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CHS graduate brings innovation to Ford

“Local girl makes good” doesn’t quite do justice to Victoria Schein. It’s accurate, but the truth is Ms. Schein, 23, is changing the world.

The 2012 Claremont High School graduate is an Innovation Coordinator at Ford Motor Company, where she has filed nine patents during her short time with the Dearborn, Michigan corporation. She started in 2015 at Ford’s Palo Alto location as an intern and is now a full-time employee at the 113-year-old automaker’s Michigan headquarters, where she is by all accounts a rising star.

“My dream was to design concept cars,” Ms. Schein said, “clay modeling and drawing of the new concepts. That’s something I’ve been interested in since I was a little kid.”

Ms. Schein was an atypical little girl by any measure. 

“My brother and I would have car design contests with Legos,” she recalled. “It was never Barbie dolls. I felt like a little bit of a weird child. Then I saw cars. And living in California you see the coolest sports cars everywhere, and I was just so fascinated. I wanted to be at every Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati dealership there was. I just wanted to design them. And I wanted to make them for everyone.”

Unlike many kids’ early fantasy occupations—basketball player, rock star, ballet dancer—Ms. Schein’s pre-adolescent ideal never faded as other interests cropped up. She kept at it. 

“I was just very fortunate to have some great parents who told me it was okay to like cars when I was four, and that I wasn’t weird or anything,” she explained with a laugh. “They thought it was pretty cool when I told people about my dream to become a car designer.”

Her parents still live in Claremont. Her father, David Schein, PhD, is a mechanical engineer, and her mother Marikay Schein is an accountant. 

Her daughter’s obsession was something Marikay took notice of early on.

“She knew every car and every color,” her mother said. “She knew everything about cars.” 

Victoria Schein is one of a trio of high-achieving triplets. Her sister Diana is working on her master’s degree in geriatric psychology and social work at Michigan State University, and brother Stephen is at UCLA working on his PhD in mechanical engineering.

And while she’s clearly happy and is enjoying the fruits of years of hard work, her journey wasn’t without setbacks. 

“I thought I wanted to be an art major in high school,” Ms. Schein said. “I was really interested in math and science throughout high school, but I didn’t do as well as some of the other kids and I was very discouraged. I was a top student at CHS, but since in some of the classes I didn’t do as well, I thought I wasn’t going to succeed and couldn’t be an engineer. That was my mindset. I didn’t think I could do it.”

High school uncertainty is nothing new, as any parent of a teen will attest. It’s a pivotal time where seemingly small decisions such as choosing a new social circle or giving up on a difficult class can have long-lasting impacts.

Most advisors agree that finding a mentor outside of one’s immediate family can be a strong motivator. For Ms. Schein, CHS science teacher Eric Tucker was just that person. 

“I would always stay after class with him and my sister and just talk about our careers and our interests,” she recalled. “He really pushed us to stay in science and math because he knew how much we loved it. He was just really supportive of anything we were doing and gave a lot of good advice.”

Mr. Tucker, now in his 12th year at CHS, said he was delighted but not shocked by Ms. Schein’s success. 

“Not one bit. I saw her story pop up on my Facebook feed and I said, ‘Yep.’ I’m not surprised at all.”

“Everything to her was a practical experience,” Mr. Tucker recalled. “As in, ‘How does this biological topic influence me in my life and the world?’ She had a real existential approach to learning. How does it apply? This is what she was always able to do. She could always connect those dots. Even the most disconnected process always came back to some bigger picture.

“To have the depth of complexity of thought—to be able to see into a process like that, no matter what it is— she just always had it,”?he continued. “And it didn’t seem like it came easy to her. She worked hard and she earned what she put into it. She put blood, sweat and tears into this thing and that’s what I think made me so proud of her.”

Her first semester at Smith College in Massachusetts was typically disorienting. 

“I didn’t do very well,” Ms. Schein said. “A lot of the core freshman classes were difficult, all the tests, and there was a lot of pressure. I started to not get the grades I wanted after working really hard, and I was talking to one of my physics professors in a class I really struggled with about whether I should not do engineering and maybe switch to art. She gave me good advice on why I should stick with engineering and art.” 

For the first time Ms. Schein saw how both skills—being able to engineer systems and solutions and render her designs herself—could set her apart. “After that, I could really picture myself as an engineer. It gave me a confidence boost.”

Newly emboldened, Ms. Schein applied for internships at several car companies. Ford seemed the best fit, and she set off for Palo Alto in May 2015 while still enrolled at Smith. The only woman on a team of eight, Ms. Schein was immersed in a world of 3-D printers, electronics, application design and coding. It was all new, and it was all fascinating.

During that first week, a supervisor mentioned that Ford had a staff patent lawyer who dropped by the interns’ office twice a week to look for new ideas.

“He said, ‘If you have any ideas for anything, we can patent things.’ And it just piqued my interest. I was so excited. I said I’m gonna take this opportunity and run with it,” she said.

Soon after, she recalled a near-miss accident she and her brother had recently been involved in, where a judgment error during a U-turn attempt led to a dicey and dangerous maneuver in the face of oncoming traffic. Why did that happen, she asked herself? She concluded it was because neither she nor her brother was aware of the exact turning radius of his vehicle. If there were just a way to know in advance whether or not his vehicle could have made that turn, she thought, wouldn’t that have been cool?

Ms. Schien invented the ‘U-turn Event Tagger,’” a cloud-based U-turn tagging device that works in conjunction with algorithms.

It was a very expensive first patent, Ms. Schein explained, because she documented things to macro level.

“I was so, so excited, I just kept writing things. It actually ended up being split up into five patent applications.”

It was a watershed moment.

“It felt like I had done something really amazing,” she recalled. “It’s definitely changed my entire lifestyle, learning how to innovate and how to think.”

By the end of her internship she had written some 35 inventions. Not all were submitted for patents, because she had to get back to school. Her file now holds about 60 drafts, submissions and filings she plans on developing. She has 16 inventions filed for patents now.

“I wasn’t thinking the way I am now in life,” she said. “Every day, I’m constantly looking at things differently and thinking about solutions. I’m constantly looking at things and how they work.”

Ms. Schein hopes to make the automotive business her life’s career. Her dream would be to end up a CEO or COO of a division at Ford. “A global leader in innovation would be ideal,” she said. 

She also hopes her story can help spark others toward ambition.

“I think that kids who aren’t really sure what they want to do or are not as confident in their passions because they might think they’re not ‘normal,’ I just hope to inspire kids and people in general to follow their dreams,” she said. 

Ms. Schein’s mother couldn’t be more proud.

“We’re just really excited for her future,” Marikay said. “I can’t wait to see what comes next for her.”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com