Mechanical Engineering, Biology Intertwined
Several months into her Pratt Undergraduate Fellowship, Katrina Wisdom (E’12) was handed a mailer by her faculty advisor, Chuan-Hua Chen, Alfred M. Hunt Faculty Scholar and assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
Inside were dozens of cicada wings, freshly arrived from Australia. Researchers at James Cook University had read about Chen’s work, and suspected that the same phenomenon of jumping drops he recently discovered could also be occurring on the surfaces of cicada wings.
As it turned out, Wisdom would spend more than a year perfecting a strategy for capturing the jumping drops on film. The results of all that hard work would end up being published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Now a first-year graduate student at Stanford University in mechanical engineering, she said that the experience in Chen’s lab as a Pratt Fellow, and the all the obstacles she had to overcome, prepared her well for research at the next level.
“It can be very difficult to image wings,” Wisdom said. “Biology is messy. We tried many different setups to capture the droplets. Over time, we found creative solutions to the imaging challenges. It was important to me to learn as an undergraduate how to methodically work through a problem in a way that leads to a solution.”
At Stanford, she is combining her love of mechanical engineering with biology. While she has left behind cicada wings, she is now focused on humans and their muscles, which also ties into another of her passions, dancing.
“I’m looking at applying mechanical engineering principles to understand complex biological systems, especially muscles,” she said. “We want to know how changing mechanical forces influence muscles to change, for example, in bedridden hospital patients or in astronauts. By learning more about the effects of mechanical loads on muscles, we hope to develop computational models of the process and enable more effective treatments for patients with muscular disorders.
“My Pratt Fellows experience taught me not only how to conduct research, but also how to become a good problem solver,” Wisdom continued. “Dr. Chen teaches each of his students the skills and practices necessary to being an effective researcher. These are skills undergraduates don’t often learn through normal coursework, so I am grateful to have learned them through Pratt Fellows.”