Triplets account for less than 0.2 percent of births in the United States, and triplet girls account for a quarter of that tiny number. But when all three attend the same university, major in engineering, minor in Spanish, study abroad in Spain, and work the same campus job, we’re talking about vanishingly small odds. That unlikely combination describes the Mockler Martens sisters, whose stories began a few minutes apart, on October 21, 1994.
Michaela, Kylee, and Richelle Mockler Martens grew up in Portland. Their father Don, an electrical engineer, and their mother Shawn, a nurse, encouraged them to learn Spanish to widen their horizons and pick up a practical skill.
“I remember my dad bringing home these huge design drawings and trying to explain electrical engineering to three five-year-olds,” said Michaela, the oldest of the triplets. “For a while, I think we assumed all engineers were electrical engineers who installed fire alarm systems and things like that.”
Their novel and highly personal introduction to math and science generated a lasting enthusiasm that most of their schoolmates didn’t seem to share.
“Our friends weren’t as excited about science, especially the girls,” said Richelle, youngest of the three. “Our father showed us it’s exciting and cool.”
But bilingual engineers don’t materialize through parental example alone. It takes innate ability, curiosity, and motivation. In high school, the triplets displayed their academic mettle in a number of ways, like the International Baccalaureate Diploma program, a rigorous curriculum of college-level coursework.
“Our father helped us figure out how to tackle difficult problems,” said Michaela.
They reached a turning point after their sophomore year in high school, when they attended Summer Experience in Science and Engineering for Youth (SESEY), a one-week program on the Oregon State campus introducing about 60 gifted high school girls and minority students to engineering.
“SESEY was eye-opening,” said Kylee. “We lived in the dorms, spent all day in research labs, and got to see what college is like. I think it hooked us all on engineering.”
This wasn’t kid’s stuff. Among other things, Kylee explored hydrogels for replacing ruptured spinal disks in Willie “Skip” Rochefort’s Polymer Research Lab. Rochefort, an associate professor of chemical engineering, founded SESEY in 1997.
Michaela and Richelle also worked with Rochefort. “My group looked at different materials, like wool and cotton, to clean oil spills,” said Michaela. “It was hands-on experience that had a big influence on my choice to study chemical engineering.”
Kylee and Richelle found SESEY compelling enough to repeat the program the following summer. Michaela, instead, set out for Paraguay as a volunteer with Amigos de las Americas, a youth leadership and service group. She built fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves out of clay and water, called fogónes, for local families.
During the school year, Richelle and Kylee joined the ACE mentorship program, which connects students with professionals in architecture, construction, and engineering to provide them with insights into the building industry and its career options.
When the time came to choose a college, the sisters had already decided to study engineering. Attending Oregon State, though, was not a foregone conclusion, because they had a sentimental attachment to the school where their father earned his B.S. in physics — a certain Pac-12 rival in Seattle. But Oregon State’s strong engineering program and its proximity to home, combined with their inspiration from SESEY and the rapport they’d established with Rochefort, nudged them to Corvallis.
Michaela and Kylee majored in chemical engineering and minored in Spanish. Richelle went with civil engineering and a Spanish minor. As women entering a male-dominated field, they weren’t sure what to expect.
“For the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Michaela. “Often, I was partnered with other women in labs, and I found a strong group of women to work with. It could be a little daunting when I worked outside of OSU — at my internship, I was the only woman intern.”
Richelle also was concerned by the low ratio of women to men in her lecture halls. With the help of the college’s Office of Women and Minorities in Engineering, she carved out a comfortable place for herself and built a solid network of peers. Still, she sometimes sensed resistance.
“There are still some men who fit the old stereotype and don’t appreciate women in the construction industry,” she said. “I don’t even think it’s a conscious thing, and they don’t even mean to come across that way, but it happens.”
None of it slowed them down. They all studied abroad and landed plum internships. They all threw themselves into academic and social activities, and they all earned spending money at the same campus job.
Michaela earned a prestigious Johnson Research Internship that placed her back at Rochefort’s Polymer Research Lab after her freshman year. Her research addressed the reuse of polystyrene plastic for insulation in third-world countries. The following summer she zipped off to Spain, where she lodged with local host families in Granada and Salamanca and studied Spanish language and culture.
“People who study abroad often stay in student housing, but I think that denies you the ability to truly integrate into the community,” she said.
In summer 2016, Michaela interned in process engineering with TTM Technologies in Forest Grove, Oregon, where she worked on radio frequency identification systems. As a student board member with Engineers Without Borders, she designed wells to supply safe drinking water for rural Nicaragua, in keeping with her interest in sustainable water resources. And for several years, she served as a Lego Robotics Mentor at Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis, helping kindergartners and first and second graders build programmable Lego robots.
On top of all that, Michaela — along with her sisters — tutored for INTO Oregon State to help international students improve their English skills, prepare academically, and ease their transition into university life far from home. After graduating in June, she took off for a two-week trip to Colombia to indulge her love of travel and the outdoors. Her adventure included a five-day jungle trek to a long-lost city and limitless opportunities to practice Spanish. In July, she began a full-time job with the semiconductor maker Micron Technology in Boise.
At first, Richelle thought that she would also major in chemical engineering, but the spark and fun of the high school ACE program and the possibilities of civil engineering prompted her to go in a different direction.
In her own study abroad, she traveled to Salamanca, Spain, in summer 2015 to learn Spanish and art history. On campus, Richelle was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and twice participated in the annual concrete canoe competition.
“I really enjoyed explaining to people how a canoe made of concrete floats,” she said.
In 2016, Richelle secured the first of two internships through the Civil Engineering Cooperative Program (CECOP). The six-month position with the City of Portland Water Bureau expanded her notions about the options available through a career in civil engineering, from designing water mains and wastewater treatment technology to evaluating water quality and analyzing rain and flood patterns.
“Civil engineering overlaps a lot with environmental engineering and water resources, which both interest me a great deal,” she said.
Last summer, she received her diploma and rewarded herself by backpacking through the Italian Alps. Then she embarked on her second six-month CECOP internship at the Portland office of AECOM, an international engineering giant.
Kylee’s accomplishments confirm her self-description as a high-energy, organized person.
“I see myself as pretty ambitious,” she said. “I want to do everything.”
She, too, earned a coveted Johnson Research Internship and returned to the same Polymer Research Lab that captured her imagination at SESEY. Again, her research focused on hydrogels, and this time she presented her findings at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' national conference in Atlanta. Kylee also volunteered as a SESEY head counselor and student mentor and served as conference chair for the 2017 Pacific Northwest Student Regional Conference of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which was held at Oregon State.
Kylee’s drive led her to pursue an international degree, which is a double-degree option that will cap her engineering credentials with a supplemental Bachelor of Arts in International Studies. The demanding requirements include foreign language proficiency, extra coursework at Oregon State, and experience abroad. She took care of that with a term at the University of Cantabria in Santander, Spain, during spring quarter of her sophomore year. She’ll wrap up the process with a rigorous senior thesis. Meeting the requirements for the international degree pushes back her graduation to 2018, but she considers the tradeoff worthwhile.
“The international degree demonstrates my ability to understand and work in different cultures and it perfectly aligns with my career goals, which include working internationally,” she said.
Last summer, Kylee headed to Concepción, Chile, for an internship with the Unit of Technological Development, an affiliate of the University of Concepción, where she worked at a pilot plastics pyrolysis plant that converts waste plastic into fuel.
The same, but different
Through much of their time together at Oregon State, the triplets remained close, literally. For two years, Richelle and Michaela were roommates and Kylee lived next door. Their relationships grew and matured as they found their own paths. Even the healthy competitiveness you’d expect among three high-achieving siblings softened and evolved.
“It was different in high school, because we took the same classes and we were always competing for the same things, like the international diploma,” said Michaela. “I’d say we’ve grown through our own studies and experiences, our own activities, and our own life adventures. We’ve really learned to support each other.”
They’re as different as they are alike. Michaela snowboards while Kylee and Richelle prefer skiing. Richelle loves to read. Kylee loves ballet and cooking. They all hike and run. And they all have a passion for engineering.
“I think we look like we’re from different families, but we have similar personalities,” said Kylee. “We’re all energetic, outgoing, and adventurous, but we also spend our time a little differently. And we have a lot of inside jokes, that’s for sure.”