Rebecca Fazenbaker has always been captivated by the less conventional.
For years, she wanted to study reptiles but has found a new calling in a specialized engineering field.
The 18-year-old Turkeyfoot Valley Area High School graduate developed a fondness for snakes at an early age at her home in Addison, where she often would catch garter and black racer varieties and keep them in cages on her porch.
“I was always a tomboy,” she said. “All the girls would be creeped out. I thought it was cool.”
It may have started with insects first, Fazenbaker said. She remembers she and her sister numbering cicada wings with Sharpie markers to try track them.
Through most of her high school career, she wanted to be a herpetologist, a zoologist who studies reptiles and amphibians, and she volunteered at Tristate Zoological Park in Cumberland as part of her senior project, “Poisonous Snakes of Western PA.”
At the zoo, she would clean cages or feed animals and keep an eye on the reptiles to make sure they were acting normally and didn’t show signs of distress or disease.
“I just like the way they feel, the way they behave,” she said. “There was a tegu (lizard) at the zoo, Edgar. He was a total gentleman. He acted like a cat when you scratched between his eyes. Each animal, they’re just all very different.”
But it was at another job where her engineering talents were discovered. Fazenbaker, who finished out her senior year of high school last fall as a dual enrollment student at Allegany College of Maryland, began working at Juergensen Marine, Inc., in Addison last November to help out with administrative duties such as filing paperwork.
Her curiosity — maybe the same urge that compelled her to chase snakes — made her a standout employee and an engineering intern at the company, which manufactures underwater life support systems, according to the company’s chief engineer.
“She hadn’t done a whole lot of hands-on technical work before,” Eric Hilty said. “She started out working more as a paper pusher, but then she started noticing things in the shop and it kind of exploded.”
The teen was tasked with looking into a couple of engineering puzzles for the manufacturer and was able to come up with solutions, some of which the company still is employing.
“She’s done nothing but impress me,” Hilty said.
Both her parents, Lynn and David Fazenbaker, are engineers, so she knew engineering was an option but had not considered it seriously until she gained that real-world experience, she said.
“I started out as a secretary and then found myself working with a soldering iron,” she said. “I was drawn into it. I decided to totally change my career, except I kept that biology.”
Now, she wants to be a biomimetic engineer, someone who observes natural biological phenomenon and figures out how to use it in human or machine applications. An example would be studying geckos to figure out how the skin on their feet helps them climb walls and then finding ways that the creature’s design could be incorporated into products for people, she said.
It’s a bit of a blend between her first interest in reptiles and her newfound knack for engineering. Hilty said Fazenbaker also spoke to his wife, a biometrics engineer in the federal government, about the lack of women in engineering. According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, women engineers represent just 14 percent of the total engineering workforce.
She is headed to the University of Pittsburgh this fall, where she hopes to achieve a double major in both mechanical engineering and biology. A family friend, who she said she considers an adoptive brother, also helped her decide to study engineering in addition to biology, rather than straight biology, to expand her job possibilities.
“My mom had suggested it, too, a few years ago,” she said. “I always kind of kept it in the back of my mind.”
Though studying two intense fields for her double major will be a challenge, it certainly won’t be the first she’s faced.
Just after she turned 13, Fazenbaker was told she had a large benign liver tumor, bigger than a softball.
Through four years and rounds of treatments that included 10 embolization procedures, the teen stayed upbeat and focused on her schoolwork. She named the tumor Fred and kept fighting. Last summer, surgeons removed her tumor, gallbladder and half her liver.
From ninth to 11th grades, Fazenbaker missed more than 48.5 days of school due to the liver tumor, her mother said, but still managed to graduate high school with a 3.94 GPA and 15 college credits.
“She handled this ordeal with a sense of adventure and humor,” Mrs. Fazenbaker said.