‘Great people’ in the College of Engineering

Posted on 09. Dec, 2011 by in Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Features, Gift Report, People, Students

The UW-Madison Great People Scholarship Campaign and funding through the College of Engineering Dean’s Fund for Excellence help keep the university accessible to students who have the intellectual ability, curiosity and tenacity to achieve their educational goals. Great People scholarships are need-based grants. Donor gifts and pledges total nearly $14 million since the campaign was introduced in 2008. With the UW Foundation match, the campaign total is more than $27 million.

Cal Buelo
Collaborating on complex medical imaging technology and coaching children’s soccer don’t align for many people, but Cal Buelo discovered that working with kids on the field revealed skills that come in handy as a biomedical engineering student. “I like the teaching part of it, especially showing them something that I enjoy, and then seeing them enjoy it too.” he says.

Cal Buelo

Cal Buelo

Based on how often the sophomore finds himself helping classmates understand calculus problems, that realization applies as much to math and science as it does to teaching proper form for a free kick.

Finding joy in communicating ideas is a critical part of productive teamwork, something Buelo seems keenly aware of, especially after spending his summer helping measure regime shifts in northern Wisconsin lakes for the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and the Cascade Research Group. Limnology doesn’t exactly line up with biomedical engineering, but seeing the scientific process in action impressed on Buelo the importance of understanding one’s role in a larger project. “Talking to the principal investigators, you saw their big ideas and how they broke down into what we were actually working on every day in the field as we took daily measurements,” says Buelo. “It’s something you’re not exposed to unless you take part in their work. Seeing the process up close was really neat.”

The nuanced view of teamwork Buelo has developed in his off-campus experiences has prepped him for the cooperative design work in courses like Introduction to Engineering (InterEGR 160), in which the challenge isn’t mathematical or scientific, but instead lies in understanding and interpreting information effectively.

“It’s about process. I like the design of Intro to Engineering for that,” says Buelo. “They put you in a team to work on the engineering process. You start with a client giving you a problem, and then you have to define the problem yourself, then do the background research and design.”

Of course, all that group work takes up a fair amount of time outside of class, but Buelo seems to enjoy the prospect of group projects. Thankfully, outside donors help give him the extra time he needs. “Having a scholarship–along with financial aid and help from my family–makes it so that I don’t have to work during the semester. I work full time during the summer, but I don’t have to take a part-time job during the school year, which helps me focus more on my classes,” says Buelo.

Mostly, he spends that extra time on design classes, including his most recent project, designing part of a micro-T, micro-PET and micro-RT scanning machine for the Morgridge Institute for Research. But, says Buelo, the funding does allow him to take a break: “It gives me more time for other activities, including fishing occasionally,” he says.

Drew Birrenkott
Engineering students keep plenty busy just sticking close to Engineering Hall, but that didn’t deter junior Drew Birrenkott from delving into the underpinnings of law and government to pursue a major in political science with his biomedical engineering coursework. “Originally it was just something I was interested in doing, since I had an interest in both science and politics,” Birrenkott explains. “But as I’ve gone through my coursework, I’ve found that the two are more intertwined than most people would think.”

Drew Birkenkott on an EWB service trip.

Drew Birkenkott on an EWB service trip.

Birrenkott has seen the intersection of engineering and politics firsthand in his three years as a member of the UW-Madison student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Working on one of its long term engineering projects in rural Orongo, Kenya, Birrenkott had a chance to be a part of solving engineering problems while working within the local economic and political constraints. “It gives undergraduates the opportunity to actually go to these places,” says Birrenkott. “We’re working on an irrigation project right now, and we’re trying to make sure that all of the pumps we use are available through local distributors in Kenya.”

He’s taken part in great engineering learning opportunities on other continents as well. He traveled to India this summer to help research the correlation between travelers’ diarrhea and decreased risk for colon cancer. Once-in-a-lifetime research opportunities like that wouldn’t be possible without the help of scholarships such as the Great People funding. “I got a stipend for the program, but it didn’t cover all of my costs,” says Birrenkott. “The scholarship allowed me to study at the Indian Institute of Science for two months.”

Since he hopes to attend medical school in a few short years, Birrenkott supplements his international medical research with local experiences in the lab of Professor Eugene Kaji in the UW-Madison Cardiovascular Research Center. Birrenkott helps research the role of the THG1 protein in the different causes of hypertrophy of the heart.

In his breathless listing of his humanitarian work and ambitious research experiences, it’s evident that Birrenkott has an exciting future ahead of him. But will he go on to make the next great medical breakthrough, or change the lives of entire communities in a foreign land? That remains to be seen. “It’s something I’m definitely thinking about right now,” he says.

Jordan Swanson
Biofuels or breakfast cereals. He casts a wide net when he talks about his career possibilities, but that’s only because chemical and biological engineering sophomore Jordan Swanson finds that he’s game for just about anything in which engineering fundamentals intersect with a design challenge. “I really like math, I really like chemistry, and I really like solving actual problems, so chemical engineering seemed like a good mix of the three,” Swanson says. “I haven’t had a whole lot of experience in industry, so I’m hoping to get an internship to see what that’s like, and just go from there.”

Jordan Swanson

Jordan Swanson

As is the case for many engineering under-grads, Swanson has had plenty of opportunities to collaborate on design projects through his engineering coursework, even if at first blush they don’t seem to relate to his interests. This fall, he participated in biomedical engineering faculty associate Amit Nimunkar’s Introduction to Engineering (InterEGR 160) class project that tasked students with designing a set of parallel bars for the Hackett Hemwall Foundation. Now, the bars are used to rehabilitate patients in Honduras. “We had to make all of the designs and make all of the purchases necessary, all within our budget and time constraints,” says Swanson.

He says Intro to Engineering showed him that the most important thing for young engineers to learn is how to collaborate on good design, regardless of the track of engineering that it might occupy. “Engineering 160 is all about getting that design experience and working as a team,” he says. “That’s what engineering in general is all about.”

Swanson found other places on campus to apply his love of chemistry and math–he worked on the Clean Snowmobile Team to help optimize vehicle fuel consumption, and he did work on a biosand water filter for the Kenya project of Engineers Without Borders. But he got his first taste of chemical engineering in a lab setting thanks to Chemical and Biological Engineering Associate Professor Thatcher Root.

Root and his lab’s work on converting biomass into biofuel relied on high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which became inefficient as demand for the process increased. As part of Chemistry 116, Swanson got to help out in the lab by devising a way to make the process more efficient. “I needed to find a way to get it done faster while still getting the resolution we needed,” says Swanson. “That was done by changing the solution we were using to anacetonitrile solution, which brought it down from an hour to around 30 minutes.”

Since Swanson is paying his own way through school, scholarships allow him to minimize the amount of loan debt he will accrue while providing encouragement that his time in the classroom is well spent. “It’s a pat on the back that shows me that someone thinks I’m doing good work here,” Swanson says.

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