‘I’m nine years strong’: Ariel Farnsworth emerges from bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma to succeed at engineering

by | May 6, 2019

May graduate Ariel Farnsworth overcame cancer, excelled in engineering school and hopes to inspire young women.
Ariel Farnsworth

Civil engineering senior Ariel Farnsworth, who is related to Philo T. Farnsworth, one of the inventors of television, has worked for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Ariel Farnsworth loves watching the progression of buildings being constructed.

Moments like those highlight what she likes about engineering. The University of Missouri–St. Louis student comes by her enthusiasm for the field naturally – even genetically.

She’s related to Philo T. Farnsworth, one of the inventors of television, essentially making her entertainment alter ego Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth.

“I’m just like, “Hey, that’s my great, great uncle over there,’” she joked. “It’s definitely somewhere in my genetic code that I got to make something cool. Make something cool and then have somebody sue me about it and then lose all my money and not get any recognition. Hopefully, that’s not the end goal.”

She took a circuitous route discovering her passion. Farnsworth wanted to be an Air Force pilot until finding out she was mildly colorblind derailed those plans. But she figured she could still enlist.

Then, when Farnsworth was 15, she noticed a lump on her neck. She ran it by her high school nurse, who directed Farnsworth to the hospital. There, doctors diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and transferred her to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, where she had surgery the next day.

“It was super scary,” Farnsworth recalled. “I thought I was going to die, and I was only 15 years old, so I didn’t know what was going on. There had been no history of it in my family. It was this random thing.”

Farnsworth found that lump in March, and by August of the same year, her cancer was in remission.

Since then, Farnsworth has not only persevered – both through the treatment and aftereffects of cancer and the death of her father, who passed away shortly after she started college ­– but has flourished. Poised to graduate this May from the UMSL/Washington University in St. Louis Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program with a BS in civil engineering, she’s worked for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hopes to be a role model for other women interested in engineering.

“I was very lucky that the cancer went away so quickly,” she said. “I had a really good support system with me at that time. I had just switched schools and moved to Illinois, but I made good friends there that helped me through it.”

“I’m nine years strong,” she added.

After her ordeal, Farnsworth knew that the Air Force was off the table. She leaned into her AP physics and math courses then got into 3-D modeling, earning first place in a regional competition her senior year of high school. She thought about – but discarded – architecture, then realized she wanted to go into engineering.

Before finding her way to UMSL, Farnsworth spent two years at Southwestern Illinois College and then took a gap year. Working full time to support herself and her rescue dog, the joint engineering program’s night classes caught Farnsworth’s eye.

Her first semester in the program, she took a traffic course taught by Shawn Leight, vice president and chief operating officer of CBB Transportation Engineers and Planners. It catapulted her into transportation design. That semester she attended the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ student leadership summit at Purdue University.

“It was just so amazing,” she said. “It was really cool to hear and learn more about transportation, and I went again last year in Minnesota. I was like, ‘We’ve got to do one here. We can’t not.’”

Without a transportation program and with the joint program’s small size, Farnsworth was concerned they wouldn’t be able to pull off the student summit here. But with some encouragement from Leight, Farnsworth dived into its organization, pulling together an executive committee of UMSL students. The result of their efforts is the 2019 ITE Student Leadership Summit, which will take place from June 17-19 and will be held in conjunction with the ITE professional conference.

“We’re getting to dig deep into the professional community here in St. Louis,” Farnsworth said. “That’s super beneficial for us, but it’s going to help us pull off a really great conference. I am excited because we’re really going to focus on leadership in transportation and how transportation affects our local communities.”

One of the speakers that Farnsworth is most eager to hear from is Xavier Blackwell, coordinator of leadership education and advisor to the UMSL chapter of the National Society of Leadership and Success, of which she is an executive board member.

Together, ITE and NSLS represent only a fraction of Farnsworth’s student involvement. Her last year at school, she joined the American Water Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, attending its Collegiate Leadership Institute at the 2018 conference in Minneapolis.

“If I’m going to go out there and get the best job for me, I need to figure out what’s out there,” she explained. “I drove to Minneapolis and back three times last year by myself because I was just so ready to see what everyone had to offer.”

Farnsworth has already made large steps in her career. Looking for internships at 2 a.m., she stumbled upon a posting from MSD. Despite her lack of sewer experience, Farnsworth applied just five hours after the job went live. She landed that co-op, which turned out to be one of her most rewarding experiences since starting at UMSL.

She was there for 18 months, far beyond the duration of most co-ops. MSD took Farnsworth seriously, introducing her to work with maintenance mechanics, planner schedulers, public entities and other engineers.

“They spent a lot of time trying to help me develop professionally,” she said. “They sent me to all the cool stuff they could. They gave me good, meaningful work. I really felt like I was accomplishing things. I came out of it ready to take on anything.”

Looking for breadth of experience, this year Farnsworth left MSD and started at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where she’s been working on hydraulic modeling and flood plain management. The Corps sent her to California where she took a course at the Hydrologic Engineering Center, which develops the computer programs used by the Corps.

As graduation approaches, Farnworth is looking back fondly at some of her favorite joint engineering experiences, such as her Mechanics of Material Science lab where her team developed a concrete column that took 159,000 pounds of pressure to crush – double that of any of her classmates’.

She’s also looking forward to new, post-school goals. Having already passed the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering exam, Farnsworth has her eye on the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, which would certify her as a licensed engineer. She can attempt it after four years of post-collegiate experience.

But even as she’s working toward that material goal, Farnworth has a longer-term aspiration in mind.

“I want to be one of those successful engineer woman speakers that goes around and helps young girls get interested in engineering,” she said. “That’s my end goal.”

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Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen

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