Just as some civil engineers trace their vocation to childhood dreams of building bridges and more than a few chemical engineers fondly recall their first chemistry set, graduating senior Kristen Davis can also point to early childhood experiences which led her to pursue mechanical engineering degree: puttering around the garage with her father.
“As a kid, I was always the one who would help dad work on his car. I helped change the oil and change the timing belt. I got used to using my hands and taking things apart. I was also very good at math but, while I enjoyed it, I decided against majoring in it because I think being able to apply what I learn and help people is essential,” says Kristen.
Applying what she has learned during her time in the mechanical engineering program has made it possible for Kristen to work on three separate projects for NASA. Her senior design project involved developing a device which can sort moon rocks according to a certain size while in space. “It’s like panning for gold,” says Kristen, “but on Earth, shaking the pan works because of gravity. In space, there is no gravity, so you have to create your own.”
In addition to her senior design project, Kristen also worked on two projects as a part of the Weightless Wildcats team—a student-led group which conducts experiments in zero-gravity environments. Charged by NASA to develop an air-bubble free syringe for astronauts to use in space, the team built a prototype of a double-plunger syringe and then tested several vial-and-syringe combinations on a turntable which rotated at speeds of approximately 600 RPM. The hope was that the rapid rotation would push the liquid to the back of the vial with enough force to depress a plunger and withdraw the liquid entirely free of any bubbles. After completing their lab tests, Kristen and the team went to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where they flew on the “Weightless Wonder”—a machine which flies on a parabolic path in order to achieve zero gravity. Testing their prototypes on the “Weightless Wonder” enabled the team, and NASA, to gain a better understanding of how effective their methods will be in administrating medication via syringe to astronauts while in space. Kristen expects that NASA will build on their design as they continue to take the project forward.
As if demanding classes and time-intensive projects weren’t enough to keep Kristen busy, she also served as president of Pi Tau Sigma, the mechanical engineering honor society. While president, membership tripled—something Kristen agrees was exciting, yet was also the result of learning to work with others. “I’m the kind of person who does homework alone, because I get distracted in groups. Being president of Pi Tau Sigma really taught me how to interact well with people and get things done.”
Kristen graduated in May 2011 and will soon begin a master’s and Ph.D program in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “I would love to research wind or hydroelectric turbines,” she says. “I really enjoyed the classes solely devoted to conducting experiments and would like to apply those techniques to work on energy sources.” A lifelong Kentuckian, Kristen can’t wait to take what she’s learned to the “Windy City” of Chicago.
“This is my next big adventure,” she affirms.