Twist and shout
Ana Villanueva spent last summer working with a machine that helps biomechanical engineers understand and correct spinal deformities. She tested the machine on synthetic spines with varying degrees of stiffness: rigid, flexible, and moderate. She created samples in each category and ran painstaking cycles of tests.
Although this may seem like a job for a doctoral student, Villanueva had just finished her freshman year at KU. She is from Lima, Peru.
“It’s interesting because master’s and doctoral candidates are working on other projects,” Villanueva said. “If you work around people that know more than you do, you will end up learning more.”
Villanueva’s project was part of an undergraduate research award at KU. These awards fund innovative research, scholarship, or creative work conducted by undergraduates and overseen by faculty mentors. In Villanueva’s case, two experienced researchers oversaw her work: Erin Mannen, a Self graduate fellow, and Lisa Friis, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
“I had 90 freshmen, and Ana was one who stood out,” said Mannen, who taught an introductory programming course. “She’s hard working, intelligent, and willing to learn—and she always had a smile on her face.”
Mannen invited her students to see her own research on a prototype machine for measuring spinal flexibility. Villanueva attended and decided to apply for undergraduate research opportunities over the summer. Mannen supported her and her partner, Christopher Dill, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, with their application.
The goal of their research was to test the prototype and to determine a correction factor for each rigidity level when misreadings occur on the machine.
“She guided us through the whole way,” Villanueva says of Mannen. “Every single thing that we had to do — even though it might have been challenging — she made it easy. Erin was a great mentor.”
Now Villanueva wants to guide students in the same way others helped her. She mentors two freshmen engineering students and suggests which classes to take. As vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the events co-chair of the Society of Women Engineers. Villanueva encourages others to join these organizations. One of the main goals is recruiting junior high or high school students interested in engineering to come to KU.
“You have to step up to the challenge and realize that you can do it.” Villanueva says. “Sometimes freshmen think it’s too early to start thinking about research. But I definitely don't regret it. I have learned so much more as an engineer.”