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katie kern me 2022
June 27, 2022

Student Spotlight: Katie Kern Faustin-Prinz Research Fellow

Written By: Caitlin Scott


Recent 2022 graduate Katie Kern was a Faustin-Prinz research fellow and completed an undergraduate honors thesis with Prof. Corinne Henak. The Faustin-Prinz research fellowship supports mechanical engineering students who want to develop a research project, get access to cutting-edge laboratory equipment, and work closely with a faculty project advisor.

Can you tell us about your research interest area and expertise?

Right now, my main interests are in the biomedical field. My Faustin-Prinz research focused on cartilage repair, and it taught me a lot about material testing and software such as MATLAB and digital image correlation (DIC). I will be using this experience in my future job as a R&D engineer for the medical device company Medtronic. My role is within the cardiovascular team, working on peripheral vascular products.

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

Before undergrad I really struggled to find the right major. As a curious kid my interests were always shifting; my dream job shifted from an astronaut, to an artist, to an architect, and finally to a pharmacist right before college. I entered UW-Madison undecided and it wasn’t until partway through my freshman year, when I joined the student organization SWE, that I found a fit in engineering. Within SWE, I worked with a group of women engineering students on the Boeing Tech Team, a competition group that partners with a company each year on a design project. I applied to mechanical engineering specifically because, in addition to problem solving and innovation, mechanical engineering gave me the opportunity to learn fundamentals that are applied to so many different fields. For someone who had trouble in the past determining a future job, ME gave me the chance to explore and shift interests along the way. I got experience in aerospace, biomedical, CAD, computer science, and so many other disciplines during my time in the ME department. 

What did you work on for your research project and why was it appealing to you?

The goal of the Henak Lab is to conduct mechanical testing to understand and predict mechanically-mediated diseases. For my project, I worked on developing a model to visualize the depth-dependency of cartilage repair. Cartilage is very bad at repairing itself because it lacks blood vessels, so researchers have been attempting to find the best repair method. The model in this project can observe  samples at the microscopic level, to determine whether cartilage is repairing better at different points from its surface to deep zone. This involved harvesting patella from pigs, creating disk-ring samples, culturing them for 6 weeks in an incubator, and finally conducting a quasi-static, mechanical push-out test under a microscope. This model could hopefully be used in the future to observe the effects of various cartilage repair methods. 

In high school, I tore my ACL in soccer. This injury opened my eyes to the function of our body and how important it is to research ways to prevent injuries. This is what eventually inspired my decision to reach out to Dr. Henak and ask to join her lab.

This project in particular was appealing for all the skills I got to learn and use, including dissection, coding, mechanical testing, and design. I was able to use campus facilities such as the Makerspace to 3D print parts, and the UW Meat Sciences & Animal Biologics Discovery Building to obtain samples. 

Before my senior year, I had little exposure to the biomedical field. By taking on this thesis, I challenged myself to learn and conduct biomedical research within my final year of college. At first, it was difficult to adjust to a sterile environment with live samples, but by the end I was very appreciative for getting to conduct this unique project. It is not an area of ME that a lot of students are exposed to in normal coursework. Additionally, it combined a lot of the skills I’ve learned from classes such as ME 306/307, ME 331, and ME 508. 

How did your ME studies help prepare you for what you’re doing next?

Every ME class helped me to prepare for the real world by challenging my ability to solve problems in any environment. My research mentor, Dr. Henak, made a huge impact on me during college. Every researcher in her lab is a part of unique and groundbreaking work, with a passion for the biomedical field in a way I had not been exposed to before. Dr. Henak supported my project through weekly guidance and offered advice on proposals, data collection and thesis writing. I became a significantly better researcher over the past year, and the opportunity to present my results at the end was very rewarding. My time in the Henak Lab is what inspired my upcoming role in R&D Engineering, and I know the skills I gained in that lab will be put to use in the future. 

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

As a student, sometimes I could hear a clock ticking in my head, reminding me to get everything done before graduation; join clubs, study for exams, complete projects, etc. As a freshman and sophomore, especially one that transferred into engineering later than others, it always seemed like I wasn’t doing enough with my time. If there was anything I could tell my past self or other young ME students, it would be to take time to slow down. I was unsure about my future path until the end of my junior year, and even now I can see that my time as an undergraduate student was only the beginning of the rest of my life. Take time to enjoy your undergraduate experience, it goes by faster than you’d think!

Katie Kern 2022 grad
Katie Kern with her poster at the 2022 Mechanical Engineering Senior Design and Research showcase.