(Photo courtesy of AMBER Labs, CalTech)
California School of the Arts

Three projects, three Ph.D. students, three women

In the Disney movie Big Hero 6, the main character Hiro visits a college called the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. There, he is in awe of all the new gadgets and technology the students are inventing. Although in today’s world we do not have “electro mag suspension bikes” or “chemical combination spheres”, the scene where Hiro visits his brother’s “nerd lab” does not stray too far from reality.  

Many inventions are being made right under our noses by graduate students earning their Ph.D. in Engineering from different universities. Like in Big Hero 6, each student takes up a project of their choice and they all work in the same building, in the same room even. Such is the case at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) inside the Gates-Thomas building where many projects are taking place all at once.

If we go down to one of the basement floors, there are large rooms with monitors and equipment scattered everywhere. On the left, there is a human-sized robot walking on a treadmill and on the wall, a bouncing spring that will be used someday in Disney’s theme parks.

Rachel Gehlhar, a third-year grad student, demonstrates how a robotics prosthetic leg for amputees functions. By using pressure sensors, the leg can extend and retract from the knee and ankle, requiring less effort for the amputee than a stiff metal brace.

Although Gehlhar did not have much prior knowledge in robotics, she took on the challenge.

“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,” Gehlhar said.

img 3368 Three projects, three Ph.D. students, three women
(Photo courtesy of Diane Chang Ho)

If we continue up two floors, we will find Melissa Tanner, a grad student finishing up her Ph.D. this year. She is partnering with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on their DuAxle robot. The robot’s focus is to help lunar robots drive propel in and out of a crater. The way it accomplishes this task is by parking one half of the robot on the top of the cliff, and then tethers down the other half of its body to the ground. 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.

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(Photo courtesy of Melissa Tanner)

And if we walk just down the hall, we can catch Ellen Feldman, another graduate student, who is on the way to helping paralyzed people walk again.

“There is still healthy circuitry between the brain and spinal cord, but it’s a much weaker signal,” Feldman said.

In simpler terms, cells send signals to the next cell 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.  

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(Image courtesy of the 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 way before.

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

She said, “Elementary school teachers probably majored in humanities, so they 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, she said she had no idea what she 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,” she said.

However, even after she made this decision, Tanner switched majors two times, still unsure of what she wanted to do.

“Although college seems like you have to choose one of your passions, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on it,” she said.

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 but instead programmed an artificial “pianist” to come up and improvise pieces of music.

Like Tanner, Gehlhar 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 Gehlhar 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,” Gehlhar said. “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 it can just be awkward like in Gehlhar’s case, but sometimes discrimination takes place. For most, discrimination is thought of as an unfair and harsh treatment of a group of people. However, it can be much subtler than that, and many women don’t even recognize it when it happens to them.

“Usually, I was scared of harsh discrimination where someone would tell me straight up, ‘Girls can’t be engineers.’ I never experienced that,” Tanner said. 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 then sometimes, it’s not the 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 there.

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 skills at fault.   

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

“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,” Gehlhar said.

Having someone to relate to who was dealing with the same problems motivated Gehlhar 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.

She said, “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 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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