Problem solving on and off the court

From analytical reasoning in a lab to critical thinking on the hardwood— one alumna is leading by example showing that women in STEM can do it all

Liza Karlen doesn’t take no for an answer. When she set out to major in engineering while also playing Division I college basketball, she knew there would be challenges.

In high school, the 6’2” former Marquette women’s basketball player was approached by college athletic recruiters, and they all had similar responses when she revealed her desire to focus on both interests.

“Schools kept telling me that engineering and basketball would not be possible, and that I’d have to give up one,” Karlen remembers.

But she was patient and waited for the answer she needed to hear.

“At Marquette, all I heard was, ‘What can I do to help you achieve this? What can we do to get you to where you want to go?’ I couldn’t have achieved any of my goals without that kind of support and leadership,” Karlen says. “It was the perfect fit.”

The May 2024 Opus College of Engineering graduate will now use her problem-solving skills on the hardwood at Notre Dame as she begins her master’s degree this fall.

From the beginning

The love of sports and engineering run in the St. Paul, Minnesota, native’s family.

“I’m lucky. I have a lot of STEM family members,” Karlen says. “My uncle was a mechanical engineer; I have a cousin who was a petroleum engineer, one uncle who majored in biomedical engineering, and another who double majored in civil and mechanical engineering. So just being able to hear their experiences has been helpful. I also think it takes a certain type of personality to be an engineer as well.”

Dr. Kristina Ropella

Dr. Kristina Ropella, Opus Dean of the Opus College of Engineering, agrees and says there are certain characteristics typical of engineers.

“Critical thinking skills, desire to problem solve, willingness to serve the world through creative work, high ethical standards, resilience, persistence, the ability to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and ask others for help are all qualities of an engineer,” Ropella explains.

Karlen knew those were qualities she excelled in.

“Just having that problem solving mindset and knowing my personality, I had no doubt this major would best fit for my goals and values,” Karlen says.

A personalized experience

Due to Marquette’s relatively smaller size, students can develop personal relationships with faculty and staff, aiding their success in the classroom. Over the past four years, Ropella and Karlen have built a relationship on similarities — both being strong women in STEM. 

“When I was getting recruited to schools, you would never see a woman as a dean of engineering,” Karlen explains. “I knew that I would probably be a minority going into my classes, especially as a female. So, to see someone like Dr. Ropella take on that role and absolutely crush that role — it’s been phenomenal to see.”

These personalized connections allow students to make arrangements with faculty to complete work and meet academic expectations while also meeting the demands of the athletic schedule.

“It is challenging to be an engineering major and D1 athlete,” Ropella says. “The engineering curriculum requires a heavy course load with considerable time spent in laboratory activity and teamwork. Athletes must have great time management skills.”

But as Karlen reflects on the last four years of juggling her basketball career while keeping up with a rigorous engineering curriculum, she says it’s all been worth it.

“It’s not an easy path to take it all, but it’s been extremely rewarding. I’ve learned a lot of lessons on the way. I try to never be complacent with myself and I try to see how much I can really take on and how many people I can impact,” she says.

Personal ambitions aside, she says there’s one thing she needs to do this summer before transitioning to Notre Dame.

“It’s all been good, but I need a nap,” Karlen says. “I think it’s been a lot!”