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Three Female Alabama Graduates make UAB History

By Yvonne Taunton
UAB News

This month’s commencement ceremony at the University of Alabama at Birmingham marked the first time in its history that the School of Engineering has awarded doctorates to three female Alabama residents in the same term. The women, Sandra Cutts, Jaquice Boyd and Ashlyn Manzella, are all receiving their doctoral degrees in civil engineering.

Cutts, from Huntsville/Madison, Alabama, says the unique programming and reputation of UAB’s Graduate School, guided by Dean Lori McMahon, and her passion for mentoring doctoral students is what attracted her to UAB.

“Dean McMahon consistently pushes women to excel,” Cutts said. “For example, if it were not for her constant encouragement, I would not have received a Blazer Best Fellowship (Blazer Graduate Fellow) or applied for and was subsequently selected as a National Fulbright Alternate. She exemplifies the value of diversity and what women can bring to the STEM field.”

Jaquice Boyd, from Brighton, Alabama, says UAB’s stellar reputation for preparing its graduates to excel in the workforce is what attracted her to the university.

“My adviser, Dr. Robert W. Peters, has been very influential in shaping me to be not only the best engineer, but the best version of myself,” Boyd said.

Manzella, from Hoover, Alabama, initially chose UAB for her undergraduate studies because of the university’s reputation in the community for being an up-and-coming engineering program.

At the same time, women were leading the School of Engineering — Dean Linda Lucas, Associate Dean Melinda Lalor and Associate Dean Zoe Dwyer, whom Manzella found highly inspirational.

“When I expressed interest in engineering in high school, I was discouraged from pursuing engineering because it was deemed a man’s field,” Manzella said. “After completing my undergraduate studies from UAB, I began working for UAB, and it was fitting to continue my studies with a program I knew and loved. I was encouraged by Drs. Fouad, Kirby, Moradi and Peters to pursue the doctoral path.”

Manzella says UAB offered her numerous opportunities to grow as an academic researcher and leader.

“Through the School of Engineering, I served as the Dupius Scholar and provided tours to potential students and their families,” Manzella said. “I studied in Cairo, Egypt, with the Department of Civil Engineering, and I am forever grateful for the mentoring I received from my advisers, instructors and many others.”

All three women have big plans after graduation to make an impact in the field of engineering, and to also encourage other women to pursue a career in the field.


Head shot of Sandra Cutts (Graduate Student, Environmental Engineering; Recipient, 2019 Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship), 2019.

Cutts says that, as a black woman with a Ph.D. in engineering, it is not an option but an obligation that she support and encourage future generations of minorities pursing STEM education through her sorority and public speaking activities.

“I welcome the mentor role as so many mentors, my HBCU foundation at AAMU, and my family all had an impact on my life, which allowed me to accomplish what I have to date,” Cutts said.


Boyd says she will continue her current position with the Birmingham Water Works Board as an environmental engineer specializing in drinking water treatment optimization.

“I currently speak at various schools and programs throughout the city,” Boyd said. “The biggest impact I would like to make is to continue motivating young girls to pursue a STEM field, as there is still a lack of female minority representation in the STEM industries. Currently, only 13 percent of engineers are women, with 3 percent being women of color.”


Manzella plans to begin a career in water purification with the Birmingham Water Works Board and continue to instruct courses at UAB and other institutions.

“I hope to continue mentoring other individuals interested in engineering,” Manzella said. “I sincerely hope to positively impact the world around me through my continued service, research and teaching. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring elementary through college students by providing the supportive relationships that UAB faculty and staff foster. Having completed an interdisciplinary-based dissertation, I fully understand the impact and value of interdisciplinary collaboration, and foresee this interdisciplinary approach positively impacting future research that I am a part of.”