3 Projects, 3 Ph.D. Students, 3 Women

Written By: Alyssa S. Ho (Guest Writer)


In the Disney movie Big Hero 6, the main character, Hiro, visits a college called the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. There, he is left in awe after glimpsing some of the new gadgets and technology the students were developing. Although in today’s world we do not have “electro mag suspension bikes” or “chemical combination spheres”, the scene in which Hiro visits his brother’s “nerd lab” does not stray too far from reality. Many innovative technologies are being produced right under our noses by graduate students earning their PhDs in Engineering. Similar to Big Hero 6, each student takes up a project of their choice and they work in the same building, even in the same room. Such is the case at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) inside the Gates-Thomas building where, oftentimes, many projects are taking place all at once.


If we go down to one of the basement floors, we would find large rooms with monitors and equipment scattered everywhere. On the left side of the basement, there is a human-sized robot walking on a treadmill, and on the wall, a bouncing spring that will someday be used in Disney’s theme parks. To the right is Rachel Gehlhar, a third-year grad student, who demonstrates how a robotic prosthetic leg can be used for amputees. She explains how the prosthetic uses pressure sensors to indicate how far the leg should extend and retract from the knee and ankle, and therefore demands less effort from the amputee than a typical stiff metal brace.


Although Gehlhar did not have much prior knowledge in robotics, she took on the challenge because “walking is such a daily activity that we don’t even think about, but for amputees, it can be a real hurdle in their daily lives, so I think it’s really important that we find a solution.”


Photo By Diane Chang Ho

If we continue up two floors, we will find Melissa Tanner, a grad student finishing up her PhD this year. She is partnering with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on their DuAxle robot. The DuAxle robot’s focus is to help lunar robots propel in and out of craters. The way it accomplishes this task is by parking itself on the top of a cliff above a crater, and then tethers down the lower half of its body to the inside the crater. That way, the rover can unwind itself off a cliff and back up again. Although the hope is to send this robot to Mars or the moon, it can also be used here on Earth as a rescue bot.


“I pull out my robot’s pictures, the same way people pull out their baby’s pictures,” Tanner jokes.



Photo By Melissa Tanner

If we walk just down the hall onto the second floor, we can catch Ellen Feldman who is on her way to helping paralyzed people walk again.


According to Feldman, although paralyzation seems to be final and irreversible, “There is still healthy circuitry between the brain and spinal cord. It’s just a much weaker signal.”


In simpler terms, cells send signals to adjacent cells in a sort of domino pattern. However, when the signal is too weak, the next domino cannot fall. To walk again, paraplegics install a device onto their spine that enhances those neuron system signals. Physically, there is nothing wrong with a paraplegic’s body, but the circuitry just needs a boost of electricity. Excitingly, with this device and years of physical therapy, it is possible for a paraplegic to walk again.

Photo from Caltech Effect

Although these three students have been successful in their projects, it took a lot of work and courage to get to where they are now, especially as women in STEM. These bumps in the road didn’t begin after the three started their own project, but before.


For Feldman, setbacks to her passion started all the way back in elementary school. She hated math and science. She couldn’t understand it and didn’t see the purpose in it. Feldman blames the educational system.


She said, “Elementary school teachers who may not have majored in STEM, don’t really understand that math and science is about problem-solving. Instead, it was all memorization. Here are your timetables. Here is a lab with step by step instructions. ”


Luckily for Feldman, she had a great physics teacher who taught her how “physics can be beautiful.” Unfortunately, some students don’t have as open a mind as Feldman. It’s hard for middle schoolers and high schoolers to learn to like science and math when in elementary school they never enjoyed it. In summary, it’s hard to love something when you have always disliked it.


As for Tanner, “I had no idea what I wanted to do in life.” She was a well-rounded person, someone interested in both the arts and technology. As a high schooler, she was torn between the two.


“I guess what it came down to was: it’s a lot easier to do science and write on the side, than it is to write and do science on the side.”


However, even after she made this decision, Tanner switched majors two times, still unsure of what she wanted to do. In the end, she came to realize that “although college seems like you have to choose one of your passions, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on the other.”


As a matter of fact, Tanner believes that if one is passionate about two different things, it can be beneficial.


“Instead of taking it negatively, and being torn between the two, find a way to incorporate both,” said Tanner.


According to her, a friend was interested in both piano and computer programming. She never gave up on one for the other but instead programmed an artificial “pianist” to come up with and improvise pieces of music.


Like Tanner who enjoyed more than one passion, Gelhar originally wanted to design children’s science exhibits in museums. She enjoyed math and science but interacting with kids had also always been a passion. However, there was no specific major in designing museums, so Gelhar decided to major in mechanical engineering at Saint Thomas University, hoping to broaden her opportunities. During that time, only 20-30 percent of the school’s population was female -- so imagine how few women there were in the mechanical engineering major.


“It can be a challenge and it is uncomfortable,” said Gelhar. “But over the years, I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to the other guys. I have my own skill set. They have their own skill set. It’s unhealthy to compare.”


Sometimes the gender imbalance often found in engineering disciplines can just be awkward like in Gelhar’s case, but sometimes discrimination takes place. For most, discrimination is thought of as the unfair and harsh treatment of a group of people. However, it can be much subtler than that, and many women don’t recognize when it happens to them.


According to Tanner, “I was scared of harsh discrimination where someone would tell me straight up, ‘Girls can’t be engineers.’ I never experienced that. But now that I look back, it was still there. If I was put in a group, they always told me to write the notes, to decorate the project poster. They never asked whether or not I wanted a try at the computer. It’s something you have to learn to notice, [so] you can stand up for yourself.”

And sometimes, it’s not an environment that makes the woman uncomfortable, but it’s the woman herself. Imposter syndrome is very prominent among women, where they feel as if they don’t deserve to be in the position they have achieved.


Feldman can relate: “I have days where I think, ‘Why am I here? Why did CalTech let me in? I’m the dumbest person on the campus.’ But I just have to tell myself that it’s the syndrome talking.”


Knowing that imposter syndrome exists and being able to recognize it when it strikes, Feldman is more confident knowing that it’s not her perceived lack of skills at fault.


According to Gelhar, she also wouldn’t have been able to make it through undergrad without the guidance of her Saint Thomas advisor, a female engineer who got her PhD from CalTech and was also the only woman in her program.


Gelhar said, “A lot of people didn’t understand the work she did because it wasn’t conventional engineering, but she still went with it no matter what opinions were against her.”

Having someone to relate to who was dealing with the same problems motivated Gelhar to ride the waves with her.


Similarly, Tanner was in high school when she interned under a PhD student.


“Having that one female mentor was a key part of where I ended up to where I am now,” she said.


This mentor opened young Tanner’s eyes and taught her that engineering wasn’t as scary as she once thought, a reason why many high school girls quit being interested in STEM.


As for Felman, she looks up to hard-working moms who are still involved in the workforce.

“I got married a few months ago, and I’m at that stage of life on whether or not I want kids or not, but knowing that it is possible to take care of children and maintain a successful job, it is reassuring.”


Having role models to look up to and even better, to talk to, is something essential to the success of all three of these CalTech students.


Feldman concluded, “If anything, you have to believe you can do it because others have done it before.”


Even after all their troubles and self-discoveries, lessons and support, these women in STEM are bringing that future in Big Hero 6 closer to the present where amputees may walk comfortably, where rovers are used for search and rescue, and where paraplegics may walk again.

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