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The Simple Search for Research

October 14, 2015

About Me 

Harry Brodsky is a second-year student studying mechanical engineering and physics. In his free time, he is involved with the undergraduate student organization, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where he holds the position of vice president. He is interested in space science and space exploration, and intends to earn a graduate degree in a geology or a space-related field. Later in life, he hopes to foster a career at NASA.  

The Simple Search for Research 

By the end of my fall semester of freshman year, I was the outlier among my friends because I had not found a research project to work on. Practically everyone I knew in the college of engineering had found a professor and gotten involved in the professor’s lab: one friend helped make structures on a shake table in order to study structural stability. Another worked on an “origami” method of biological tissue engineering in which a sheet of membrane is designed to fold in on itself in order to form large sections of tissue. I was amazed that it was not only possible for a freshman to do research but commonplace.

Later that month I attended a presentation on the new bioengineering major at Northeastern. Even though I’m a mechanical engineering and physics student, I thought it would be interesting to learn about careers in biomedical engineering, so I went. One professor, Dr. Sandra Shefelbine, presented her research on bone biomechanics. The bone biomechanics lab specializes in the mechanics of bone fracturing and cracking and mechanoadaptation — the bone’s biological response to mechanical loading. As a mechanical engineer, I was fascinated by the fact that her research treated bones and joints as mechanical systems that could be analyzed, and I wanted to get involved. I emailed Dr. Shefelbine regarding her lab and my interest, and, simple as that, she offered to meet with me so we could find a project for me to work on. By early January, I was working in her lab on 3D modeling of various mammalian femurs. 

I loved working in the biomechanics lab. Each week the lab had a meeting where we, the researchers, discussed our progress. I learned about biomechanics and bone’s response to loading, techniques in engineering research, bone-related diseases such as femoro-acetabular impingement and osteogenesis imperfecta, and much more. After several months of working in the lab I became proficient with a program called MIMICs, which is used for converting CT scans into STL files used in 3D printing. Along with two other students, I 3D- printed kangaroo and rhino femurs and modeled many more. Even if I decide not to go into biomechanics, these are skills I’ll take with me and use in other fields. 

This fall, I decided I might want to go in a different direction. I’ve always been interested in space exploration — one reason I got involved with biomechanics was to help design machines and systems that would keep astronauts healthy on long duration missions — but this summer, I became particularly interested in planetary science. Now, I’m looking into declaring a geology minor. I decided that I should look into environmental engineering research at Northeastern, so a few weeks ago, I attended the college of engineering research fair. I approached Dr. Ljiljana Raijc about her research in environmental science with the Puerto Rico Testsite for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT)  Program. The center is multi-faceted and studies a wide variety of subjects, but I was most interested in its ground- water, water- transport and soil- treatment projects. Dr. Raijc was kind and enthusiastic, and I became very interested in her work. After the fair I followed up with an email, and sure enough there was a spot on the soil treatment project, if I was interested — and I was. And so starts the next chapter in my research career at Northeastern.

Speaking to my high school friends at universities across the country, I found my story was pretty much unique. Students at other colleges have a hard time finding a professor willing to take on freshmen or even sophomores in their labs. It’s just not a common thing. That’s why everyone I spoke to was astounded that not having a research opportunity was the thing that set me apart from my friends. At other schools, finding a good research position is like winning the lottery. Even my peers at world-renowned institutions found it difficult to get their feet in the door of a professor’s lab, citing intense competition with older students or students in the graduate program as the main obstacle to getting involved.

Here at Northeastern, students are enthusiastic and serious about research, and professors are happy to accommodate their interests. If you want to get involved, it’s as simple as sending an email. From shaking tables to origami biology, from the mechanics of bones to soil contamination and treatment, there’s a lab for everyone. No matter your major or your experience, if you have the passion and interest in researching a topic and the willingness to learn something completely new, there are endless opportunities waiting to be explored. As for me, I expect I’m going to learn a lot at the PROTECT program. I bet I’ll love every minute of the work I do with that center. But if I ever get the itch to explore something different, I know that Northeastern’s going to help me do it.