Lameck Beni wants to create things that can help people.
The recipient of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship(opens in new window) (SURF) at Carnegie Mellon University, Beni received hands-on experience in an engineering lab working on research that may ultimately lead to the creation of small-scale biodegradable robots.
"The biggest takeaway I guess would be a lot of the freedom that you get," said Beni, a junior in CMU's College of Engineering(opens in new window) with a double major in mechanical engineering(opens in new window) and biomedical engineering(opens in new window). "My thesis mentor made a great effort to not hold my hand when it came to approaching my project. Learning to think more creatively and learning to think as an engineer has definitely been helpful."
Victoria Webster-Wood(opens in new window), an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, supervised Beni's work. She said the undergraduate research training process should include teaching some of the independent researcher skills that graduate students have already had a chance to practice.
"Building those skills takes time, so I really like to get undergrads involved in the lab early, and then try to convince them to keep coming back," Webster-Wood said. "By the time they're seniors, they're functioning at the level of my early grad students. And it makes them really competitive if they decide to go to grad school."
The goal of Webster-Wood's research is to create what she describes as completely biocompatible and biodegradable autonomous robots. "I could see them translating into self-actuating stents, or drug-delivery robots that travel through blood vessels or through the esophagus," she explained. Such small robots could also be released in swarms to help conduct research in ocean environments or to monitor water quality, she added, and wouldn't have to be retrieved since they're biodegradable.
Beni's work involved testing and validating a bioreactor that would allow the group to assess what effect stretching muscles during growth has on how strong those muscles become. He was tasked with determining the position of the fixtures the muscles would be attached to and how to control them so they moved the way the team wanted them to move.
As part of the work to create biodegradable robots, Beni learned to make what are called phantoms, which are like analogues for muscle tissue. So rather than growing muscle and trying to stretch meshes with actual muscle on them, Beni was fabricating meshes out of silicon, with little fake silicon muscles, to try to compare how the meshes deformed when they're stretched to a computational model the lab had created.
Prior to receiving a SURF award, Beni worked with his Ph.D. student mentor Saul Schaffer. As a result of this work, Beni was a co-author on a published research paper(opens in new window).
A native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Beni said when he was deciding where to attend college, he had an impression of CMU as a challenging school, but liked the idea of being able to do research as an undergraduate. "I didn't really know what undergrad research looked like before I came here," he said.
But he found it manageable, especially with the encouragement of fellow students who motivated him to work hard.
"In engineering it's nice to have like-minded peers," Beni said, "people who are in the same situation as you, who want to achieve great things."
Beni has embraced the opportunity to take classes outside his area of expertise, including history and psychology. In addition to his course work, Beni is a peer mentor for CMU's Student Academic Success Center(opens in new window) and is a residential assistant at one of the freshman dorms.
Beni said he's still debating whether he wants to attend graduate school, but added that having research experience as an undergraduate is great to have under his belt. He does know that he wants to go into the biomedical devices field to create things that will help people with disabilities. "I think it's really interesting that a lot of what we're learning is going to be useful. It's really nice to know that your time is so well spent."