” said Ponds. “I liked math and science, so I stuck with engineering because I knew it would also help me get closer to addressing sustainability.”
Advice to Upcoming Students
When asked what she would tell students about her experience and lessons learned, Ponds said, “Engineering taught me how to overcome adversity—how not to quit when I’m feeling outclassed and lacking some of the basics. I had enough grit to persevere and achieve my goal of graduating with a mechanical engineering degree. You have it also.” She added that she would advise students not to get discouraged by classes and coursework that can be hard to relate to, since their work might not yet exist in the real world.
The ongoing adoption of EV vehicles is a case in point. “Gas stations are seemingly at every exit now, but there was a time that routes had to carefully be planned to make sure that fuel was nearby, and many early models didn’t even have a gauge to show you how much fuel you had in the tank. And yet, thanks to advancements, automobiles are now ubiquitous.”
Residential areas, new placements in mixed-use developments, and an overall increase in locations at public facilities and parking lots are all fertile ground for new EV stations. Ponds’s company was recently selected to provide home-charge installations for Volvo’s new EV owners in the DC area. “These advancements can help EV adoption in the same way they helped gas-powered vehicles catch on with the public,” said Ponds.
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