Solar flair: Lumen Scholar, drum major, engineering leader Mallory Poff ’23 finds a way to do it all

“Elon provides a lot of different opportunities for students, no matter their major or area of interest. That’s something that’s unique about this school and why I love it here.”

If she didn’t have a career ahead as a solar energy engineer, Mallory Poff might consider teaching courses in time management.

You’ve seen her on game days, as a drum major leading the Fire of the Carolinas marching band.

Regulars at Loy Farm know Poff is often there perfecting her Lumen Prize-winning project to design and build a solar-powered cooling unit to preserve harvests. Seemingly always in the Innovation Quad, Poff is part of a team of engineering seniors designing a weir — a low dam built across a river to regular flow — that will improve water resources and agricultural efforts when deployed in the Mississippi Delta for their Senior Engineering Design Capstone. She’s also the president of the Elon Engineers club.

Mallory Poff '23 in the Hunt Atrium inside Founders Hall
Mallory Poff ’23

At other times, she leads Honors Fellows events, serves as a learning strategies tutor with Koenigsberger Learning Center, performs with Elon’s percussion ensemble and community orchestra, volunteers in the community with sisters in her sorority, participates in InterVarsity Christian small groups and attends Sunday services at First United Methodist Church Elon.

What’s her secret?

“Being busy, being social and making time for friends recharges me. I want to go out with friends. I want to be at events. That’s how I get my energy back,” she said. “And I do sleep. I promise you, I sleep.”

Poff had three criteria in her college search — a small- to mid-sized school with a low student-faculty ratio, an engineering program and a marching band. No university in her home state of Florida met those standards, so she scoured the east coast until landing on Elon.

Now reflecting on her college experience, she’s accomplished more than she imagined possible. With the support of faculty, programs and friends, she’s been able to try new things, establish connections in varied corners of campus life, and learned the value of her time. Her experiences include three international trips to study abroad in Italy, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania last winter, and, this Thanksgiving break, traverse Machu Picchu in Peru.

“The Elon culture of creating well-rounded students is really important. I’ve taken that to heart as an engineering major. At a more technical school or big state school, I think I would have become lost in the numbers or more confined to a box,” Poff said. “Elon allows me as an engineering student to be involved in music in more than one way, to be involved in leadership, to be a member of a sorority. Elon’s culture lets you try different things and teaches you how to find balance.”

That ambition impresses professors and peers alike.

“All of our students look up to Mallory,” said Director of Bands Jonathan Poquette. “She’s self-motivated, high-achieving and wants the best from everything she’s involved in. Her charisma, attention to detail and her presence in the academic realm is encouraging to all students.”

Lumen Prize research

In fall 2020, with the world in the grip of the pandemic, Poff forged a bond with Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak.

Two people walking down a gravel road next to a tractor at Loy Farm.
Mallory Poff and Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak at Loy Farm where Poff is constructing a solar-powered mobile cooling unit for harvests.

When stay-at-home orders and virtual classes were implemented that spring, Hargrove-Leak began holding virtual office hours at 9 p.m. and late into the night. It enabled her to balance her own family’s needs while understanding that students do their most intensive studying at night. Hargrove-Leak opened every meeting by asking students how they were coping, listening to their concerns and sharing her own.

Poff was a regular attendee, and their conversations often turned into check-ins with each other. In those late-night conversations, they shared their worries, their joys and discovered how much they had in common.

“It led to deep conversations,” Hargrove-Leak said. “I found myself revealing more of my humanity with students than I ever had before, and they were sharing with me. Mallory and I formed a strong bond that semester. I feel especially connected to members of that class.”

“Dr. Hargrove-Leak and I are a perfect match,” Poff said. “It’s not just a professor-student relationship. She listens and makes me feel heard. I can tell her everything, and our meetings always run until the very last minute when we have to leave to go somewhere else. I have a lot of respect for Dr. H-L and what she’s been able to accomplish with Elon’s engineering program, and with some of the challenges she’s had against her in her own life, and I feel very respected by her.”

Their bond strengthened throughout the semester, and as an Honors Fellow, Poff knew she would be completing a two-year, mentored research project. Always interested in renewable energy — solar technology in particular — she began looking for research avenues early that sophomore year.

Hargrove-Leak recalled a previous student’s unfinished Environmental Studies project to build a mobile cooling unit for Loy Farm. The trailer was intended to provide space to store and keep crops during harvests in transport to Elon Dining and the nearby Allied Churches of Alamance County homeless shelter and food kitchen. Poff saw potential in making it solar-powered. Hargrove-Leak was eager to mentor Poff and the project.

A woman pointing to the bottom of an air condition while a professor looks on.
Mallory Poff, right, shows Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak progress she’s made on the air conditioning unit that will cool harvests at Loy Farm.

“Mallory is a leader in all respects,” Hargrove-Leak said. “She brings such passion and enthusiasm to anything that she does. If you ask her to do something, she’s going to dedicate her time and energy to get it done and do it well. And then there’s that other piece: She’s not going to get overwhelmed because she’s so mindful of the importance of nurturing time for rest and restoration.

“On another level, Mallory and I are connecting as women in engineering. Sadly, some of the things I experienced in my own engineering education, she is experiencing. We’re able to discuss those things. I share strategies with her, and she shares her strategies with me. It really is a reciprocal relationship,” she added.

In spring 2021, the pair applied for and received the highly competitive Lumen Prize. Elon’s top research award, it’s given annually to 15 rising juniors and their mentors and provides $20,000 to advance undergraduate research projects.

The finished cooling unit will strengthen Elon’s mission of sustainability, increase yields from the campus farm to the community, and — she confirmed after conducting a survey of area farmers — provide a lower-cost model for small farmers to use in their daily operations.

Poff showing the plastic covering and seams inside a trailer for Associate Professor Hargrove-Leak looking on.
Mallory Poff, right, and Sirena Hargrove-Leak inside the trailer that will become a solar-powered mobile cooling unit at Loy Farm.

“It’s not a typical research project,” Poff said. “We haven’t been able to find similar devices that are solar-powered. We will construct four different solar panel designs and we will test them to see which one works the best. That’s the one that would be implemented at Loy Farm and that we would encourage small farmers to implement.”

In refurbishing the trailer with more efficient insulation and surface coverings that regularly can be sanitized, Poff enlisted the help of friends and family. That work is wrapping up this fall. In the spring, she’ll test solar panel configurations for efficiency and run internal temperature tests to ensure the trailer will insulate crops from high temperatures.

Loy Farm Manager Taylor Black says the cooling unit will improve farm operations and harvest quality. Poff’s work to ensure the unit’s interior can be cleaned and sanitized will also be important in the farm’s current USDA GAP certification process.

“This unit will have many uses and during summer will be key,” Black said. “Post-harvest cooling vastly improves the quality of produce. Lettuces and leafy greens wilt extremely quickly after harvest and being able to immediately store them in a cool place after harvest makes a huge difference. It will help me store fruits like tomatoes and peppers until I harvest enough to bring a big delivery to dining.”

Marching band and music

Poff comes from a family of musicians and began playing piano at a young age. In middle school band, she first played bassoon but gravitated towards percussion. Her favorite instrument to play is the marimba using four mallets — a practiced feat that requires the musician to hold two in each hand, manipulating them between their fingers.

Mallory Poff dressed in her band uniform on game day at Rhodes Stadium.
Mallory Poff ’23 with the Fire of the Carolinas marching band, Oct. 8, 2022.

“I love doing as many things as possible at once, which I think says a lot about me,” Poff said, laughing. “The triangle, the tambourine, cowbell, wood blocks, and all of the random instruments that make you say, ‘What in the world?’ I love when they’re all combined in really intricate pieces, so you’re playing two or three at once and going back and forth between them. When you nail it, it’s really cool.”

She was a drum major for her high school marching band and knew that was a role she wanted to explore at Elon.

Joining the Fire of the Carolinas her first year instantly provided a community and belonging. After her first year, she applied to be drum major to support the band and its members. Doing so during the pandemic, when the 2020 fall football season was moved to spring 2021 and band members had to follow strict safety protocols to reduce the virus’ spread — including covering the bell-end of wind and brass instruments — proved challenging but rewarding. Again, she felt in community with band members and valued that she was able to support that experience for other students.

“COVID taught us how much we missed live music and performances,” she said. “Music brings communities together, it transcends language and it connects people [in] ways words can’t. We bring joy to Elon students and the Elon community, especially on game days.”

Her leadership abilities were quickly apparent to Poquette. Bands need peer leaders who can provide feedback and individual instruction while creating outlets for members to bond. The band at Elon is growing rapidly, in part due to new scholarships available to students, but also because Poff and other student leaders have been successful in fostering communal experiences.

“Mallory is crucial to where we want the ensemble to grow and to go,” Poquette said. “Our student leaders are a big reason the Fire of the Carolinas is growing. We want it to sound great and look awesome on the field, but it won’t be that if we’re not on the same page and working together. Mallory thrives in finding different ways to interact with our first-year members, and keeping things exciting and entertaining throughout the season.

“If Mallory can be a Lumen Scholar and an engineering major, plus be a drum major and be involved in managing all these high-level academic classes, she proves that band is not exclusive. Regardless of their major, everyone can participate. We’re grateful she’s setting that example and showing what is possible here at Elon.”

A bright future

Poff plans to pursue a career in solar energy design but hasn’t chosen her exact path yet.

Poff clapping with the marching band behind her in the stadium
Mallory Poff ’23 cheers on the Phoenix while leading the band in Rhodes Stadium Oct. 8.

The daughter of a coastal engineer, Poff grew up interested in engineering, science and math. Her research and project experiences in engineering courses identified a love of the research process. With guidance from Hargrove-Leak and other engineering faculty, she’s exploring graduate programs around the country.

Solar energy engineering is a growing field that encompasses materials science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering. It often overlaps with commerce and entrepreneurial enterprises, as well as civil engineering and increasingly residential and business development.

“I know I want to do research,” Poff said. “How can we make solar energy using different materials? How can we lower the costs, decrease wiring or make it more efficient? Then there’s the broader design and sustainable architecture aspects of renewable energy-based projects in general. I lean in both ways in different ways.”

One day, she hopes to have a second career teaching high school calculus and engineering.

“I want to be that kind of mentor and representative,” she said. “I was the only female student to complete my high school four-year engineering program. It was a party-of-one experience, and I would love to be a female mentor in that environment at some point.”

At some point. For now, Poff is excited about all she’s doing and will do at Elon before she graduates in May.

“I am really proud of being a part of our band program’s growth as well as being a part of the creation and growth of the four-year engineering degree program,” she said. “I’ve taken full advantage of the Elon experience and there are so many things I still want to try. Elon provides a lot of different opportunities for students, no matter their major or area of interest. That’s something that’s unique about this school and why I love it here.”