Who Are Tomorrow’s Engineers? Meet Five with Big Ideas

Young Tufts innovators talk about what drew them to engineering and how they hope to use what they are learning
Zharia Akeem at the School of Engineering. Young Tufts engineers talk about what drew them to engineering and how they hope to use what they are learning
“For my first project in Introduction to Computational Design, I made something from scratch,” says Zharia Akeem. “At that moment, I knew that I was definitely going to stick with engineering.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 19, 2021

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Engineers Week, a nationwide event, runs this year Feb. 21-27, celebrating engineering and engaging the next generation of innovators. At Tufts School of Engineering, E-Week, as it’s best known, may be scaled back this year, but networking events and film discussions are still planned.

In keeping with this year’s theme “Imagining Tomorrow”—encompassing role models, diversity, and what the future holds—Tufts Now reached out to five students to learn more about what drew them to engineering, what they value about their Tufts experience, and how they hope to use what they are learning out in the world—and beyond.

Zharia Akeem, E24

Zharia Akeem, a Detroit native, is double majoring in computer science and biomedical engineering. Her passion for engineering was encouraged by a summer program at MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach, and through the Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) program.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of making something out of nothing. For my first project in Introduction to Computational Design, I made something from scratch. I was able to see the entire process and then see how it worked at the end. At that moment, I knew that I was definitely going to stick with engineering. 

My dream job is to be a trauma surgeon back in my community in Detroit. I’m going to start by being a combat surgeon in the Army. I have family members, my brothers and uncles and cousins, who served in the military.

I also wanted a job that would enable me to go back to my community, because Detroit is a majority African-American city without a lot of African-American doctors, and certainly not a lot of Black trauma surgeons or woman trauma surgeons, which can create trust and communication barriers. My hope is to do bootcamp before medical school, and after school do my residency in a military-approved program, and then ultimately go back to Detroit after I have served.

One highlight of my time is studying with English lecturer Jennifer Minnen. She encouraged me to write papers on scientific research, which was a really good experience. She introduced me to other people on campus who know about research going on at the university, and was open to helping me do the things that I wanted to do.

Since I’ve been here, the student body in the engineering department, as well as the professors and the TAs, have been so welcoming. I’ve never felt more like a part of a community than I have at Tufts and at the engineering program.

Everyone’s trying to do something, everyone’s trying to create something and make a difference and break some type of barrier. They motivate me to try to do more, to learn more things. 

Tyler Frasca, Ph.D. candidate

“That’s something that I really like about these cognitive robotic architectures—the widespread applications; they’re not necessarily specific to a single problem,” says Tyler Frasca, left, with Matthias Scheutz. Photo: Alonso NicholsTyler Frasca came to Tufts from Wentworth Institute of Technology to pursue graduate studies in human-robot interaction. He was the lead on the Tufts team for the 2017 NASA Space Robotics Challenge, in which Tufts was one of 20 finalists out of 93 competing teams.

What I’ve always enjoyed is taking things apart and putting them back together, and being able to innovate on different ideas. Growing up I was always taking things apart. Once I built a little device mounted next to my bed; it had two strings wrapped around it that attached to the light switch on the wall. I was able to sit in bed and turn on and off the light without having to get up.

More recently, when at Wentworth, my friend and I designed and programmed a hexapod—or six-legged—robot. I was just like, “Wow.” I was able to build this awesome little robot and program it to walk on its own. It was fascinating that I could create things that could be self-sufficient.

So, solving problems—especially that help other people, including yourself, to do things that you wouldn’t normally be able to do—that’s what I love about engineering. 

My highlight experiences at Tufts have been working with Professor Matthias Scheutz and the team in the Human-Robot Interaction Lab. I remember the first time I taught one of our NAO robots how to dance, in the sense that raised its arms, squatted down, and then stood back up. It was a lot of fun, being able to see my work, to design a system that allows the robot to learn new tasks.

Our work on humanoid robot capacity for the NASA competition was a highlight, too. Ever since, I’ve been working on teaching robots through natural language—being able to verbally explain a task to a robot instead of having to program it specifically.

What we’re trying to do is develop robots that learn new tasks or action sequences by equipping them with an initial vocabulary and understanding of phrases, so they learn words online through reasoning and inference. 

My dream job would be to have my own robotics and artificial intelligence company. I have had some interest in assistive home care robots. Another side of me is also very interested in space exploration, so I’m little bit torn between those two applications.

That said, a lot of the internal pieces in the robotic architectures can definitely be applicable to both, and that’s something that I really like about these cognitive robotic architectures—the widespread applications; they’re not necessarily specific to a single problem.

Yiwen Jiang, E21

“If I have a strength as an engineer, it’s my ability to learn new things,” says Yiwen Jiang. “I think as an engineer it is really important to not be intimidated by new things.” Photo: Courtesy of Yiwen JiangYiwen Jiang, majoring in computer engineering, is a student leader of the IEEE-HKN chapter at Tufts and involved with the Women in Technology (WiT) student group. She is also first author on a recent paper in Scientific Reports that describes an application of thread sensors to classify head motion in real time, with potential implications for tracking health and performance.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of how the knowledge we learned in class is so closely related to the real world. More importantly, we are given opportunities to see and understand the discrepancies between the theory and the real world and ways we have to account for them when we design. 

The junior and senior design classes have been especially great. The class provides a gateway to the real-world work environment, from our usual school environment. We are constantly being reminded to do things that would provide efficient communications and get work done, rather than do things just to turn the homework in and get the grade. I really appreciated the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration too.

Another highlight has been the chance to be part of an exciting discovery with smart threads by working with Tufts Nanolab. When I decided to major in electrical engineering, I wasn’t thinking of the medical field, but after I read how machine learning and image processing algorithms were being used in CT scans to diagnose COVID-19, it inspired me to look into electrical engineering applications in the medical field.  

As a student of engineering, you have to learn to be willing to acknowledge your mistakes. I think one of the fastest ways to learn is through making mistakes, but you have to admit it to learn from it. It might not need to be a huge mistake—many times it’s just as simple as admitting that there is always room for improvement. If I have a strength as an engineer, it’s my ability to learn new things. I think as an engineer it is really important to not be intimidated by new things. 

My dream job is to continue working on designing things that would improve people’s lives. I have interests in lots of areas, but there isn’t a specific area or job that I want. I’m planning on going to graduate school and would love to explore a bit more, so I’m staying open-minded. 

Myisha Majumder, E21

“The biggest thing is that you have to learn to be resilient and recover from your failures,” says Myisha Majumder. “I don’t think engineering was ever designed to be easy.” Photo: Alonso NicholsMyisha Majumder has been named one of “2021’s 10 New Faces of Civil Engineering” (collegiate edition) by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A double major in civil engineering and quantitative economics, she has particular interest in the intersection of the environment, equity, and energy and has worked at the Applied Economics Clinic as a research assistant for more than two years. Last fall, she was editor-in-chief of the Tufts Observer (the first engineering student in the position, she believes), and is also an executive board member for the student-run think tank SYNS, organized through Tisch College of Civic Life. 

When I started engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of thinking about problems and systems, not just at the level of one piece in a puzzle, but as a whole, with the idea of building things that in ways both tangible and intangible that better the world.

That way of thinking is very relevant especially now, when we’re thinking about things like systemic racism more critically. Nothing we do in engineering is really isolated; that’s something that we’ve been taught from day one. Nothing is just moving by itself in one part; it’s connected to a broader system, and we have to think about our place in the world like that, too.

I’m really grateful for how flexible and forward thinking the School of Engineering has been for me. I really appreciate the fact that I was given the opportunities to explore things other than very traditional engineering and to find support.

My advisor in the economics department, Professor Ujjayant Chakravorty, studied civil engineering as an undergrad, so it was cool finding him. And my engineering advisor, Assistant Professor Jonathan Lamontagne, was a political science major before he switched to engineering. So I found my people. They knew where I was coming from.

In the Hidden Figures movie, something that really stuck out to me was Mary Jackson telling her supervisor that she wants to study engineering and the supervisor encouraged her. She really struggled, both due to systemic barriers and personal issues, but she went on. That is emblematic of how I have seen engineering in my time at Tufts.

If professors see something in you that is innate, like the ability to solve problems and to push yourself, they will encourage you to stretch your boundaries so that you can prove that you’re strong and you can tough it out.

The biggest thing is that you have to learn to be resilient and recover from your failures. I don’t think engineering was ever designed to be easy. Failure is often seen as a bad thing, but in my opinion, a lot of the times, it is the only way we can grow.

Over time you realize that failures aren’t as important as what you’re learning. Even the classes that I’ve done the worst in, I’ve learned the most, because I’ve realized just how resilient I am and I can keep going. Overall, that growth mindset is extremely important for engineers.

I’m hoping that there will be more diversity in engineering; that’s something I’ve advocated for and will continue to advocate for as a woman of color. I have definitely grown used to the feeling of being othered. I went to a very predominantly white public school system my entire life, and then came here.

So, it wasn’t necessarily jarring by any means, but amplifying unique voices is really important in engineering. Once we recognize that all voices matter to us as a community, I think we can start to use our unique skills to progress society at a much deeper level than we have so far, and that means incorporating more diverse voices.

Eduardo Vargas Gutierrez, E22

“My dream job is to build either landers or rovers to support space exploration, whether it be to explore new planets, moons, whatever it is,” says Eduardo Vargas Gutierrez. Photo: Alonso NicholsEduardo Vargas Gutierrez is a double major in mechanical engineering and mathematics, a STEM Ambassador (an outreach program run by the Center for STEM Diversity and open to students from the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering), and member of the Tufts Society for Latinx Engineers and Scientists, as well as a mathematics tutor for the StAAR Center.

When I started taking engineering classes, I fell in love with the idea of product design. To sketch out an idea, make calculations for its performance, and then build, test, improve—I absolutely love that process.

One of my Tufts highlights was from an engineering design class with Associate Teaching Professor Gary Leisk. We were given a structure that’s shaped like the letter C, and using a 3D program, we had to design a new structure that would be able to bend to a certain degree and also suffer a certain amount of stress. My team went over more than 100 iterations to get what we wanted. Then our professor built it and tested it, and it performed exactly as we predicted. That was mind blowing. 

To be a good engineer you have to think analytically, but also creatively. Even more important is to think of the impossible rather than just what is possible. I strongly believe that the work that I’m doing here at Tufts is bringing a different definition to impossible.

People are often too quick to say “No way, you can’t do that.” In most cases—almost all—there’s always a solution. You also have to learn to be OK with a lot of failure. Something always goes wrong, but that’s fine, because that allows for a lot of further thinking and reassessing and improving. At the end of the day, the good things, the meaningful things, are going to take time.

My dream job is to build either landers or rovers to support space exploration, whether it be to explore new planets, moons, whatever it is. A summer internship at Northrop Grumman in their aerospace systems division affirmed my goal to build rockets to go to Mars.

I just want to build things that are able to travel from Earth to somewhere that’s millions of miles away and have it fulfill its purpose, whether it’s gather biological samples, or even crash into the surface, so we can explore what’s out there in this insanely massive universe.

My job as a STEM ambassador is important to me too, as I think about the future of engineering. I know there are other kids who are in similar situations to me—they have a lot of big ideas and so much potential, but they might not know that STEM is for them.

But once you realize that is a possibility, countless doors open, and you understand all the things you can do for the world and for yourself. I was fortunate that my family was always encouraging. I learned early on: Just keep getting educated and chase your crazy dreams.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.