Commencement 2019: Passion for oceans inspires URI student to be renewable energy entrepreneur

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Ellie Dunkle
Ellie Dunkle. URI photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 30, 2019 – Despite having spent most of her childhood in South Dakota – far from the coast – Ellie Dunkle has always loved the ocean. That’s why she chose to study ocean engineering and oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, and it’s why she is planning a career providing ocean-generated energy to isolated communities.

As Dunkle prepares to graduate from URI on May 19, she is looking back fondly on her international travels, campus leadership and internships as she prepares to be an ocean entrepreneur.

“I never realized how powerful the ocean was until I moved to South Kingstown at age 16 and became a life guard at Narragansett Town Beach and saw people struggle in the waves,” said Dunkle. “Instead of being terrified of the ocean, it made me want to learn more about how it worked.”

She got her feet wet early in her URI career, traveling to Guatemala as a freshman member of URI’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World to help design and build the first public water quality laboratory in the country’s highlands. She returned a year later as one of the project’s leaders to monitor the lab and help a local university establish a chapter of the global organization.

“It was a hugely impactful experience. I learned so much about laboratory equipment and how to do research,” Dunkle said. “And I really enjoyed using my Spanish. That was especially useful to me.”

Enrolled in URI’s International Engineering Program, which requires students to major in an engineering discipline and a foreign language and spend a year abroad, she put her Spanish speaking skills to the test when she traveled to Spain in her junior year. She took classes for a semester at the University of Cantabria in northern Spain, then interned for an oceanographic engineering firm in the Canary Islands.

“I’m very grateful for the chance to be away for that long,” she said. “I really felt like I got the chance to acclimate to the environment and the culture there. There was nothing open on Sundays, we had siesta’s in the middle of the day. It really helped me to learn to be patient.”

During her internship, she analyzed data for reports, conducted water quality testing, and translated grant proposals for the European Union. “Whatever they needed done, I took care of it,” she said. “It was a very transformative time for me. I really developed as an international engineer.”

When she returned from her year abroad, Dunkle interned with a Fall River company – an affiliate of the Canary Island company with which she had just interned –that puts solar panels on floating docks for the remote charging of ships and other marine vehicles.

But her time at URI wasn’t all academics and internships. In response to the 2016 elections, she started an organization on campus, Women in STEM, as a support group for women seeking careers in the sciences who struggle for acceptance in the male-dominated fields. She also participated in community service projects as a Feinstein Experience volunteer.

With commencement approaching, she has already been accepted as a graduate student at Oregon State University, where she will study coastal and ocean engineering and conduct research on ocean-related renewable energy projects. She eventually plans to earn an MBA, too.

“I really want to find a way to marry all of my passions and start my own company to create technologies using ocean renewable energy to help connect disadvantaged people to society,” Dunkle concluded. “I want to look at remote islands or isolated communities and make sure they can be self-sustaining with the help of ocean renewable energy.”