Nerissa Cerny is driven to build bikes and confidence. Professionally, she’s an accomplished Calibration and Emissions Engineer at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee. And when she’s not designing or riding motorcycles, she teaches young female students that the STEM field is a great career option.
Nerissa’s thirst for science and hard work set her career in motion
At an early age, she was a self-admitted “tinkerer” and developed a passion for machines. While other girls played with Barbie dolls, she built things, learned how they worked and attended car races with her mom.
“I loved cars and horsepower,” she explains.
Nerissa realized early on that she had a love for science and became determined to master her studies. In high school, her teachers saw this grand potential and encouraged Nerissa to focus on mechanical engineering. She excelled as a student and went on to attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering (M.S.O.E.) earning a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Pursuing a college career in STEM requires grit
In most of her classes, she was the only female and the ratio of men to women at school was 7:1, including nursing students. Nerissa’s graduation class of 200 included only six women. The realization of navigating a male world was palpable and she often felt out of place; confidence had a lengthy developmental curve and had to be earned every step of the way.
“My classmates had a lot of experiences growing up that I did not. Many worked on cars with their dads,” she notes.
Nerissa didn’t let that get in her way. She stayed true to herself, knowing that this journey will make her happy, and is authentic to Nerissa.
“As a minority, you stand out. People judge you and watch you more, waiting to find something wrong,” she says. “That can be discouraging for women in STEM. I learned that to be successful, you have to turn that energy around and use it as motivation.”
Nerissa is encouraged by the recent increase of college women going into engineering and other STEM fields. She does acknowledge though that while women have made strides, they still have a way to go.
Passing the torch to help young STEMinists
Nerissa volunteers with Build Moto in Milwaukee, a non-profit that pairs adult community members with high school students. She and her fellow engineers from Harley-Davidson formed the first and only all-female team. Nerissa encourages an environment where it’s ok for them to learn and make mistakes.
“We take an old, non-working motorcycle and turn it into a racing bike,” she says. “We teach fabrication, design, safety, and mechanical skills.” She says. “It’s so exciting and rewarding to see these girls grow in skill and confidence.”
The results have been encouraging: one student attended an engineering camp at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, while a few others are now pursuing degrees in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Design.
As an advocate for women in STEM, Nerissa tells young women that they don’t have to compromise to work in this field. She emphasizes that women need to realize that they belong.
“If you don’t feel confident, it will affect your performance,” she says.
On the job, Nerissa wants versatile workwear that is safe, comfortable, and uniquely hers
Nerissa spends half of her time at work in a cubicle and half in the test lab and may move between locations several times a day. Switching shoes was inconvenient and frustrating, and her old safety shoes were clunky and didn’t go with her outfit.
“To be taken seriously, it’s critical that a woman in a STEM field looks professional and put together no matter if she’s in the office, on the worksite or in the lab,” she says.
She helped Ana during the development of the first Xena Gravity Low-Cut boot and feels proudly confident when she wears her pair. Male mechanics in the test lab have been asking questions, as they’re not used to seeing safety shoes that look good. To address any doubt, Nerissa displays her Xena safety card on her I.D. badge, which verifies that her shoes are ASTM certified and compliant.
“I really appreciate the no-slip, grip soles, because of potential test lab oil spills,” she explains. “I also like that the heels aren’t noisy when walking down the hall or in the lab.”
Biker for life
Nerissa and her husband own five motorcycles between them. She rides as much as possible taking her road bike to work, around town, and on longer trips… then switching to her dirt bike for off-roading and racing fun…finally she has a special bike with studded tires for riding on snow and ice. Nerissa embraces that riding bikes is similar to engineering where women are a minority. She formed a women’s riding group in Milwaukee, organizing group events that empower and help new riders overcome their fears while shattering the stigma of what femininity looks like.