Female engineering student-researchers ‘rule the lab’

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A. Sue Weisler

Preethi Gopalan, second from right, a microsystems doctoral student, explains the inner workings of a large-scale fuel cell to lab co-workers, from left, Valentina Mejia, Camila Gomez and Carmen Azzaretti. The four worked closely together this summer on several projects led by mechanical engineering professor Satish Kandlikar.

Satish Kandlikar noticed the difference 
this summer. 

It was subtle, but still noticeable, that for the first time, more young women served 
as research assistants and co-ops in his 
laboratory than in the past. And four in particular— Preethi Gopalan, Valentina Mejia, Camila Gomez and Carmen Azzaretti—have connected in such a 
way that Kandlikar says, “There is nothing outside the bounds with this group. 
They are ruling the lab.” 

Results of determined efforts by the 
university to increase the number of young women in STEM disciplines are becoming evident in classrooms and labs across the university. 

As the 2012 academic year closed, RIT had nearly 18,000 students enrolled in 
undergraduate, graduate and doctoral 
programs. Of that total, 32 percent were
female students, and the number is 
growing. The number of female students 
in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering has increased as 175 female students will enter as first-year students this fall compared to 66 in 2007. 

Kandlikar has guided more than 150 
students over the years on projects that have become benchmarks in the field of fuel cell and heat-transfer technologies. Many students seek out opportunities beyond the classroom to work on real-world projects. 

“When I started, I didn’t know what a fuel cell was,” says Gopalan, a micro­systems doctoral student from Delhi, India. “I worked on small experiments. Over time, we built one design for the gas channel of a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell that General Motors is using for their auto
motive fuel cell.” Her work on the water 
transport and management aspect of those fuel cells—a catalyzing process to increase efficiency—is part of a project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, and 
includes research partners General Motors, Penn State and the University of Tennessee. 

“In this lab it is not contained to one 
discipline. I am working on fluids, physics and material properties,” Gopalan adds. 
“At the end of the day, when you are out 
in the marketplace, you have so much 
fundamental knowledge that industries definitely want to look at you.”

Azzaretti and Gomez, entering their 
second and third years respectively, are 
still a few years away from looking for jobs. 

“All the skills that I’ve acquired have helped me progress and to be comfortable here at RIT and at the lab, too,” says Gomez, who came to RIT from Bogota, Colombia. “I’m putting them into practice while I am learning them.”

Azzaretti agreed. The Niskayuna, N.Y., native is working on the design of a new pool boiling system, which is part of the heat transfer project. “I am learning to 
understand the ‘why’ in projects like this, how tiny amounts of water react with 
surfaces, channels.”

The systems the students are working 
on are complex.

“We all work well together,”says Mejia, 
a graduate student from Medellin, Colombia. “Like Dr. Kandlikar says, 
you don’t know a lot at the beginning, 
but after a few quarters you really learn. When you understand the fundamentals 
of how things happen, you can use this 
for other fields.” 

And having one of the top researchers 
in the field as a mentor, and graduate-
level students like Gopalan and Mejia 
assisting with lab work, underscores 
the value of combining theory with 
applications. It also provides an educational pay-it-forward with young women 
increasingly becoming role models 
for others.