Illinois Physics Alumni Profiles: Melisa Napoles
Shana Littleton for Illinois Physics
Illinois Physics alumna Melisa Napoles (BS Engineering Physics, 2015) works remotely from Chicago as a sales engineer for Splunk, a software company based in San Francisco, specializing in large-scale data analysis tools. Splunk offers horizontal technologies for application management, security, compliance, and business and web analytics.
Illinois Physics communications intern Shana Littleton sat down with Melisa to talk about her experiences at Illinois and how she built a unique program of study at the intersection of physics, electrical and computer engineering, and business, to support the evolution of her career interests.
In addition to completing the Engineering Physics degree program, Melisa graduated with two minors, one in electrical and computer engineering (through The Grainger College of Engineering) and one in technology and management (through Gies College of Business and The Grainger College of Engineering). In her time at Illinois, Melisa completed three summer internships, six consulting engagements, and participated in a cultural and business immersion trip to China.
How do you choose to stand out?
Illinois Physics alumna Melisa Napoles chose her physics education to stand out from her peers. And then she designed her own track within her undergraduate program, building it on the experiences she most enjoyed along the way. Now she loves her job in the tech industry.
How did she get there?
It all started with physics.
Like most high school seniors, Melisa was unsure of what career path she would follow. But, she was certain of one thing—studying physics. It was the subject that, more than any of her other high school courses, answered her “why?” questions.
“When I was in high school, I was not one of those kids who knew I wanted to do a specific thing,” Melisa admits. I pursued physics at Illinois, because physics was the only class in high school that ever really answered all my ‘Whys?’ I was always that person who wanted to know more.”
By the time she started as a freshman at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010, Melisa’s plan was to apply to medical school at the end of her undergraduate career. And physics seemed like a sound choice of major over the more traditional biology and chemistry pre-med routes—she figured a physics major would help to craft her unique story and distinguish her from other medical school applicants.
However, when she decided that medicine might not be the right fit, she continued to explore opportunities that would ultimately carve a pathway to her career today in solutions engineering.
“For me, finding my path was a process of elimination,” she shares. “It was trial and error. I looked for opportunities to explore different paths. I would try something, and if I loved it, I knew that I loved it. If not, I pocketed it away as something I didn’t want to do. I had three internships in college. It turned out, the research really wasn’t for me. But I loved consulting. There was a whole process in college that was figuring out what all of this meant.”
Melisa spent her freshman year on the pre-med track. In her sophomore year, she looked at the possibility of pursuing a PhD in physics and going on to a career in research or academia.
“In my sophomore year, I made it my mission to secure research over the next summer, between my sophomore and junior year. I got the opportunity to do research in nanophotonics down in Orlando at the University of Central Florida—this was through a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program. I worked with a grad student in a clean room, in bunny suits, working one on one. The goal of this work was to find insights that would lead to an application. And I realized, that’s a long road, and it’s hard to see that end path.
“From that experience, I learned I wanted to do be able to see something through to its application and I wanted to have more collaboration with peers. That led me towards a different path. And knowing what I didn’t want to be doing helped me to prioritize what I might want to consider doing.”
Then she added ECE and business.
Melisa’s second internship was in applications engineering, and she learned she enjoyed the creativity that comes with crafting a software solution for a problem.
“By my third year, I had figured out I was not premed and I didn’t want a physics PhD,” Melisa recalls. “But what did I want to do? I spent many hours talking with Professor Kevin Pitts, who was then the associate head for undergraduate programs [he is now the vice provost for undergraduate education]. I brought my ideas to him and in our conversations, learned I could create my own track, based on my career goals. And that’s ultimately what launched me into the Hoeft Technology and Management Program and a career trajectory that was the right fit for me.”
The Hoeft immersion program is competitive. Each year, after three rounds of interviews, only 25 business students and 25 engineering students are admitted. The engineering students take business courses and the business students take engineering classes. Melisa was the only physics student in her applicant pool. She still remembers a pivotal question from the final round of interviews.
“The interviewer asked me, ‘Why do you want to be in this program? You’re a physics student. You’re supposed to be going down a different path.’ In my answer, I stressed how my skillset in physics was applicable to business and how the program could help to further mold those skills to have a business peripheral and positively impact an organization.”
Melisa later also applied and was accepted to Illinois Business Consulting (IBC), a student-run consulting firm housed in Gies College of Business. As a part of IBC Melisa worked on consulting project teams and discovered she loved consulting.
Melisa’s third internship in sales engineering, also known as solutions engineering, is where she married her passion for business with physics. Initially hesitant to take on the position, she discovered that it was a lot like consulting.
Through the Hoeft program, Melisa was also able to take part in an international business immersion trip to China.
Through all of these enrichment experiences as an Illinois student, Melisa built up a professional and personal network that included the corporate sponsors of the IBC and Hoeft programs, as well as the alumni and peer students of the programs. After graduation, Melisa took a sales engineering position at IBM for two years, before she made the move to Splunk. Now she works remotely from her home in Chicago and travels quite a bit on business.
Now she loves her job.
As a sales engineer, Melisa advises clients on how they can implement or improve their data analytics strategy, not only by using the software her company develops, but through a comprehensive approach that touches on all relevant systems and practices.
“Companies come to us to improve how they work with data, or to improve their security, operations, or operational efficiency. It’s my job to come in, observe how they are doing it, and see if there’s a way Splunk can help. Being a sales engineer is challenging—in a good way. You need to know your stuff and know it well. You have to understand things down to the base level, so you can deconstruct it in a way that helps the person you are working with to understand it.
“This is where my physics curriculum is a strength. The actual material, no it doesn’t translate to my job now. But my physics program taught me how to ask questions—and really, how to ask the right questions. In my particular job, that’s so important to getting the work done. It also taught me resilience—how to get knocked down and get back up, because that’s part of the process. And it taught me how to have confidence in myself.”
Asked where she sees herself in the next five or ten years, Melisa says she’s keeping an open mind.
“I don’t plan on leaving Splunk any time soon. In my position now, I work on the vendor side of this industry. My future paths could be on the account side, or security, or IT operations, or even cloud security at a different company.
“Or maybe I’ll be in leadership on the vendor side one day. Through my work, I get so much insight into how VPs and directors manage security and operations. I’ve seen what really good looks like and what not so good looks like. I could see myself working towards something like that.”
A message for today’s Illinois Physics students
Asked what advice she would have for current physics majors at Illinois on navigating life into the “real world,” Melisa answered, “Be an advocate for yourself. If there is something you want, then create your own path for it. And give it your absolute 100 percent.”
Melisa’s second tip is to have humility. She emphasized the importance of being open to both positive and negative feedback, thinking critically about that feedback, and knowing yourself well enough to know where and when to apply it.
Her third tip is to have a support system.
“Find it wherever you need to, whether it’s your family, friends, faculty, or peers. One person can be as good as 20 people if the quality of the relationship is there. And be the one who provides that support in return, too.”
Her fourth tip is to give back where you can, “whether through volunteer work, university recruitment, interviews, organic mentorship—it all makes a difference.”
Lastly, she shared what her parents taught her.
“Always do your best, be your best, and treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”