Meet five Tufts students whose scholarship and research help reimagine what’s possible
Optimism and curiosity are twin engines that drive the imagination of young engineers at Tufts, whose professors nurture skills, knowledge, and social awareness to help translate their visions into real-world applications. This year, as Engineers Week celebrates the theme of “Reimagining the Possible,” Tufts Now reached out to five School of Engineering undergraduates and graduate students who are bringing energy and big ideas to a changing world.
Alec McKendell, E22
For Alec McKendell, the appeal of biomedical engineering lies in its potential to develop groundbreaking new diagnostics and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. His focus has led to research positions in three Tufts labs, including the Kaplan Lab and the Optical Diagnostics for Diseased and Engineered Tissue Lab, as well as summer research at UC Berkeley, and his current work at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is part of a research group investigating the cause and prevention of Alzheimer’s. Additionally, using CRISPR-based gene editing, he designed a potential preventative medicine/treatment for breast cancer. That technology, and his entrepreneurial drive, led him to co-found JEZA Genomics, a finalist last year in the Tufts Gordon Institute’s $100k New Ventures Competition.
Why biomedical engineering: I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s, and he inspired me to explore the potential of biomedical engineering. I was in high school, and I wanted to find a cure. As a Tufts freshman I had very little experience, but I was still like: I want to do this. My interest has evolved so I’m less focused on developing devices that interface with the body— like a microchip—and more focused on how you can use tools that already exist within the human body. What’s really fascinating is finding ways to work with the body, so you are not implanting a microchip, for example, but instead leveraging an existing, natural mechanism to fix or even improve the biology.
A big idea: The next generation of nanoscale biosensors is super exciting. One cutting edge tool that I’m working on now allows us to track particular proteins in the brain by making part of them fluorescent, what’s called a nanoscale biosensor. Biosensors report on molecular-level events that were previously undetectable. They give us a better understanding of how microscopic mechanisms work in live cells, something that used to require dead tissue and hours of processing to study. Right now, they are primarily used in research. I imagine the next generation of biosensors could have a more practical application, such as earlier and more accurate disease detection and diagnosis.
Why progress matters: It feels good to know that even if I'm making a small piece of the contribution, science is built off the backs of everyone who has worked before you. That small piece of knowledge that you help with or develop, eventually people are going to take it further, just as I have benefited from all the people before me. That makes me feel like I am following through with this bold claim, this bold promise I made when I was younger.
Zosia Stafford, E22
Zosia Stafford is a senior combining engineering and liberal arts by majoring in both mechanical engineering and philosophy. At the School of Engineering, she is deeply interested in material science—the design and discovery of new materials. She juggles courses with a job as area supervisor for the university makerspace, Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation and Testing (FAST) Facility, and as a teaching assistant. She also is gaining first-hand experience in material science applications through a part-time internship with Transaera, focused on developing energy-efficient cooling systems.
Why material science: My first year of high school, I read this book—Stuff Matters—about materials of basic everyday things, and the fascinating chemistry and design process behind that. I was like, “Oh yes—that's cool!” At Tufts I continue to find material science fascinating. It’s crucial to the design of everything, like windows and fabrics—every product that you own. It's all super interconnected. When you understand the properties and the behaviors of materials that you're working with, you’re able to create better, more informed designs, as well as then modify those materials and improve them so they can be applied in new ways.
A big idea: Material science is going to see a ton of growth in the next decade. As our designs get more complex and more efficient, the limiting factor in most cases is materials. And a lot of times, the best way to make changes is to be changing the materials. Personally, I would like to leverage my engineering skills on environmental issues, while using my philosophy background to be a better thinker, communicator, and more ethical engineer.
Why progress matters: One area where progress matters is air conditioning. It’s an industry that's tied to what we can do to curb global warming. It takes a lot of energy to power a standard air conditioner because the refrigerant must cool both the incoming air and the water vapor in the air. Water takes more energy to cool, and as it cools, it condenses, which complicates the process. That’s why on humid summer days your air conditioner works overtime and taxes the electrical grid.
At Transaera, we're taking water out of the equation using metal organic frameworks that can passively absorb it before it enters the system. With this step, you have a more energy-efficient air conditioner and lighten the burden on the power structure. Novel materials like these metal organic frameworks are critical to our planet’s future. By studying and characterizing their properties and degradation behavior, I can help choose materials that best support a sustainable transition to a zero-carbon world.
Andre Cleaver, EG18, EG23
Andre Cleaver, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, looks closely at how to improve human-robot interactions through augmented reality (AR), a fusing of the real and virtual worlds that superimposes computer-generated information over a view of actual places and structures. His graduate studies with Jivko Sinapov, James Schmolze Assistant Professor in Computer Science, explore how AR can help robots convey how they perceive the world to people. Instead of thousands of lines of numbers shown on a terminal window, information is presented as simple shapes and colors so that people can connect what they see with what the robot “sees.”
Why Augmented Reality: I was getting a master’s in mechanical engineering when I first saw a demonstration of what AR could do. And I thought: Wow. I was hooked. Robots can communicate with other robots easily, but a robot communicating to a human is where the challenge lies. What’s so powerful about AR is that you can pretty much render any visualization that you want anywhere, anytime. It’s an emerging field. Say we want to communicate with a robot that is simply going to travel down the hallway and turn left, how do we do that? What do we show, exactly? And one of the options that we came up with is just a simple dotted line on the ground. But do we show that as colorful markers or blinkers? Do we show only the destination point, or everything in between? These are the kind of complex questions I find fascinating as we think about how a robot understands the physical world. You can show people what they were not able to see in the past: sonar waves, sound visuals, a laser scan. So, it’s exciting to know I’m helping develop tools that expand our visual world and our experience of it.
A big idea: As robots increasingly become integrated into our lives, we have to focus on improving those interactions. As people and robots share space, we need to make those interactions more effective and smoother; with that progress, people will have more trust in robots than they do now. The general public thinks robots are going to take over the world or this robot's going to be like a Terminator. They appear to operate in their own world, and that leads to the question: Is this robot something I need to worry about? To me that view is very limiting. But how about imagining a robot that can communicate with you in a friendly way? That would open up the potential for new human-robot interactions.
Why progress matters: One area where I think we’ll see AR features combined with how we live in the future relates to the rise of autonomous vehicles. With an autonomous car, a pedestrian doesn't see anybody behind the wheel, so how does that pedestrian understand when's a good time to, say, safely cross the street? One of the things that I would like to explore is if we can augment the vehicle with indicators that better communicate that the car understands that it's coming to a complete stop, and by that understanding, the pedestrian can proceed to cross the street. I worked on another practical application in a past internship. Say you’re exploring an unknown building that is believed to contain some hazardous material, something radioactive, for example. You can't see radioactive material. But with AR we could render a boundary zone saying, “This area is receiving harmful levels of radiation.” So instead of having expensive detection equipment, we can visualize dangerous levels. I think we’re just beginning to recognize the beauty of what AR can do. To see Cleaver’s AR projects, check out his social media posts.
David Michel, E24
David Michel, a senior studying civil and environmental engineering, envisions a merger of engineering with urban planning to create and sustain more just communities. One of 30 undergraduate students selected for the Visiting and Early Research Scholars' Experience (VERSE), an immersive research and mentorship program, he worked under the advisement of Shomon Shamsuddin, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning.
Why civil engineering: I am a first-generation, low-income student from South Central Los Angeles, and when I came to Tufts, I saw my education as helping me to advocate for historically excluded communities. My introduction to engineering opened my eyes to how that is possible, and I have been fortunate that at Tufts my professor encouraged that social activism perspective. There are many different avenues that I could take after Tufts, but whatever I do, my main goal is to impact a community in a positive way. That’s one reason for why I chose civil engineering: it's one of the most direct ways you can affect people. Roads, bridges, highways—civil engineers make them possible.
A big idea: To me, both urban planners and civil engineers have a responsibility to engage with and understand the community where they're working, and they need to be more collaborative professionally. It would be even better if policy makers have some engineering experience—and vice versa—so that they understand the big implications of what they're doing. It is my hope that historical policies and zoning laws that have hurt specific communities can be changed or reversed. We need to intentionally merge policies with civil engineering so that communities that have been historically ignored and mistreated are able to thrive. I'm from Los Angeles, which has a large, very intricate systems of freeways and highways. For engineers, that's a marvelous feat to accomplish, right? But a lot of these transportation systems have a negative impact on lower income communities and often communities of color; they impact the values of equity and social justice.
Why progress matters: Working with Dr. Shamsuddin has helped me think more deeply about the social impact of engineering and policy, specifically around issues of poverty and homelessness. I learned that federal programs like the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere [HOPE VI] program sought to address the poor conditions of public housing projects across the country by revitalizing them into mixed-income developments in order to “build more sustainable communities.” But in some cases, fewer units were rebuilt than originally were there, meaning that some people were forced to seek shelter elsewhere. And with the current trend of building more luxury rental housing, households with modest incomes are left with little to no housing options. Lack of affordable housing is just one example of a social issue that can be addressed by both local policy makers and civil engineers with support from the federal government. I believe that the engineers of today and of the future have a responsibility to respect the needs of not only the present community but also of those communities that came before them. Past decisions did not consider all voices, and we must now prioritize those unheard voices to begin correcting those wrongdoings.
Akshita Rao, E21, EG22
Working in the Tufts Timko Lab for the past four years, Akshita Rao has focused on the field of bioelectronics. She integrates product design and fabrication with cell experimental methods to develop applications of bioelectronics and medical devices. This research has given her the opportunity to write and defend her senior honors thesis, which earned highest honors, and co-author two papers published in scientific journals. Now a master’s degree candidate continuing to work with Assistant Professor Brian Timko, she also draws on experience as a product summer intern at Corvia Medical, where she supported the design and development of manufacturing processes used in production of a transcatheter heart implant, an alternative to invasive heart surgery.
Why biomaterials and medical devices: When I came to Tufts, I knew I wanted to integrate my passion for building things with advancing human health. Majoring in both mechanical and biomedical engineering as an undergraduate gave me the best of both worlds, and this experience launched me into pursuing my master’s degree. What excites me about this field is that there are so many different avenues to perform research —both in academia and industry. There are so many companies and labs that are currently making smart materials and devices to screen the human body for disease and advance human health.
A big idea: The exciting field of biomaterials is introducing new synthetic and natural materials that can be integrated and compatible with the human body. Biomaterials can aid in developing biosensors or devices that can be inserted or worn on the skin to provide details of a patient’s recovery or disease, or even provide precise medicine. These are devices that people can use to detect many things—cardiac signaling, stroke activity, epilepsy, pathogens or viruses in your blood, or tumor activity. These devices give us ability to understand how our bodies function under certain drugs or disease, and I think that's what's so great about it. It really is a brave new world. At Corvia Medical, I had a chance to support work to develop a heart implant for people who have abnormally high heart pressure. A future iteration would include a heart implant that could self-regulate and provide other cardiac drugs and stimulants to improve blood flow. This means, once it’s inserted into the body, this “smart” implant can sense its surroundings and provide precise and personalized medicine.
Why progress matters: Innovations in biomedical engineering and better integrating medical devices in healthcare will transform patient care and recovery. Think about the invasive surgeries a patient suffering from a cardiovascular disease could avoid if instead a doctor could inject a small bio-device to locate damaged heart tissue. A smart bio-device like this could release the necessary drugs to the damaged tissue to the patient without an invasive heart surgery or could provide the doctor with cell signals and responses to improve the patient's therapy.
I used to work as a systems test engineer at Insulet, where they have developed a self-regulated insulin pump that works in tandem with a continuous glucose monitor, Omnipod. Based on the readings from the monitor, the pump will calculate and deliver the necessary insulin level to the patient. The most frustrating part for diabetic patients is having to constantly check their blood glucose levels and manually intake insulin but with Omnipod, just approved by the FDA, we will revolutionize diabetic therapies. It’s just the beginning. I believe we will continue to see more of these bio-devices that seamlessly integrate with our lives. Innovation in biomaterials and medical devices is the next step in developing smart biotechnology that can bridge the gap between disease diagnosis and drug delivery, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives.
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.