In partnership with Acura

At Acura, Premium Cars Start With Inspired Engineers

By Kelsey Lawrence

Unless you’re an automobile connoisseur, the subtler features of your car may not immediately stand out: the red-contrast stitching denoting a more upscale model, the metal-trim accents, or the way an instrument panel's color works to complement the interior lighting throughout your car. Fortunately, Acura Engineer Sarah Boylan sees how it all fits together, and she’s been methodically studying the big picture ever since she was a kid.

It’s usually hyperbolic to say someone was “born” to do something, but it’s hard to argue that Boylan wasn’t born to be an engineer. With the foundation of an encouraging grandfather, parents who placed a high premium on education, and an interest in construction toys and model-making, the Ohio-born mechanical engineer started on her path at a young age.

“There was always a high value on education in our household,” Boylan says. “Both of my parents got their master’s degrees when my sister and I were really young. We were just always expected to do well in school. Basically, you were expected to get As.”

Growing up on the north side of Cincinnati, Boylan’s mom was an English teacher and her dad worked in sales. Her grandfather – a foreman in a factory that made tiny metal components for machinery, aircraft, and radios – encouraged his granddaughter’s burgeoning interest in engineering. She remembers a school assignment from early childhood where she wrote a seemingly prophetic note:

My grandpa wants me to be an engineer when I grow up.

“I am sure at the age that I wrote it, I had little idea what an engineer actually did,” she says. “But I was being told that it was something I could aspire to.”

Before today’s more widely seen encouragement of women in STEM, Boylan’s family cultivated an environment where it seemed only natural that their math- and science-loving daughter would pursue her interests. Whether it was buying their two daughters educational toys or, later, enrolling them in an all-girls college prep high school, Boylan’s parents acknowledged their role in providing their children with the tools to succeed and to challenge conventions.

It was in an AP Physics class that the Acura engineer first saw her interest in the field begin to crystallize. During an activity where the class constructed bridges from toothpicks, Boylan remembers with a laugh that her “spindly” bridge collapsed under a light load. Yet instead of being discouraged by the failure, she was fascinated by what she was able to build using only simple materials.

Seeing the upside of a challenge is one of Boylan’s defining, driving characteristics; instead of seeing challenges as obstacles, the engineer views them as opportunities. Sitting in a lecture hall at The Ohio State University as a freshman engineering major, a professor told the group of students, “Look to your right, look to your left—only one of you will make it through engineering.” While that ominous statement would make many consider a switch to a different field of study, the challenge fueled the fire for the future Interior Project Leader at Acura.

“When I got into my engineering classes, before each quarter I would look over the class load I had, and I would be like ‘OK, I heard the upperclassmen say this class is really hard,’ so I’m gonna get an A in this class,” Boylan remembers. “And I would work hard to make sure I got an A in that class.”

Her almost preternatural self-motivation was shaped by a few key influences in her life. A competitive swimmer since age 11, she credits the solo nature of the sport to teaching her the importance of achieving—and beating—one’s personal best.

“That’s what you’re trying to achieve every swim meet,” she says. “You learn really quickly that the only way to do that is for you to work hard because no one else can do that work for you.”

“You can’t win the race if you don’t try and practice, or don’t put the effort into practice.”

While in high school, Boylan’s parents owned a liquor store that they ran on top of working full-time jobs. She remembers they often had to be there when the store closed at 10 p.m., staying to report the day’s sales to the state or meeting trucks for deliveries. “My parents were always working hard, and my sister and I always saw that,” she says.

“They basically did that to make sure my sister and I had the opportunities that we were afforded,” Boylan continues. “I know that the money their store brought in paid for my sister and me to go to the high school we attended, [and] then probably paid for a lot of our college as well. I had that example.”

After college, she was recruited into the auto industry by one of the “Big Three” automakers, which involved relocating to Detroit. But it was a chance introduction at a friend’s birthday party that led to her being interviewed and hired at Acura, where she’s now worked for more than 15 years. In 2009, she started as a PIC (person in charge) designing interior parts on the Acura TL.

The car’s glove box and a couple of trim garnishes were her first projects, and three years later, she was in charge of integrating, verifying, and confirming the airbags for the 2013 Acura MDX. She laughs now remembering her ‘80s childhood, riding sans seatbelts in station wagons. Nowadays, driving in her own vehicle, Boylan knows that she’s playing an instrumental role in not only keeping herself safe but also safeguarding others.

“It’s part of my work,” she says. “It’s humbling to think that I had anything to do with protecting somebody’s life in the case of a crash.”

While working in different capacities across Acura, Boylan developed an interest in managing the team of people that goes into project development. This realization helped bring into focus her next goal of being in charge of the instrument panel, a role where she would be responsible for managing a team of five to six people. Today, she leads almost 20 associates as an Interior Project Leader for an upcoming model.

Boylan embodies the challenging spirit of Acura in everything she does for the company and often pushes her teams to embrace that quality as well. “What do I want to do next?” is the core question that has kept her always reaching for the next goal. “I’ll ask younger associates, ‘What do you want to do next?’ and I’m always surprised when people don’t really have an opinion,” she says. “I always felt like I had a pretty strong opinion of what I wanted to do next, whether that was designing a specific part or [a professional goal like] I want to be the chief engineer.”

She credits Acura for giving her the platform to pursue what she wants. Growing up, her mom would encourage her to always ask for what she wanted (“because the worst they can say is ‘no’”) and asking has gotten Boylan to where she is today. Last year, the company offered her the opportunity to get a business leadership certification through The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. She was part of the first team Acura sent to take six courses in leadership skills in the workplace.

“I feel like Acura really does do a good job of giving you opportunities,” Boylan says.

“As a woman, you have to be a little more vigilant to what is available and make sure you take advantage of those things, but they’re out there.”

Standing at 5-feet tall, she’s also been able to offer much-needed feedback as a Design Quality Evaluator for the team. Particularly in a room where the majority of testers are men, Boylan’s perspective has been crucial for diversity of opinion and size. “Apparently, this title had never been given to an individual who wasn’t at management level or a technical expert before, so it means a lot,” she explains.

When she’s not working or getting up at 5 a.m. to swim, Boylan likes to stay active by mountain-biking and rock-climbing with her boyfriend, who owns a bouldering gym and recently started a company that manufactures the holds used on climbing walls. While she “tries not to get overly involved,” it’s undeniable she’s a uniquely well-suited resource for him. When he was trying to figure out pricing for his holds, she admits she had to step in and offer the expertise of someone who’s been working with suppliers for nearly two decades.

“Part of my job is to review quotes from suppliers based on their materials, their manpower, and their tooling, and I’m like 'Let me fix this for you,'” she says. “We have to do this part right because this is how you’re going to price everything. I had to step in and straighten that part out.”

In her role at Acura, she notes, there’s more synergism between engineers and suppliers. “To me, it speaks volumes to why [Acura] is such a quality product because we do care about every single detail,” Boylan says. “Having somebody be in charge of those details, and making sure they’re aware of all those details, is the way that we can ensure that the product is great for our customer.”

Over this past winter break, her boyfriend bought her a 3,000-piece toy construction kit treehouse that they worked on together, making her childhood joys come full circle once again.

“It was really cool,” she said. “No matter how old I am, I’ll always love improving things or making them the best they can be."

“That’s who I am.”

Photography by Erin Burke