Master of His Own Destiny: Biological Engineering Senior Shares Study Abroad Experiences in Spain

by Clay Swackhamer

This semester I am studying at the University of Alicante, Spain, and through my experiences here I have learned a lot more than how to rock a European swimsuit. Of course, I’ve learned a lot from classes, including a difficult class in microbiology (taught entirely in Spanish). This course helped me to iron out some of my microbiology laboratory techniques and go in depth into some areas of microbial metabolism that I think will help me to carry out better research in the lab where I work at Penn State, which is in the field of metabolic pathway engineering.

Clay Swackhamer says his study abroad experience in Spain made him a better engineer.

Clay Swackhamer says his study abroad experience in Spain made him a better engineer.

In addition to the engineering knowledge that I have built while abroad, I have gained a lot of life experiences. Before studying abroad I never would have pictured taking an 80-mile religious pilgrimage on foot, partying at club Space on the island of Ibiza, going to an indie rock concert in a bull ring, getting exercise by jogging up to a castle each day to watch the sun set, or flying to Boston for a week-long synthetic biology convention and then back to Spain.

The knowledge I have gained in class will help me in my engineering career, but, hey, I could have read about bacteria without ever leaving Penn State. The unique things that I got out of studying abroad are a flexibility, maturity, and sense of personal responsibility that came with being the master of my own destiny in an environment that challenged me and forced me to find new ways to solve problems.

My study abroad experience has taken me to Spain, for the most part, but it also led me to three different Mediterranean islands and five different cathedrals, as well as the Boston subway, and helped me become fluent in a second language.

I know for sure that I am a better engineer because of it.


Clay Swackhamer is a senior in biological engineering. The Topton, PA native is involved in many clubs and activities, including the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, Alpha Gamma Rho, Salis Laboratory for Synthetic Biology and Metabolic Pathway Engineering, and the Tennis Club. Following graduation, Clay will seek an advanced degree.

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Finding His Way: Aspiring Biomedical Engineer Credits Structure, Discipline for Academic Success

by Demetrius Harris

During the summer before junior year of high school, I attended a four-week engineering program at Cornell University. I had the luxury of experimenting with many hands-on activities and projects in a few of the several engineering fields. One of these was biomedical engineering. I did not know what to expect (being that no other field had caught my attention so far).

Credit: Yinka Olutoye

Credit: Yinka Olutoye

I was given a leaf with no rips or tears, fluorescent liquid that glows when a very specific wavelength shines on it, and a scalpel. We were asked to observe the leaf and its veins. This request was followed by a barrage of questions, such as “How does water travel through a leaf?” and “Would ripping a leaf affect it receiving water?” We were then asked to cut the primary veins of the leaf and place the stem into the special liquid. After a few minutes of soaking, we were told to shine the light on the leaf.

Surprisingly enough, the liquid made its way to the other side of the leaf despite the discontinuities in the veins. This was possible through the help of capillaries. The simulation gives bioengineers a replication of how blood flows through the brain. When one vein is stopped for one reason or another, is there another way the blood will flow to the other side of the brain to prevent a stroke? The professor leading the experiment then explained how mice are used for similar research on thwarting strokes. We were then introduced to more techniques and advancements in the field. One example is tissue engineering and the research associated with growing a completely new body part, such as cartilage.

This entire experiment and presentation caused me to fall in love with biomedical engineering; it lit a flame of passion; this passion is one that, from that day, I’ve been harnessing. It gave me something to be passionate about, and gave me the indulgence of knowing exactly what I want to do as a career by my junior year of high school.

Now, as a first-generation college student in my 7th semester of the biomedical engineering curriculum, I have overcome many obstacles and challenges. Starting at the Behrend campus, I was able to harness some of the key tools needed to succeed in the College of Engineering; ones that I needed to pick up on fast in order to meet the 3.3 GPA entrance to major requirement.

Structure and discipline were two key tools that I was able to perfect with the mellow community and limited number of activities in comparison to University Park. Along with this, small classes eased the process of creating personal relationships with professors.

When making my transition to University Park, these very tools that I was able to build upon made life just… easier. One of the largest challenges I had to overcome at University Park was the pace. Figuring out the pace, and how to keep up with it, in my first semester was a unique experience. One thing that really helped in the process was mentors that I had prior to the transition and some that I met in my first semester here. Having that group of people supporting, pushing, and challenging you can make the difference between good and great.

The largest challenge I have as a first-generation student is finding my own way. What I mean by that is: I have family there for me with great advice on life’s challenges, but when it comes to the specific challenges that I may be going through, academically, I can’t really find that kind of advice from those family members closest to me. This barrier has forced me to learn from my own experience, make my own mistakes, and push forward in my journey. With this, I am still finding my way, I have come a long way as a person, and as a Penn State student.

Demetrius Harris is a native of the Bronx, New York. He will graduate in May, 2016 with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in computer science. Demetrius plans to spend time doing research, possibly infusing prosthetic limbs with a more life-like feel of actual engineered tissue, thus further advancing the prosthetic and tissue engineering fields. He is an active member of the National Society of Black Engineers. In his spare time, he exercises to relieve stress, relax, and reflect on life.

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Abundant Opportunities for Students and Industry at the Learning Factory

by Mary Frecker

The Learning Factory offers students the opportunity to work on industry-driven hands-on design projects. Together with 13 different departments at Penn State and our industry partners, we coordinate about 200 capstone design projects each year.

Students benefit from the opportunity to apply their engineering skills to a real-world design project, to build and implement their design in our state-of-the-art prototyping facility, and to interact and communicate with engineering professionals.  We offer multidisciplinary projects which give engineering students the opportunity to work with students in other majors.

The multidisciplinary nature of the Learning Factory is cited by our industry sponsors as a major benefit to working with Penn State, as most real engineering projects involve engineers from several disciplines.

Project sponsors range from large companies to start-ups, and the project topics include product design, process design, and software design. There is truly something for everyone in terms of the types of projects available to students, from designing devices to aid people with disabilities to efficient manufacturing processes.

Companies appreciate the opportunity to interact with Penn State students and to improve their visibility on campus. They also appreciate having a leadership development opportunity for their own employees, where their engineers gain valuable experience by mentoring the student team.

Small companies and start-ups located in Pennsylvania are eligible to apply for matching funds to assist with the project sponsorship fee. More information is available in this news release.

This presentation provides an overview of the Learning Factory and the process of sponsoring a project.


Mary Frecker is director of the Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory and a professor of mechanical engineering. She has been a Penn State faculty member since 1997. Mary is the recipient of the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society’s Outstanding Advising and Outstanding Research Awards. She is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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