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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Nuclear Engineering Graduate Student Seeks to Increase Diversity Among His Peers

by Luis Ocampo

On January 25, 1999, my hometown of Armenia, Colombia, suffered a very devastating earthquake which not only destroyed a large majority of the city but also led to chaos and looting. The latter caused my father’s business to be completely empty making that whole year very hard for all of us. Given the situation and how devastated the economy was, my parents decided to find a better life and give me a better future by moving to the United States.

Coming to the U.S. was incredible! I was 12 years old and everything seemed really amazing. I came during the winter, so seeing snow for the first time was very pretty and special. I started attending middle school immediately. In Colombia, I had to walk to school, so being picked up by the bus on the corner of the street in the U.S. felt like a luxury. My life changed dramatically with all the education opportunities. I moved out of the English as a Second Language program in six months and started high school like all the regular students. I was lucky that my high school had many after-school activities and even a radio station, so I decided to participate in everything.

I ended up at Penn State, thanks to the College of Engineering’s undergraduate recruitment initiatives. For example, I participated in a program called VIEW (Visit In Engineering Week) where I was given hands-on experience relating to engineering projects, design, and presentations. Part of that week included tours of various labs and facilities around campus. One of the moments of my life that I will never forget was the Thursday of that week when we visited the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor. During the tour they did a pulse of the reactor which is quite an incredible sight and seeing it fascinated me so much that I said, “this is the coolest thing in the world and I want to be a nuclear engineer.” There was never any doubt that I would attend any other university but Penn State because the College’s Multicultural Engineering Program made sure that I liked it here. Upon being accepted into Penn State I was enrolled in the Pre-First Year Science and Engineering program, which gave me a really great experience and made me feel that that I really belonged even before my freshman year started.

One of the main challenges during my undergraduate years was the lack of diversity, particularly in engineering. I joined different clubs and societies to fill the gap and to make new friends; this was when the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers really became crucial to my involvement and my experience. As a first-generation college student, I felt that I was another minority, not because of being Latino, but rather because it felt that everyone’s family had attended Penn State for many generations.

Now as a graduate student and hopefully the first Ph.D. in my family, I am faced with an even greater lack of diversity at the graduate level. This is why we formed the Multicultural Engineering Graduate Association. It creates initiatives that foster the recruitment and retention of domestically diverse graduate students. I am very happy that Dean Elnashai has made this one of his priorities and is starting to take steps towards a solution.

Luis Ocampo was named runner-up in the J.D. Williams Student Paper Competition, based on research he performed at Brookhaven National Lab during the summer of 2013.  (Photo Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Luis Ocampo (right) was named runner-up in the J.D. Williams Student Paper Competition, based on research he performed at Brookhaven National Lab during the summer of 2013. (Photo Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory)

I think graduating as a nuclear engineer has been my greatest success. However, now in graduate school, I have to say that working at a national laboratory and being recognized by the premier technical organization in nuclear materials feel like the greatest success. I do hope that many more will come and I can contribute significantly to my field.

Luis Ocampo is president of the Multicultural Engineering Graduate Association, vice-president of the Penn State Institute of Nuclear Materials Management student chapter, elected representative for the College of Engineering to the Graduate & Professional Student Association, and a member of the Catholic Graduate Student Group. He aspires to work at a national laboratory as a scientist and eventually work for the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of nuclear materials management and nuclear security. In his free time, Luis enjoys electric remote controlled cars, cooking and baking (lately lots of pumpkin bread), listening to music, and traveling (when time permits).

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Finding the Silver Lining: First-Generation Student Recalls Challenges, Advantages of Path to Becoming a Mechanical Engineer

by Edwin Giraldo

As I embarked on my path to become a Mechanical Engineer (ME) at the Pennsylvania State University, I faced enormous financial and academic challenges. Being a first-generation student, I would come across situations that were foreign to me and my family. I completed the majority of my secondary education in the city of Philadelphia, but actually graduated from a high school in my natal Colombia. Because of this experience, my diversity would be a key factor in guiding me to achieve success at the Penn State.

I completed the first two years of my degree at Penn State Abington, a small Commonwealth Campus in the outskirts of Philadelphia. There, I encountered my first obstacle: ensuring my enrollment in the controlled ME major while working a 40-hour-per-week job and a having a 45-minute commute. To add to the adversity of my situation, I unfortunately had only obtained a cumulative GPA of 2.6 in my first year, which fell short of the 3.0 Entrance to Major Requirement. The situation seemed very hopeless. I was discouraged because I had finished my freshman year with low grades and without even completing a calculus class.

Edwin Giraldo feels fortunate to attend a college that challenges him inside and outside of the classroom.

Edwin Giraldo feels fortunate to attend a college that challenges him inside and outside of the classroom.

As it turns out, I faced a sophomore semester with the most difficult classes an underclassman can encounter. Fortunately for me I was truly attending one of the best schools in the world, where I was provided with the necessary resources to excel in my education. Coalescing this amazing initiative with my work ethic, balance of time, and attitude to learn, I was able to stand out in every single one of my classes, achieve Dean’s list in a crucial time, and enroll in the ME major. Even though the road wasn’t close to being over, I realized that I surpassed an important hurdle and most importantly I began believing in myself!

I made the difficult transition from a campus of nearly 3,400 students to University Park, consisting of more than 40,000. This meant that I would have to leave the city of Philadelphia and take my first in-major classes in a place that was completely new to me. At this time in my career, I didn’t want change since I just found a method where sowing hard work reaped good grades at my branch campus. I felt relevant in my campus and achieved a first-name basis with my professors. In reality, I was afraid of what the change could bring not only to my ME career but also to my life.

It turns out that the transition was extremely challenging and brought forth many unexpected obstacles. All of the students that were already at University Park possessed a colossal advantage over the students who were just arriving, like myself. I truly felt like a freshman all over again, but even worst I faced in-major classes and was expected to have all of the knowledge that my peers possessed. The students that attended University Park throughout their undergraduate career also seemed to share a distinct similarity; for the most part they had all completed an internship or Co-Op in their respective fields.

Nonetheless, I found the silver lining and came to the realization that I was also a Penn State student. I looked at the positive aspect of the situation and kept my Abington peers close and managed to schedule classes together and work strategically as a team. I was also very fortunate to come across many organizations, like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, that bring together engineers who share similar backgrounds or career objectives. One of the most important organizations that I am fortunate to be a leader for is ChangeUP, which is a group that helps ease the transition for transfer engineering students. Overall, I received a lot of resources that aided the transition to the University Park campus. At the end of my first semester at University Park, I received an offer for a Co-Op that would allow me to obtain my very first experience as an engineer.

I believe that as an engineer you face challenges on a daily basis. It is the effort and the time that you place in addressing these obstacles that lead to success. I feel very fortunate to attend a school that challenges me not only academically, but also outside of the classroom, where I am a part of student organizations which integrate engineers from all backgrounds to become completely prepared to succeed in their fields, while giving back to the community. Finally as I currently stand facing my senior year classes and interviewing for full-time positions, I hope to be an inspiration to first-generation students and minorities struggling to better themselves through an engineering degree!


Edwin Giraldo is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in engineering leadership development. He hopes to work as a process engineer, complete a master’s degree, and never stop learning. Edwin serves as president of the Colombian American Student Association and leader/treasurer of ChangeUP, and is active in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Multicultural Engineering Program. The Manizales, Colombia, native enjoys watching and playing soccer, dancing salsa, spending time with family, and serving his community.

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