In recognition of National Engineering Week, Tufts students describe myriad inventive opportunities offered by engineering
National Engineering Week shines a light on how engineering and technology careers shape our future. In celebration of this year’s event, celebrated at Tufts February 16-25, Tufts Now is featuring seven Tufts engineering students who are focused on making a positive difference in the world. (Learn more about scheduled Tufts Engineers Week events at the School of Engineering.)
Drawn to Product Design and Fabrication: Leslie Jaramillo Martinez, E23
Born in Mexico and raised in Dallas, Leslie Jaramillo Martinez is majoring in mechanical engineering, a discipline that allows her to follow her fascination for product design, manufacturing, and sustainable technologies. She also brings a passion for advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice to activities outside the classroom, including as president of the DEIJ Mechanical Engineering Board, as a STEM ambassador for the Center for STEM Diversity, and a former peer leader and intern with the Latinx Center. She is also a mentor for other first-generation and/or low-income students as a learning assistant in three mechanical engineering courses. Internships with high-tech companies such as Cree, Abbott Neuromodulation, and Formlabs have expanded her fabrication expertise and interest in innovation.
“Whenever I'm working on design, I forget that time is moving on. It feels like time is frozen. You come up with one idea and then your brain comes up with other random ideas; it’s a web of ideas. That only happens when I’m designing. So I enjoy coming up with all these out-of-the-box ideas and actually building them. I can see my ideas come to light in a way that is useful; that process makes product design and fabrication really cool.
“One class, ME30, [Electromechanical Systems and Robotics taught by Lecturer Brandon Stafford and Assistant Teaching Professor Briana Bouchard] for instance, gave me a chance to figure out electronics. We had to invent a game that had never been built before, the user had to input something, and something would have to tell the user whether they had won.
“So I thought of this game I used to play with my brother: It was ‘soccer’ we could play just about anywhere! We would roll up a tiny ball of tissue paper and then just ‘kick’ it with two fingers. To block it, you’d move your fingers back and forth. For my project, I made the goalie be a motor that would move constantly back and forth, and I could adjust the speed. I also 3D printed a net. A player kicks a marble at the goal and if they hit the net, or score, it presses a button, the motor stops, and a light goes on so they know they won. That was a really hard project! I spent probably 30 hours working on it, but it was a fun challenge. Over the summer I wanted to keep working on the game and I even designed little shoes for fingers; I realized they only fit my fingers! I ended up just 3D printing ones for myself.
“Something that I've learned during my four years here, and that I hope I can help change, is that the definition of engineering, and the idea of ‘engineering’ something that is new, is too narrow. My parents didn’t go to college, but they’re engineers, in that they value making things, and they had a big influence on my childhood. I made a doghouse from scratch with my father; my mother always encouraged me to draw. And my grandfather was my first introduction to engineering.
“He has a small farm in Mexico where he raises all his own food, and everything he builds is useful to him on his farm. He makes all these weird tools from found materials. For example, he has two donkeys that help him with crop cultivation, and he added nails along the bottom of a piece of wood and then he hooked that piece of wood to the two donkeys to make a plow. He'll stand on top of the wood and it would create the furrow for seeds; he could drive the donkeys and simultaneously sow his seeds. Before, he had to pull the donkeys and then go back and plant his seeds, which also required a lot of bending.
“To me he was an engineer. His ideas have really inspired me. And I would say, to anyone who is questioning whether they belong in engineering: they absolutely do. We all belong in engineering.”
On the Frontier of Computers: Teo Patrosio, E23, A23
Advances in microchip performance that revolutionize speed and efficiency, such as Apple’s first ARM-based laptop chip, the M1, capture the imagination of Teo Patrosio, a triple major (electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics). “I’ve always loved computers,” says Patrosio, who assembled a computer on their own before coming to Tufts. Now a senior, Patrosio is channeling that fascination as an undergraduate researcher in the Tufts Emerging Circuits and Systems (TECS) Lab, where the team, led by Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Marco Donato, focuses on designing the next generation of energy-efficient, reliable hardware. Patrosio also enjoys the engineering community at the Nolop FAST Facility, the university makerspace, where they work as a staff member.
“I work in the nearly invisible world of microchips and research how some of these small systems work together inside computers. It’s cool work. The problems we’re trying to solve are definitely challenging intellectually—they are part of a complex, integrated environment. I find it very rewarding to throw myself into something where the outcome isn’t exactly known. You never know where it is going or what we are going to find.
"I also like to build with my hands, specifically when it can be manufactured by the Nolop laser cutter. I've found that you can fabricate all sorts of complex things with only a laser cutter, some hand tools, and, occasionally, a 3D printer. For example, last semester I designed and fabricated a flame thrower battle bot in a week using only the laser cutter and a few other materials that are available for purchase in Nolop. As a staff member, when helping a student, I first try to ask the student what they want to do and then try to fit it in with these two constraints.
“I’m a low-income, genderqueer, neurodivergent person of color who was raised by a single adoptive mother. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be an engineer (or at least build cool things to solve real problems). Having such a strong identity taught me that I need to be confident in my ideas and to stand up for myself even if I often feel very different. Presenting confidently continues to be important. At Tufts, I've had lots of help. I’ve learned that I can overcome anything if I put time into it. I have had such great opportunities to do that here— I was the first student to join [Assistant Professor] Marco Donato in supporting his research at TECS—and such great friends. I feel confident that I can go on to pursue a Ph.D. and continue working on the edge of human knowledge, to contribute to the world's collective knowledge.”
Exploring the Potential of Polymers: Luca Mazzaferro, EG23
Luca Mazzaferro is a chemical engineering graduate student working with Ayse Asatekin, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering. Mazzaferro’s research focuses on designing novel membranes that enhance water treatment with many potential applications, including biological separations. His contributions also include conducting research developing new polymers that have shown groundbreaking promise as on-demand dissoluble burn dressings. The lead inventor in two provisional patent applications, he is interested in entrepreneurship. He has worked closely with ZwitterCo, a start-up that has commercialized a technology developed at Tufts.
“Invention is at the core of what polymer scientists do: we synthesize polymers that have never existed before. A polymer is a long chain made up of multiple chemical units called monomers and, depending on what monomers you pick and how you design your final polymer composition, you can tailor your material to have the desired properties for a given application. This level of freedom is what I like about polymer science. There is still a lot to be discovered in the polymer field. At the moment, the inventions we are creating can tackle a range of problems, from health to environmental issues, such as wastewater treatment.
“One thing that helped me a lot here at Tufts was that anytime I had an idea, my advisor would say: ‘Go for it. See what happens.’ When you're still a little bit of an amateur scientist and you don't really know what you're doing, that encouragement is so important. There were a lot of ideas that didn’t work. The first two years, I tried so many things. But from my perspective, that means I was able to learn a lot and at the end, fortune does favor the bold.
“I grew up in Brazil. If you think of innovation where I come from, you think of the United States. I always wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and I knew that the U.S. had the best researchers and institutions.
“I’m most excited by the discovery part of what I do. But I am particularly thrilled if our invention has potential to be used in the real world, by solving problems and improving quality of life. It must be incredible to see your invention being used and improving people's lives. I think there’s a lot of growth ahead, especially in biotech, green technologies, and manufacturing.
“At Tufts, when I'm in a social environment where everybody's sharing cool ideas and talking about interesting things that they're developing, I always get motivated; I get a burst of energy. If I can't fall asleep at night, it is likely because I'm having more ideas that I want to explore.”
Makerspaces for Everyone: Kat Allen, EG26
At Tufts, Kat Allen is pursuing a new chapter in an engineering career that started at MIT with a degree in aerospace engineering with information technology. Now a doctoral student in mechanical engineering and human-robot interaction, she is inspired by the human-centered research led by Elaine Short, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in the Assistive Agent Behavior and Learning Lab (AABL), as well as by related work from the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO).
“One of my projects involves looking at makerspaces and how to invent a space for inventing. We’re interested in a hybrid space that is intended for people who have access challenges: People who identify as disabled, but also people who have ADHD or chronic pain. I talked, for instance, with a woman who has a limb difference. She has one hand with fingers and one hand without. She does all her typing with one hand, so you can imagine typing becomes painful. Her solution is one that a person with two-handed repetitive strain injury might also need.
“When inventing anything, the human connection is essential. You have to see the time that you spend with the customer as a precious resource. It requires a lot of perspective taking, a lot of soft skills. You can’t solve the problem if you don't start with what the person needs and wants; you can't do good engineering.
“What I’ve found is essential is that we can work with each other, we can inspire each other, we can create things and remix ideas that work together in new ways. And that's ultimately what we want to make in this makerspace. It should be a space where people can be inspirational. The people who founded the makerspace movement imagined that it's all about the people and about the spirit of innovation, much more than about the stuff you have there. It’s about bridging the gap between ‘I'm interested in making something’ and ‘I feel like I can walk into this space and just start using the tools.’
“Getting to that broader perspective of a successful human-robot interaction does not come easily. Asking yourself, ’How can I make this better for people who are not like me?’ is hard. And that's the place where I feel like engineering has more work to do. How do I make this better for people who don't look like me? How do I make this better for people who don't move like me or act like me? Every engineer I've ever met wants to make things better. We're going in the right direction. We just need to think bigger.”
Pursuing an Inclusive Vision of Engineering Education: Avis Carrero, EG20, EG25
Avis Carrero, who first earned a master's degree in geosystems engineering at Tufts, is a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering focused on DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). Intending to support communities that have been historically excluded and under-resourced in STEM, he is researching the role of faculty in the pursuit of racial and educational equity in engineering education. His dissertation research about faculty pedagogical decisions in engineering and DEI is guided by Trevion Henderson, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering. Carrero served as a graduate academic mentor for the StAAR Center at Tufts. He was among those honored by Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life for his service and leadership last year with a Presidential Award for Civic Life. He also serves on the Anti-Racism and Equity Action team at the University of Connecticut, his undergraduate alma mater.
"My initial interest was geotechnical engineering, meaning I focus on the role of geologic materials in engineered systems. Now it's sustained in parallel with my interest in exploring the role of DEI in engineering education. They don't take away from each other. In fact, my engineering background trained me to think methodically, allowing me to navigate these complex DEI-related issues within a larger societal framework and my local engineering education context."
"My transition to focusing on DEI and education came in 2020 with the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and then the COVID-19 global pandemic. Some people have chosen to put their hands over their eyes regarding racist issues. For me, being a Black, LatinX, gay, first-generation college grad—and a human being—I realized I did not have a choice in terms of the things that I experienced or perceived."
"I now see my most rewarding work in education. I'm interested in how engineering faculty understand and engage with the DEI issues that define our time, ultimately capturing their mental model of DEI, as DEI can mean everything and nothing at the same time. In other words, I want to know how their conception of DEI influences decisions around how and what they teach. I view this as necessary in pursuing racial and educational equity in engineering. Each decision has implications, especially for students of color or students who have been historically excluded and exist at the margins of engineering. From my point of view, we are preparing the next generation of engineers, so how we teach them and what we teach—and also what we don't teach them—is very important."
"There are a lot of systems at play, especially in the context of DEI, and so to move forward, we need first to understand them and then work to deconstruct them. For any invention or new idea to come into being, old things must either be dialed off or reformulated. That's the approach I take in my work. My Ph.D. is not the end; it's the beginning. Throughout my entire career, I want to be grounded in the importance of pursuing DEI work in a field where it may seem like it has no place to some. I cannot do engineering work without considering the DEI issues I'm considering now. It's one way I remain true to my own experience."
On the Threshold of New Cancer Therapies: Patrick Solomon, E24, and Andrew Langley, E23
Biomedical engineering undergraduates Patrick Solomon, E24, and Andrew Langley, E23, are honing a shared interested in emerging cancer therapies in the Integrated Biofunctional Imaging & Therapeutics Laboratory (iBIT). They are part of an interdisciplinary team with backgrounds in electronics, signal processing, molecular biology, optics, and nanotechnology, led by Srivalleesha Mallidi, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Last summer they worked alongside graduate student Allison Sweeney, E21, EG22 (who is now a Tufts research assistant in the same lab) on image-guided cancer therapies for pancreatic cancers using photoacoustic, and ultrasound imaging. Their study continues, expanding to include a broad range of drugs to further test whether tumor oxygenation status is a good indicator of a cancer therapy’s success.
Patrick Solomon: “To work in a cancer laboratory is an amazing opportunity, and for us, to specifically get experience with cutting edge imaging modalities such as photoacoustic imaging. Bioengineers see a lot of promise in photoacoustic imaging because it can track changes in oxygen as we treat cancer with a drug.”
Andrew Langley: “Right, it’s using an engineering mindset to look at biology. Basically you can think of it like a take on ultrasound. Instead of sending sound into the tissue, we send in light— we shoot lasers at the tumor and get sound back. Tumors tend to have variable oxygen levels so we’re looking to see if the oxygenation levels change—those levels will be an indicator of tissue death or of a tissue that is still very much alive.”
Solomon: “We assisted graduate student Allison Sweeney with trying to figure out if we can create a model to predict whether the drug, or cancer therapy, will work in the long term. Our study was looking at pancreatic cancer and drugs that are designed to shrink the tumor. In pancreatic cancer, the goal is to shrink it down so you can then have it surgically removed, not necessarily to wipe it out.
“Another part of why we chose this research was because you have such a short life expectancy if you’re diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We are working on a model that, if it works, will tell you if a drug is working early on and change the treatment plan, and ultimately improve your odds of beating this cancer.”
Langley: “We’re trying to accelerate the response to the cancer. Rather than have to wait months to see if a treatment worked, move it up to maybe days after treatment. And that could be lifesaving.”
Solomon: “This has been an amazing experience as an undergraduate. We got such support from Professor Mallidi and her lab members; we are very grateful. There's so much we don't know about cancer and the treatment methods. They’re getting better every day, and to be a part of that progress was an incredible opportunity. To think that something that we're doing right now actually could have an impact on someone's life in the future— that is really cool.”
Langley: “To echo that: engineering classes introduce us to all these different concepts and they're all very theoretical and controlled. But when you get into the lab, especially in our field where a lot of these mechanisms are unknown, it becomes very real very quickly. We work with real human cancer cells. It's right there in front of you. Our second day we were brought to the lab and told, ‘This is a half million-dollar imaging machine that you guys are going be working with.’ Like, no pressure!”
Solomon: “What I like about being in this field is that, with an engineering degree, you can do anything you want. Also just knowing that the things that you're doing are actually making an impact in the world is pretty crazy.
“It’s interesting because there are some people in our lab who have no background in biology whatsoever. They're computer science people, electronics people. Any type of engineering discipline or science discipline can get interested in biomedical engineering. We all come with different strengths. We need all of that because the processes and the systems we're building are so complex that not one of us can know everything about it. I rely on our algorithms to be really good and fast. I don't understand how they work, but I know that someone else has set them up correctly. On the flip side the people writing those algorithms may not fully understand the biology of what we're looking for, but if we tell them we're looking for this signal, they can design our system to be able to pick that up. It's a really big group effort.”
Langley: “I will add that personally, this work is also very meaningful. I've had several family members who have died from cancer, and family members who have it now. Cancer touches all of us. But we’re improving treatment strategies all the time, and that gives me hope. And we know, if we're going to make a commitment to doing really great things, we have to be in it for the long haul, and we are.”