Celebrating the diversity and beauty of graduate student research


Four MechSE graduate students have reached the semifinals of the 2021 Image of Research Competition. All Illinois students, faculty, and staff can vote for their favorites online.

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MechSE images of research

Clockwise from top left: "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!" by Tarek Gebrael; "Protecting the Shoulders of Wheelchair Users" by Kellie Halloran; "Designing for Failure" by Davis McGregor; and "A Neuron Cannot Shine Without Astrocytes" by Ki Yun Lee.

Four MechSE graduate students have reached the semifinals of the 2021 Image of Research Competition. All Illinois students, faculty, and staff can vote for their favorites online.

When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
By Tarek Gebrael
“Benjamin Franklin proposed his famous kite experiment in 1752 to draw electricity from the sky into a Leyden jar. Today, we can perform a safer version of this experiment in the lab with a tiny water droplet instead of a kite. With the help of a high-voltage power supply to generate the necessary voltage and a high-speed camera to capture the moment when the lightning hits the droplet, we obtained this image. Our sub-millimeter ‘kite-droplet’ resting on a superhydrophobic surface responds to the applied electric field by deforming its upper tip into a conical shape that concentrates the electric field and initiates the lightning. Not only can we replicate the kite’s experiment at a smaller scale in the lab, but we can also control its parameters easier. This is important for us to understand a phenomenon before studying its manifestation in bigger and more complex systems. From shedding condensate droplets from the surface of heat exchangers to possibly reducing the risk of thunderstorm accidents, our research sees many applications worth consideration. But for now, ‘when thunder roars, go indoors!’”

Protecting the Shoulders of Wheelchair Users
By Kellie Halloran
Wheelchair users need their shoulders for mobility and all tasks of daily living. However, due to demands related to full-time wheelchair use, their shoulders are highly vulnerable to injury and are the most common injury location. Because they use their upper limbs every day, people in wheelchairs cannot rest their shoulders like able-bodied individuals when they are injured. For wheelchair athletes, who rely on their shoulders not only for daily life but also for vigorous training and practices, it’s especially important that we monitor shoulder health.  At the University of Illinois— home to the official US Paralympic Training Center— our research focuses on shoulder strain during high-intensity interval training in world-class athletes. We use motion capture markers and EMG sensors, seen here on the subject’s arm, to determine how their arms are moving and which muscles are being used during handcycling. With this information, we can make computer models of the arm to calculate muscle strain and determine if some exercises during handcycling place the shoulder at more risk of injury than others. Ultimately, we hope to develop safe exercise practices that keep wheelchair users healthy and active without putting their shoulders at risk.” 

A Neuron Cannot Shine Without Astrocytes
By Ki Yun Lee
“How does the single neuron look so outstanding here? Like ‘Stars can’t shine without darkness’ by D.H. Sidebottom, the neuron would not look impressive without its surroundings. In this case, astrocytes are the surroundings, and they are more like supporting roles rather than obstacles. We know exercise can improve cognitive health, but the mechanism is still elusive. My research is to delve into links between them. One of the links to understand neurons is to observe how astrocytes behave. Astrocyte is a type of non-neuronal cell and a key component in neuronal environments to provide energy and regulate factors that can enhance neuronal functionality. Would exercise induces more proliferation and maturation of astrocytes? If so, would more energy and factors be released into neurons, and ultimately would cognitive health be enhanced? The neuron can shine because of astrocytes. Immunofluorescent image from mouse hippocampus. A single neuron is expressed in yellow and astrocytes are expressed in both red and green. However, red specifically indicates fibrillary proteins in astrocytes meaning soma and processes of astrocytes. Whereas green indicates cytoplasmic proteins meaning nuclei. Blue indicates nuclei of all cells regardless of neuronal or non-neuronal cells.” 

Designing for Failure
By David McGregor
Have you ever noticed how mangled cars are after high-speed accidents? Although it may look chaotic, it is the result of careful design. In the 1950s, automobile engineers began incorporating crumple zones, or areas that are designed to fail in controlled and predictable ways. During a collision, the crumple zone deforms, absorbing impact energy and slowing the rate of vehicle deceleration. Understanding failure mechanisms is what allows engineers to design safer, more efficient products. My research focuses on assessing the quality of additively manufactured, or 3D printed, parts. With this new technology, we can manufacture products with fantastically complex geometries in new materials. But the question remains: how do these geometries and new materials behave under different loading conditions? To answer this, we conducted compression tests on hexagonal lattices that were printed in cyanate ester, a high-temperature-resistant polymer. As the load increased slowly (quasi-static testing), the 1 cubic inch lattice supported over 560 pounds before catastrophically failing! At 960 frames per second, we observe an extravagant explosion and release of elastic energy stored in the lattice as it fails. Next time you observe something fail, consider that perhaps it was performing exactly as intended.” 

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This story was published March 15, 2021.