Soccer standout Douglas is industrious on field and in classroom

// Industrial & Systems Engineering

Tags: 2019, News, students

Photo of Grace Douglas playing soccer

Grace Douglas is a three-year starter at center back for the University of Wisconsin women’s soccer team. “If I didn’t play soccer at this level, I would have no clue how to push my limits like I do academically,” she says. Photo credit: Tom Lynn.

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Captain of the nationally ranked University of Wisconsin women’s soccer team. Double major in two challenging STEM fields. Undergraduate research assistant in an engineering lab. Data science intern in Washington, D.C.

There are times when Grace Douglas looks at her resume and worries it paints a picture of someone robotically collecting accolades, incessantly chasing achievement, leaving no space for enjoyment during her time at UW-Madison.

So she wants to clarify something.

“I’m having the best time, I truly am,” she says.

Photo of Grace Douglas
Grace Douglas. Photo courtesy of UW Athletics.

Douglas relishes her juggling act, balancing life as an industrial engineering and statistics double major with the demands of leading a perennial NCAA tournament qualifier.

And whether she’s slide tackling an opponent on the soccer field or grinding through an assignment, Douglas generally approaches the task at hand with a calm, resolute determination.

“She’s one of these people who is sort of on a mission,” says John Lee, the Emerson Electric Quality & Productivity Professor and one of Douglas’ engineering mentors. “She has a clear idea of what she’d like to do, at least at a high level, and is very driven.”

Douglas spent the summer of 2019 as a data science intern at ICR, a government contractor that specializes in work for the defense and intelligence communities. There, she drew on her coursework in the computer programming language Python to develop a neural network—a set of algorithms, essentially—capable of detecting anomalies in massive datasets.

The experience both stoked her interest in the national security field and validated her decision to add a statistics major in fall 2018 to enhance her technical prowess. “I’m a competitor,” says Douglas, who landed the opportunity after connecting with alumnus Jerry Litzo (BSEE ’99) at the College of Engineering’s career fair. “Being on the cutting edge is something that intrigues me, and I think a national security job, especially in the intelligence community, gives me that. I also think national security is the most efficient way to help the most amount of people at a single time.”

Summer is professional development time for Douglas, when she has a brief reprieve from the rigors of her soccer schedule. As a first-year student, she wanted to get research experience, so she went from office to office, looking for faculty who needed an undergraduate researcher. Lee did, and Douglas worked on a project examining the interactions between pedestrians and cars at intersections. Over the course of two summers, she captured video at four intersections around Madison, analyzed the recordings using coding software and helped write the methods portion of the resulting paper in Transportation Research Record.

“I think if you can learn to do research at that level—perform, relate and communicate your ideas at that level—you become loads smarter,” she says.

Her smarts are also a major asset on the soccer field. As captain and a center back, the rangy redshirt junior organizes the Badgers’ defensive shape, making sure they’re clogging passing lanes and tracking opposing attackers.

After not playing a minute her first year—which turned into a redshirt season, giving her another year of eligibility—she’s started every game over the past three seasons.

“She didn’t take the year off,” says UW coach Paula Wilkins, who calls Douglas one of the best natural leaders she’s coached. “She kept getting better and taking care of details. She took a lot of information in. A lot of people get emotional and don’t hear information, but she had such a growth mindset; she would take the information, process it and get better.”

Douglas has brought that type of rational thinking onto the field, whether she’s interpreting tactical instructions from Wilkins and communicating them to teammates, spotting potential scoring threats or picking out the appropriate pass.

“It’s hard to not get caught up in the emotion of a soccer game, because we have a bunch of very competitive women down to the core trying to win this game, and often we get selfish or frustrated or we’re yelling at each other,” she says. “I think it comes from the background that I have. I’m a STEM major, I like answers, I like solutions and how you get those answers. And that’s the same thing on the soccer field. It just looks a little prettier.”

Author: Tom Ziemer