Academic journeys for undergraduates and graduate students have been guided by mentors and their own curiosity
Every year, Engineers Week celebrates the many ways engineers make a difference in the world. Below, Tufts Now looks at how those journeys begin. Six undergraduate and graduate engineering students, each with distinctive interests and talents, share how they found their engineering paths. (Learn more about how the School of Engineering is marking Tufts EWeek 2024, from February 15 to 24.)
Katie Lew, E25
Katie Lew is pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in studio art. As a SEPA STEM Fellow, she was a mentor to high school students from communities traditionally underrepresented in STEM. She also is an undergraduate research assistant for Madeleine Oudin, associate professor of biomedical engineering. Lew brings her love of art to bear on graphics for the Tufts University Social Collective and shares her enthusiasm for the outdoors with fellow students as community director of the Tufts Mountain Club and orientation leader for the Tufts Wilderness Orientation.
“I came to Tufts planning to take up engineering. I loved painting, but I also really liked structures and sculptures; I liked to find myself at the intersection of these ideas, I liked the process of making something, the process of iterating and redesigning. I also liked math and science. I thought, OK, engineering marries these approaches to problem solving. It was kind of a shot in the dark in terms of whether that theory was going to work, but I wanted to see what would happen if I brought them together.
“The first engineering course I took was the biomedical track of Introduction to Engineering [EN1, Innovation in Biomedical Engineering co-taught by David Kaplan, Stern Professor in Engineering, and Fio Omenetto, Frank C. Doble Professor in Engineering]. I loved that class. It touched a lot upon biomimicry. That really clicked with me. I was pretty sold on biomedical after EN1. I appreciate how they tapped into this idea of looking to nature and to the Earth as you create new systems and designs.
“Much of my focus is on pulling things from all these different corners of art and engineering. One specific example is from my work in the Oudin Lab, where I do a lot of confocal imaging. This microscope takes high resolution images of cells that allow us to measure the fluorescence, and therefore expression, of certain proteins. This helps us understand if drugs may be converting healthy cells to cancer-associated cells. But there's also just the beauty of looking at the cells.
“That’s one example of that intersection of art and engineering. In art, you are painting, and you have a plan, but you need to revise and you kind of have a solution you want to solve or a message you want to send. Like engineering, it’s iterative. Similarly, with these microscopy experiments you are trying to understand and refine your research.
“That is why I was drawn to engineering: to do art and engineering in tandem and deeply develop those skills. I have a knowledge of the scientific process, and techniques and technologies to employ, but the question is: How do I combine them? Just seeing what's going to happen when I put them together is exciting.”
Andres Antonio, E23, EG24
Andres Antonio, from Brooklyn, New York, is on track to earn an M.S. in Human Factors Engineering, a one-year program that builds on his B.S. in engineering psychology (summa cum laude) and minor in dance. As an undergraduate, he co-directed Spirit of the Creative, Tufts’ hip hop and choreography dance team, and taught Dance Fit classes for the Tufts University Social Collective. He also took his passion for diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice into the classroom by creating and teaching the Ex-College course DEI in Video Game Representation. He was also active in the Association of Latin American Students.
“I came to Tufts thinking that I was going to major in computer science, but after an intro course I realized that wasn't for me. I was more interested in getting into design and how engineering intersects with people in the world. Then I heard about engineering psychology, and I knew: This is for me. The first class that inspired me was Computer Aided Design, taught by Ryan Marshall [part-time lecturer in civil and environmental engineering]. I loved the collaboration between the software side, the design side, the people sides, how all these fields came together.
“Human factors bridges that gap between people and products we use. We are designers for people and for our communities, so it questions everything you might otherwise just take for granted: What are the different ways that we can design products? How can we make things more efficient? How can we think about what helps communities thrive? What are all the things that we could be doing to make sure that we're providing better spaces, better products? In short, how do we think about what people need, want, and desire? You have to really get to know what products would be genuinely beneficial in daily life.
“I've always had this dance world, and this tech games world, two passions that at first seem to have no connection. Many times, I’ve been told, ‘Wow, that's a really crazy combination!’ But choreography and the human factors process do have a lot in common.
“When I'm choreographing, I'm asking the same questions I ask when I make specific design choices. Who are the people in my dance? What are their strengths? What do they want out of this piece? How am I making formations to make sure everyone's seen, so everyone feels satisfied about giving up their time to be in this performance? How do I feel when it's on stage? What does the lighting look like?
“So, while dance and engineering are different fields, they both definitely complement each other and help me develop skills that I can apply to both fields. I'd love to be able to combine them somehow as I go forward. That’s the dream.”
Ayah Basmeh, E24
Ayah Basmeh, E24, advises students to "take your time to figure things out. Once you get to where you want to be, you will be excited to keep going, and your perspective is going to be valued." Photo: Alonso Nichols
Ayah Basmeh, E24, has found her niche in electrical engineering and looks forward to fine-tuning her interests next year with an M.S. in Innovation and Management (MSIM) from Tufts School of Engineering’s Gordon Institute. Her undergraduate activities include serving as a student facilitator of the Pedagogical Partnership Program and, prior to her sophomore year, as pre-orientation program coordinator for BEAST (Building Engagement and Access for Students at Tufts); she has since returned every year as a peer leader/peer mentor for BEAST and for the FIRST Resource Center. Other activities include the Arab Students Association and performing with Ballet Folklórico. As a musician whose primary instruments are clarinet and bass guitar, she also created EthnoMusic House, where students gather to perform and celebrate world music.
“I didn’t follow the most conventional path to get to electrical engineering. I started out in biomedical engineering but came to realize I wasn’t happy working in a lab.
“I care a lot about the human and social component of engineering. I have no regrets at all about switching my major. It helped me realize I don't really have much fear. I'm always trying to give my best, I am resilient, and I’m here to learn how to learn.
“I’m also really enjoying the opportunities that electrical and computer engineering offer. For our senior design project [taught by Ron Lasser, professor of the practice, Emily Carlson, assistant teaching professor, and Brian Aull, professor of the practice], we’re making an electronic orchestra analyzer. It’s a device that takes input signals from sound waves made by various instruments. We can classify what they are and ideally produce a transcription, which is a musical score of all the parts that they're playing. It’s been perfect for me: It ties in with my interests in music and electrical engineering.
“Last year I decided to get involved with the Tufts Robotics Team and jumped into the introductory Combat Robotics project. Each team makes a small combat robot, or battlebot, to compete in a tournament that’s held on the patio of the Science and Engineering Complex in November. I had a lot to learn: I had never used laser cutting machines, never done computer animated design. But there was a great team spirit because everyone was so collaborative.
“When it came to the night of the tournament, we were so excited to be with one another and even more excited to see how our robot, Leona, destroyed the competition. We were honestly surprised to win first place!
“To me, being excited about engineering work means finding the field that aligns with my morals and my values. As I look ahead, I want to target my engineering training toward addressing the needs of people. We should be directing innovations to global problems, including reducing and eliminating poverty and hunger. We should be designing systems that can be sent out there quickly and affordably to help people get the help they need in times of crisis.
“It’s not always a straight path to find out what you can do in engineering. So my advice to students is: Take your time to figure things out. Once you get to where you want to be, you will be excited to keep going, and your perspective is going to be valued. Maybe it’s going to be different from everyone else’s because you've struggled to get there. But everyone has their own unique process. Just push past your fears and navigate your own way to find out what works for you.”
Julia Jenulis, E25
Julia Jenulis, E25, has merged civil engineering with a focus on sustainability, to become "someone who can design and inform the change the future needs.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
A junior studying civil engineering at Tufts and a Denver native, Julia Jenulis, E25, is focused on sustainable practices and architecture with the goal of designing resilient buildings to reduce urban impacts on climate change. Her activities outside the classroom include a geotechnical engineering internship with GEI Consultants, an internship with Northeast Clean Energy Council, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design summer Design Discovery studio course. She has also served as a research assistant to Justin Hollander, professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, working on projects that included looking at how pedestrians interact with the built environment, and will begin working with Farshid Vahedifard, professor of civil and environmental engineering, this spring.
“Originally, I thought environmental engineering was the route I wanted to follow, but then the more structural aspect of civil engineering started to appeal to me, with its focus on designing built solutions instead of gathering data to identify problems. I saw it as a spectrum, with architecture, or individual buildings, representing the smaller scale of my interests, and urban planning as the largest scale that I could work within. Civil engineering falls somewhere in between the two, where you get to work on different-sized systems and have a direct impact on people’s lives.
“One influential course for me was a design-focused class, Engineering for a Sustainable and Resilient Society, taught by Professor [Andrew] Ramsburg [associate professor and associate chair of civil and environmental engineering]. It was an intense class, but it addressed so many of the different things that I'm interested in.
“Our first project was to present a solution to increase resiliency against sea level rise and storm surges in Scituate, Massachusetts. We had to look at 50- and 100-year time frames and describe what the worst-case scenario would be. We had to ask ourselves: If we build a house on a particular plot, how do we make it resilient to water? How do we raise it off the ground and choose the right foundation?
“Another project was based on another [Massachusetts] coastal community, Winthrop, and there we looked at what sort of seawall and natural land combinations would avoid flooding and make sure that people still had access to a bridge. That course anchored civil engineering for me. It gave me the skills that I want to keep using and I've really learned a lot more about the meaning of sustainability. It’s more than climate readiness; it also has to do with social equity.
“I also want to recognize Professor Laurie Baise [chair of civil and environmental engineering], my advisor. I've met with her consistently throughout the past four years and she has always been really supportive. It’s wonderful to be encouraged by a woman faculty member; in an industry that is so predominantly male it inspires me to take the lead and help others.
“I think civil engineering has so much to offer. Sophomore year, my friends and I came up with a definition of civil engineering in an effort to describe it to other underclassmen and encourage their interest. What we came up with focused on the civil part of civil engineering, by which we mean the field’s public impact. Yes, we build bridges and buildings, but our role goes further. We’re looking at roads and utilities and public health and resiliency and climate change—it can take you in a lot of directions. Civil engineering directly impacts large communities every day.
“That’s why civil engineering excites me, especially when I combine it with sustainability. It feels like the best way for me to be someone who can design and inform the change the future needs.”
Ivy Le, E25
Ivy Le, E25, at first thought she'd pursue biology and economics, "but my passion was directing me toward some kind of antibody research or vaccine development." Photo: Alonso Nichols
Ivy Le, E25, of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, developed her fascination for science at The Governor’s Academy in Massachusetts. At Tufts, she has gravitated to chemical engineering. She is now one of two undergraduates supporting research in the lab of James Van Deventer, Bright Futures Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. She also enjoys the community of students who share an interest in sustainability and cellular agriculture as an event coordinator for the Tufts Alt Protein Project.
“I came here thinking that I wanted to do biology and some sort of economics. The pandemic pushed me into thinking about vaccines; I got interested in—and I'm still fascinated by—the fact you can't even see the virus, but it affects us all in significant ways. It changed the entire world. The summer before my senior year in high school, when COVID hit, I took a class online with a Stanford Ph.D. candidate on protein biophysics. It opened my thinking about biotechnology as a possible field of study.
“One of the first courses I took at Tufts was an econ course, and while it was interesting, I realized professionally it wasn’t for me. So I talked to professors about biotechnology and chemistry, work that would be more hands-on.
“That led me to find out that Tufts offered a chemical engineering major. Professor Emmanuel Tzanakakis [chair of chemical and biological engineering] recommended it as a choice because it’s super versatile. So I thought: Maybe this is for me—which is funny because my dad is a civil engineer, and growing up I always said I don't want to do what you do! But my passion was directing me toward some kind of antibody research or vaccine development, and so here I am.
“The first class in chemical engineering, the actual core class with Professor Van Deventer, taught me a totally different way of thinking. He was good at introducing the new concepts: this is what Chem Es do and this is what we think about, and this is how we solve problems. Despite the breadth of the Chem E curriculum, I still have the opportunity to specialize in what I want to do later on through my electives and research. Not only that, my core engineering classes also teach me to productively and efficiently solve problems.
“I have a friend who said: When you're going to your Chem E classes, you're going there to learn what you don't know, and then you go home to learn more about it again. That is so true. You revisit the concepts and read the textbook again, you do your problem sets and talk to your friends. The class is just an introduction to concepts you have never heard before. You take them further when you then go through your textbook again and ask: OK, so what's going on? And that’s what I love about engineering: how it keeps moving forward.”
Zachary Rummler, E23, EG24
For Zachary Rummler, E23, EG24, "classes in computer science, especially on embedded systems and operating systems during my junior year affirmed I was headed in the right direction." Photo: Alonso Nichols
Zachary Rummler, E23, EG24, is furthering his undergraduate major in computer engineering through the School of Engineering’s fifth-year program, pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. A New Hampshire native, he is an avid hiker of the White Mountains and a pianist who performed in three jazz bands as an undergraduate. At Tufts, he is a research assistant in machine learning and a teaching assistant in computer organization.
“When I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to study engineering, but I didn't know which branch. Classes in computer science, especially on embedded systems and operating systems during my junior year affirmed I was headed in the right direction. The subject matter of each just seemed so interesting: I wanted to go on and learn about things like AI, databases, and parallel computing.
“Computer science was always a strong possibility; how computers actually worked seemed like magic to me. A couple years ago, though, I had the chance to figure them out. A relative had to buy a new laptop and gave me their old PC that the tech people couldn't fix. They said: ‘If you can get it working, you can keep it.’ So I took it apart, found the problem, and now it’s my own computer. I was surprised the tech people hadn’t been able to find it. It seemed simple to fix to me when I saw what was going on.
“I have a thirst for new things, and there's a lot of innovation in the computer world. And I like a challenge. I’ve hiked all 48 of the 4,000-footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. One of my favorite hikes was a 20-mile hike when we hit about five 4,000-footers in a single day. It was demanding to take on that challenge; I was always thinking about hiking a new mountain.
“In computer engineering, I’m also always looking for the next big challenge. My Tufts education has always been about learning and mastering new concepts. I think that will carry over after graduate school, when I am able to adapt to new challenges in the workplace.
“One professor who’s been important to me as a graduate student is Mark Hempstead, E03 [associate professor in electrical and computer engineering]. I’m a teaching assistant for him as well. I had a meeting with him recently and he helped me organize my thoughts and ambitions. He offered valuable advice as I look ahead.
“The master's degree is going to open doors to me professionally. If I envision where I want to go, I’d like to develop my expertise in AI. I’m interested in AI’s potential as a solution for different environmental challenges. At my recent internship with New Hampshire-based Aclara, I had an opportunity to see first-hand the potential of smart meters that employ AI algorithms to monitor and improve energy efficiency and safety; the implications for modernizing the country’s energy grid are exciting. So I’m putting my computer science degree to work, I hope, in creating a greener and more sustainable planet.”