Fellowships help undergrads turn pro
To earn an undergraduate research fellowship, mechanical engineering students need more than passion and a great technical problem to tackle. They also have to function like professionals in a research context. “We’re looking for clarity of thought in students’ fellowship proposals,” says Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Krishnan Suresh. “That reflects a clarity of process in research. Just having the technical interest is not sufficient.”
The department awards between one and five of these fellowships every semester, depending on the quality of the applications students submit, Suresh says. Funding for the fellowships, which comes from private donors, provides students $5,000 toward their annual tuition, plus up to $2,000 to cover their material costs.
ME undergraduate research fellows tackle a variety of projects, which usually fit into the work of faculty and grad students’ research. Suresh says they also learn to communicate well. Undergraduate fellowship applicants are required to give a presentation, during which Suresh and other faculty grill them with challenging questions. “How they speak and how they convince leaves an impression that they’re really excited, and that they have a plan,” Suresh says.
The fellowships generally fund two semesters’ worth of research, during which fellows also balance other coursework. While they work within a larger research group, fellows must identify a unique research project with a specific goal. “It must be something that we don’t already know the answer to, and that advances our knowledge in science and engineering,” Suresh says.
Offering this beyond-the-classroom experience in turn helps to grow the reputation of the UW-Madison mechanical engineering department in the outside world. “I am sure these students will have good things to say about our department when they go out to work in the real world,” Suresh says.
Senior Arezu Monawer began work in 2012 to build a better knee-loading device for Professor Darryl Thelen’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab. Thelen’s group is trying to understand why patients who undergo ACL reconstruction surgery later develop osteoarthritis in their knees. “Immediately after the surgery, these patients have good results, but studies show that 60 to 90 percent of these patients end up suffering from osteoarthritis,” Monawer says. “By the time they’re 40 or 50, they have the knee of a 70-year-old.”
Thelen’s research group previously built a device in which the patient’s leg flexes against an inertial load. Paired with MRI techniques, this will help researchers understand how ACL reconstruction surgery changes the inner workings of the knee and causes long-term damage to the knee cartilage.
Monawer says the initial device had a narrow fit, and therefore wouldn’t work for a wide variety of patients. She says that the device needs to have more flexibility.
Because she is working at the intersection of engineering and medicine, Monawer appreciates the importance of communication in research. “You have to anticipate that the people who are reading your proposal may not be as interested as you are in your field,” she says. “For example, I might have to present my project to engineers who don’t have a background in biology.”
For undergraduates who understand those subtleties, the ME research fellowships support them in a crucial step into graduate-style research and beyond. “In research, you need to be able to present information to others, and you don’t get a lot of practice at that as a normal student,” Monawer says.
Monawer also likes that the fellowship program exemplifies the diverse applications of mechanical engineering. “A lot of people think ME is simply industry-oriented, but I am glad there is a program that fosters the healthcare aspect of engineering as well,” she says.
Another ME research fellow, Ryan Kiecker, learned the value of jumping right into the deep end the first semester of his freshman year. Through the undergraduate research scholars program, he began working in Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Frank Pfefferkorn’s Laser Assisted Multi-Scale Manufacturing Lab, where he still pursues research as a senior. (He received an ME undergraduate research fellowship during his junior year.) During his second semester on campus, Kiecker found himself giving presentations alongside students who were presenting their senior research projects. “Getting thrown into a research lab where the only other undergrad was a sixth-year senior, the learning curve was pretty steep,” Kiecker says.
The experience and vocabulary he has built while researching nanocrystalline diamond coatings on micro cutting tools will give him a professional advantage whether he ends up staying in academia or pursing a research-and-development career in private industry. “Now, I can talk to graduate students almost as if I’m one of them,” Kiecker says. “And when it comes to co-op or internship opportunities, a lot of those look for previous engineering experience.”