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Isabelle Hanson at Nike
April 24, 2023

Student Spotlight: Graduating Senior Isabelle Hanson

Written By: Caitlin Scott


Spring 2023 Mechanical Engineering graduate Isabelle Hanson knew what she wanted to do when she grew up from an early age, but she didn’t always know that she would be an Engineer. Helpful advising before entering UW-Madison and an internship experience at Nike confirmed that athletic footwear design is the career for her.

Isabelle Hanson headshot
Isabelle Hanson

What has your engineering journey been like? Did you ‘always’ want to be an engineer?

When I was younger, I always enjoyed my STEM courses, so I knew that I wanted to do something in that field, but I didn’t know what yet. I really enjoyed being active and playing sports and when I was in 8th grade, it finally clicked that I could merge these two passions and pursue a career in athletic footwear design. At this point, I didn’t exactly associate this career with engineering, but I knew that I wanted to be able to have a hand in functionally designing footwear as well as working on aesthetics. When I toured UW- Madison the summer before my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to speak with an engineering advisor to figure out which major would best fit my passion for footwear design. She told me that mechanical engineering would likely be the best fit for me because I would gain ample design experience, while also being exposed to a broad range of engineering topics relevant to this career path. She also shared that a professor in the engineering department was doing research on using shoes to harness energy that humans create while moving and converting that back into energy that could be used to power electronics. After meeting with this advisor, I knew engineering, and specifically mechanical engineering, was what I wanted to pursue during my undergraduate education, and I am incredibly thankful I made that choice!

Can you share more about your research interest areas and expertise?

During my time at UW-Madison, I’ve had the opportunity to work on two different projects in the Polymer Engineering Center. The first project that I worked on involved experimenting with various additive manufacturing techniques to create structures that provide control over acoustic waves and microwaves. My role within this project was to prepare 3D printing files on different types of printers, trouble shoot them when anything went wrong, and post-process the final prints as well. I was able to learn how to use Fused Filament Fabrication and Digital Light Synthesis 3D printers, which are common technologies used in industry.

The second project that I worked on involved investigating the crosslinked networks of Vitrimers (a relatively new type of polymer) and analyzing how the networks impacted mechanical properties of the material. My role within this project was to prepare samples for testing, run the tests, and analyze the results to help draw conclusions about the material properties. Some of the testing that I did involved using tensile testing machines and rheometers, both of which students learn about in mechanical engineering courses. The data analysis that I did for this project was beneficial because it gave me the opportunity to learn how to discern trends in real-life experimental data that indicate certain qualities about material properties. Overall, the main research area that I was exposed to during my undergraduate education was working with polymers, which are important materials to understand in a variety of industries.

Please share about your Nike internship experience. What did you do there and why was it worthwhile?

This past summer I had the opportunity to intern with Nike at their world headquarters in Beaverton, OR. I was an intern within their AirMI (Air Manufacturing & Innovation) department, specifically on their Design Engineering team, which is responsible for helping design the tooling for the airbags that Nike uses in their shoes. In this role, I had the opportunity to help design tooling for a new shoe airbag which included designing 3D models in Siemens NX, 3D printing prototype parts, and testing the parts to ensure they worked properly. Nike manufactures all their air bags in-house, so it was interesting to be able to physically test my tooling on the equipment that it would be used with and also learn about the entire air bag manufacturing process. This project had an added level of satisfaction for me because the shoe that I helped design tooling for will be launching in 2024, and I’m incredibly excited to see the finished product!

Overall, my Nike internship experience was incredibly worthwhile to me because it gave me the opportunity to understand how and where engineering plays a role within a large athletic apparel and footwear company. The projects that I worked on were similar to what full-time employees are responsible for, so it truly gave me an accurate idea of what I could be doing in the future. In addition to my work, I had the opportunity to meet other employees in different departments within the company, learn about the kind of work they do, and identify departments that I could see myself working in in the future. Working at Nike has been a dream of mine since I was in 8th grade, and this experience allowed me to live out that dream. It made me realize that it’s truly what I want to continue doing, and I’m lucky enough to be returning to Nike full-time as an AirMI Engineer in August 2023.

How did your ME studies and research help prepare you for what you’re doing next? Any particular mentors make an impact on your experience?

My ME studies truly gave me a broad view of many different areas of engineering, both through required courses, and through elective courses. I think the most beneficial courses for my future career are related to 3D modeling (ME 231 and ME 331), manufacturing (formerly ME 313 and 314, ME 418, and ME 514), and design (ME 351 and 352). During my 3D modeling courses, I learned how to use many different features in SolidWorks, which translates well to using other 3D modeling software (not every company uses SolidWorks, but it gave me a good foundation to build upon). During my manufacturing courses, I learned about many different manufacturing techniques that are used in the footwear industry, as well as different materials and how material properties impact manufacturing results. During my design courses, I learned how to apply the knowledge that I learned in many of my engineering courses to real-life challenges, which is essentially what any industry career will involve.

In addition to my ME courses, I also participated in research with the Polymer Engineering Center, which I feel helped prepare me for my future career. Throughout my research, I learned how to apply different manufacturing techniques to create desired results through the additive manufacturing project that I worked on. I also learned how to use testing equipment that is commonly used in industry and how to effectively analyze data and communicate findings to different audiences. I truly believe that the three course areas that I described as well as my research experience prepared me well for my future career, as I saw many similarities between these things and my internship experience this past summer. I also feel like the knowledge I gained from these educational experiences helped me succeed during my internship at Nike, and hopefully will prove beneficial again as I join them full- time.

During my undergraduate experience, I took three separate courses with Professor Tim Osswald, and also worked in the research lab that he oversees. The knowledge that I gained from his courses and the real-life experiences I had working in his lab were impactful for me because it exposed me to a field that many other universities don’t spend a ton of time teaching. I believe that what I learned from these courses and experiences will prove to be most beneficial to my future career.

Were you involved with any student organizations?

I have been involved with a few student orgs during my time at UW-Madison including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Pi Tau Sigma, and the Women in Mechanical Engineering mentorship program (WME). During my time in ASME, I served as Academic Chair, Fundraising Chair, and Student Relations Chair over the course of three separate semesters. Through ASME, I also had the opportunity to participate in Engineering Expo two years ago where I helped put together engineering exhibits for middle schoolers to learn about engineering. The theme we chose to develop our exhibits around was camping, so I helped put together activities/informative documents about things like why campfire flames are different colors or how a compass works. This was an enjoyable experience for me because I know I would’ve loved coming to an event like this when I was in middle school had I had the opportunity, and was just glad to be able to interact with the greater Madison community!

Can you share about your experiences as a woman in the ME department?

I appreciated the WME mentorship program which I participated in the past three years. The first year that I was in WME, I was able to receive advice on courses and internships from upperclassmen students as well as general advice for how to best navigate my engineering experience. It’s often difficult to know what to expect from certain courses and having that advice as well as upperclassmen support made it easier to choose the right combination of classes for me. The past two years that I’ve been involved with WME, I was able to act as a mentor for a few underclassmen students and provide them with similar advice that I received when I was in their position. I enjoyed this because I was hopefully able to help them in the same way that my mentors helped me. I think this program is valuable for the ME department simply because it provides underclassmen students with a relatable resource and a friendly face in the department.

This past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Professor Kate Fu on my team’s senior design project as she has been our faculty consultant. Kate has provided us with some incredible advice and through this has taught me that we can truly find inspiration for any engineering problem in a wide range of places. Additionally, still being a student, I obviously don’t know everything about engineering and Kate has really made me feel comfortable asking questions about anything related to our project or otherwise. I really look up to Kate as a female in the ME department, not only for the invaluable help she has been able to provide us, but also because of her approach to teaching. By chance, I visited Kate’s office while she was hosting office hours for her students one day and was able to briefly see the content she was teaching them. She was teaching them how to use SolidWorks (a program that I’ve used at all of my internships) in such a way that was easy to understand and maximized their exposure to many of its features. I really appreciated this because I learned most of the ins and outs of SolidWorks on the job and would’ve found this approach to teaching it incredibly helpful. Even though I only had a very short glimpse into this, I could immediately tell that Kate cares about her students’ learning just as she has shown my senior design group that she cares about helping us with our project and teaching us lessons that will benefit us in the future as well. Because of all this, I definitely look up to Kate and know she will continue having a positive impact on students in the future!

What might you share with other ME students coming up behind you?

My biggest piece of advice for other ME students is to find something that you’re passionate about and do whatever you can to pursue that passion. For me, my passion was product design, specifically within the athletic apparel and footwear industry. Luckily, I identified this passion early in my academic career so I was able to intentionally pursue it throughout my entire time as an undergraduate, whether that was through elective courses, student organizations, or research opportunities. If you find something that you’re passionate about at any point during your academic experience, do what you can to figure out what experiences would be beneficial to continue pursuing that passion as a full-time career. Then, do what you can to find ways to gain these experiences to both see whether you’re truly interested in this path, and also to make you more marketable to companies.

Additionally, I would advise other students to not rule out any industry or career path, even if they don’t immediately see a connection to engineering. There are many more industries that require engineers than people think, and you can typically find a career that best suits your interests. For me, I didn’t immediately associate engineering with the athletic apparel and footwear industry, but I was able to find the connection and am happy that I did. Lastly, if students don’t know exactly what industry they want to work in full-time, I would suggest trying to find internships or co-ops that will give them experiences in a range of fields so they can figure out what they are and aren’t interested in. A broad internship/co- op experience will also help you make connections between more of the engineering courses you take and real-world engineering challenges which I found particularly beneficial.