Mentoring helped ECE graduate student Audrey Evans, and she hopes a buddy system can help others too

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

Photo of Audrey Evans

Audrey Evans

When Audrey Evans was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, she worked on research projects using remote sensing techniques to measure ice in Antarctica and Greenland. That’s when the research bug bit her.

But for Evans, even though she had found her passion, the idea of going to graduate school didn’t seem plausible. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to go to grad school,’ which I think is a misconception that a lot of people have,” she says.

One brief conversation with an academic advisor, however, changed her mind. “They told me that the vast majority of PhD students in engineering fields have funding, which I never realized before,” she says.

That simple conversation was an ah-ha moment for Evans, who now is an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also currently mentors a junior undergraduate researcher in electrical and computer engineering. “I had this exact same conversation with her, and I saw this click go off in her head, too,” she says.

Evans has seen firsthand the power of mentoring, even informal mentoring. So when the ECE Graduate Student Association, of which Evans is president, started brainstorming about ways to support first-year graduate students, mentoring was something Evans and others brought up. Now, the organization is matching first-years with more experienced graduate students in an effort called the Buddy Program.

The idea is that the experienced students can answer all the basic questions new students have about classes, moving to Madison, and navigating their first semester. So far, 29 first-year graduate students have been paired with more senior graduate students.

“When you’re a first-year graduate student, you have a lot of random questions and misconceptions about what grad school is going to be like,” says Evans. “Having the opportunity to hang out with more senior grad students can help ground you and give you some perspective.”

Evans says that she’s interested in increasing other mentorship opportunities in the department as well. When she was an undergrad, she says she benefitted from an organization focused on supporting women and people traditionally underrepresented in STEM and developed a lot of peer mentors. At UW-Madison, she says the ECE department is also developing programs to support women—in particular a women in ECE group led by Assistant Professor Line Roald that is hosting networking and social events. “I’ve been enjoying that, particularly because I’ve had a chance to chat with some of the undergrads in the department that I’ve never met before,” says Evans. “That’s been a lot of fun.”

Currently, Evans is working on imaging for microwave ablation and is co-advised by Susan Hagness, Philip Dunham Reed Professor and ECE department chair, and Chu Ma, and assistant professor and Grainger Institute Fellow. In ablation, doctors direct microwave radiation at cancerous tissue to kill it. The procedure is less invasive than surgery; however, because physicians can’t image the tumor in real time, it’s difficult to tell whether they’ve treated the entire tumor. Evans is researching a way to use thermo-acoustic signals that are generated when high-powered microwave pulses are absorbed by tissue. Interpretation of these signals could allow physicians to monitor the ablation procedure as it is happening.

When she’s not in the lab or mentoring others, Evans is also a minor Instagram celebrity on campus. She runs turkeys_of_uw_madison, documenting the movements and moods of the turkeys around Eagle Heights and UW-Madison. The account now has more than 1,300 followers.

Why the focus on the big birds? After a few run-ins with nasty toms, Evans realized how beautiful and funny the birds were, leading to her photographic fascination.

Author: Jason Daley