Penn’s Rachleff Scholars: The Best of Engineering

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Media Contact:Madeleine Kruhly | mkruhly@sas.upenn.edu | 215-898-1435June 26, 2013

For a select group of engineering undergraduates in the Rachleff Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania, summer will be spent conducting research that ranges from robotics to cancer cells.

Established only five years ago in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the program has already proved valuable to student engineers.

Jan Van der Spiegel, professor of electrical and systems engineering and director of the Program, says it offers “research meant to attract the very best students and keep them in engineering.”

Van der Spiegel explains that some of the brightest student engineers graduate only to pursue a career in finance and consulting, and he hopes to change that with a wider scope of research opportunities.

“We want to do a better job to excite students about a career in engineering,” he says. 

Andy Rachleff, the Penn trustee who endowed the program, also emphasizes the need for students to practice engineering professionally.

“In order to have a healthy engineering school, we have to have industrial funding,” Rachleff says. “And the only way to have industrial funding is if companies hire our graduates.”

The majority of Rachleff Scholars are selected as freshman, but Van der Spiegel points out that sophomores can also apply.

“We really look for interest and aptitude in research,” Van der Speigel says. “If students have had prior experience, that’s an important pointer, but we also accept students who haven’t done research.”

The nucleus of the program is the 10-week summer research experience for rising juniors. There are currently 17 participants, and each one is supervised by a standing faculty mentor.

Van der Spiegel says that faculty are generally very interested in participating.

“It’s part of their mission to do research and educate students,“ he says.

Nikhil Rajapuram, Rocky Diegmiller and Sean Reidy are three of these top-tier students. Having finished sophomore year, they will be focusing on their projects this summer.

Rajapuram, president of the Rachleff Scholars Society student group, works in the Injury Biomechanics Lab, headed by Susan Margulies, professor of bioengineering. Under her direction, he focuses on models for pediatric traumatic brain injury.

“We want to create something that could prove to be clinically useful in diagnosing children that have suffered mild traumatic brain injury,” he says.

Rajapuram is signed up to stay with his research, which fulfills the Rachleff program’s main goal of having participants continue their work in subsequent years.

Sean Reidy, vice president of the Rachleff Scholars Society, appreciates in particular the program’s access to esteemed faculty members.

“The best part is getting to know the professors you’re working with,” Reidy says. “They are world-renowned researchers you can talk to on personal and professional levels. The Rachleff program provides that opportunity.”

This summer, Reidy, who is also vice president of Penn’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a teaching assistant for Introduction to Programming, is tackling a progressive form of mechanical engineering: robotics.

He works in the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception, or GRASP, lab under the direction of Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor, and right now Reidy is modifying a MakerBot 3D printer in order for it to manufacture circuit boards.

“The way we make things now is a subtractive process,” he says. “We want to eliminate waste.”

And it’s these circuit boards that will catalyze the automation of GRASP’s quadrotors, for which Reidy says there is a vast range of applications because robots can go places where humans can’t.

“My group wants to make robotics more prevalent in the world today. Right now, a lot of processes are manual, and we want to make it so they’re as automatic as possible,” Reidy explains.

Rachleff Scholars take two half-course seminars before and after summer research. The first prepares them for their projects; the latter instructs the participants on writing journal-quality papers and giving presentations of their results.

Participants are required as well to take two honors or graduate-level courses, and the next batch of students will conduct smaller independent studies in preparation for their extended projects.

But for Rachleff scholars, the program is also about a sense of community –- one entirely organized by peers.

The Rachleff Scholars Society was started about a year ago.

“We are responsible for putting on events as well as garnering interest and awareness. We want to help out scholars that are on campus for the summer,” Rajapuram says of the Society board. 

With funding from the school, Rajapuram and his fellow directors have organized events so student researchers can socialize and learn from one another.

Rocky Diegmiller, treasurer of the Society, says “Regardless of engineering disciplines, we all have similar interests, so we don’t have to try that hard to connect.”

Diegmiller, who is also president of Penn’s chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, has decided to focus on a project with enormous health implications: finding a cure for cancer.

Since January, Diegmiller has worked under the direction of Dennis Discher, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Diegmiller explains that the lab has a tissue culture room, concentrating specifically on lung cancer cells, which he and his fellow researchers use to test the effects of a certain drug.

“We know that this particular drug is effective against cancer cells,” he says. “But we’re now looking to see how it goes about making the cell die.”

Diegmiller focuses on this process, observing how the DNA in the cells breaks with the introduction of the drug and determining if there might be a pattern.

Of course, he says, it’s one thing to eradicate cancer cells and another to leave other cells untouched.

“But, if we understand the effects of the drug better, we could potentially use that information to selectively kill cancer cells,“ he explains.

It’s this variety in subject matter –- as well as the real-world implications of the research –- that help to identify the Rachleff Scholars Program as a valuable resource to the engineering community.

As Rajapuram says, “The coolest part of Rachleff is the diversity within it. I enjoy seeing that people are so passionate about their individual subjects.”

Andy Rachleff hopes to get more people involved, to find further funding for the program in order to make it available to a greater number of students.

“It’s really fun to see that if students have been exposed to research, they’re excited about practicing in the future,” he says. 

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