Undergraduate research experience leads to job opportunities at Sandia National Labs
ECE juniors Alyssa Bradshaw and Adia Radecka, who are members of an all-undergraduate engineering research team, recently presented their work on biocompatible actuators at RoboSoft 2021, a major IEEE international conference on soft robotics.
Their faculty advisor Holly Golecki couldn’t be prouder. “It’s pretty rare for undergraduates to have a paper accepted at a conference like this,” said Golecki, an Illinois Bioengineering teaching assistant professor. “Usually, there are graduate students driving the research and mentoring the undergraduates. The fact they are doing this all on their own is pretty impressive.”
In addition to Bradshaw and Radecka, the other researchers are Sara Lamer (mechanical engineering), Noe Cervantes (mechanical engineering), Javi Cardenas (ECE), and Umangkumar Kalaria (ECE). All of them are participants in the Academic Redshirt in Science and Engineering (ARISE) program run by the Grainger College of Engineering at Illinois.
Modeled after the concept of redshirting in college sports, where athletes have five years to compete, ARISE provides academically talented students, including those who are first-generation to college or small schools in rural areas, with direct admission to the Grainger College of Engineering. Once enrolled, they receive scholarships and other support designed to help them earn their degree in five years.
Over the last year, the team designed and conducted experiments to determine which biopolymer materials would be the best candidates for making actuators in implantable medical devices like robotic heart sleeves.
“Our idea stemmed from a robotic heart sleeve made of silicone, but silicone can cause fibrosis and issues inside the body,” explained Bradshaw. “We wanted a material that could degrade inside the body but still perform its functional needs.”
Through experimentation, the team discovered that a microbial transglutaminase gelatin material was the most promising material for fashioning an actuator because it maintained its mechanical properties the longest when suspended in a water-based solution.
“We found out that about 50 percent of the mass was retained after two weeks,” said Radecka.
While their findings are interesting, the real benefits of conducting research extend beyond the actual results.
According to Golecki, research complements the students’ coursework to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to a real-world problem. In addition, research opportunities open up other doors and build student confidence, particularly as they learn to explain their work through conference and poster presentations.
In addition to the IEEE Robosoft conference, Bradshaw and Radecka presented a poster at the 2020 Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) annual meeting in the fall. These presentations led to the pair receiving offers for summer internship positions at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, beginning on June 1, 2021. The internships are part of Sandia National Labs Academic Alliance program, a collaborative research project between U of I and Sandia NL. The students will expand upon their current research at Sandia using new tools for characterization and fabrication. Later, they will bring their project back to Illinois to mentor other ARISE students on the techniques.
“Neither one of us realized that so much good can come out of presenting at conferences,” said Radecka, noting how she and Bradshaw look forward to the chance to develop their electrical engineering device fabrication skills this summer.
Another point of pride, Golecki said, is that her team members started on this project without having conducted any research before. A first-generation college graduate herself, Golecki was drawn to working with ARISE participants because many of them are the first in their families to attend college.
“I knew when I came to Illinois [two years ago] that I wanted to work with this population,” said Golecki, whose career trajectory was positively impacted by conducting research as an undergraduate. “These students don’t have to all pursue graduate school, but they should be able to envision that option.”
Golecki’s research team received support from the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) Institute’s Grassroots Initiative to Address Needs Together (GIANT) funding initiative. ARISE students also receive career readiness support from the Illinois Gies College of Business.
“I’m a female and first-generation American and college student,” said Radecka. “I want other students in the same position to know there are all these opportunities out there, so all you really need to do is reach out. If you do, you’ll never know where you’ll end up.”