Senior Corinne Smith took advantage of a unique opportunity created by COVID-19 to begin her undergraduate research experiences.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced students into different learning environments. Virtual classes became the temporary norm, which mostly eliminated in-person interactions. But if not for the pandemic, senior Corinne Smith may not have found a mentor and passion for research.
Smith was a freshman mechanical engineering major when the University of South Carolina switched to virtual classes in March 2020. Seeking social interaction, Smith found a volunteer opportunity offered by the Department of Mechanical Engineering to make face shields using 3D printing. As one of only five student volunteers, it gave her an opportunity to meet and talk with Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Austin Downey.
“I told him that I wanted to do electronics research, so he took me to his lab and showed me different projects. I chose to work on a project that installed sensor packages underneath bridges to measure water levels in rivers,” Smith says. “It was a good beginner project and great learning experience. This opportunity made me realize that I found something I enjoyed and wanted to pursue a more creative career since I find a lot of fulfilment in throwing myself into a problem and trying to solve it.”
Smith was named lab manager after only six months working in Downey’s lab. This included managing several small projects, procuring supplies and helping introduce students to research activities. USC introduced a required mechatronics class in 2020, and Smith developed labs and was a teaching assistant even before she took the class.
Smith is grateful for the insight to choose engineering for her studies and the volunteer opportunity that led her to work with Downey. She especially enjoys Downey’s flexible, hands-off lab environment.
“He'll come in and give you some ideas, and I can decide how I want to pursue the research as long as it aligns with his few requirements,” Smith says. “His mentorship style has led me to become independent in solving problems. He encourages exploration and is fine if it doesn't come out perfect the first time. That takes a lot of pressure off us and allows his students to get the best experience in conducting research.”
Smith has also worked on two other research projects. While interning last spring at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), she monitored water levels with wireless systems at high-hazard dams. While it was like her work in Downey’s lab, DHEC’s device was connected to the internet, allowing her to view real-time data on her smart phone. Smith’s current research is applying flexible sensors for detecting cracks on aircrafts, which normally appear due to fatigue.
“You have to monitor those cracks so you know how many times you can take off before it gets serious and must be repaired. The idea behind these sensors is that they're flexible, so they'll conform to the surface. As the crack progresses, it will be read by the sensor. It can also use a wireless network so that it will also have real time monitoring,” Smith says.
Due to her current research and previous projects and experiences, Downey nominated Smith for the Guidance, Navigation and Controls Undergraduate Conference Experience program grant as part of an undergraduate cohort to attend the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech forum later this month. According to Downey’s nomination letter, he noted that Smith has demonstrated an ability to “identify research challenges, devise a plan and follow through to final success.” He added that, “she is not just slightly ahead of her peers, but as demonstrated by her publications, is leaps and bounds ahead. Corinne's commitment to assisting those around her is unparalleled.”
“This award is an acknowledgement of her technical leadership skills and hard work. The team is very excited for her to be recognized with this fellowship,” Downey says.
Smith was awarded the grant, but she also submitted an abstract on her current research into flexible sensors for crack detection that was accepted. She will present her first authored paper for a 15-minute lecture at the AIAA SciTech forum. “This will be my first lecture, so it will be interesting because I've only done posters in the past where people come up to me and it's a lot more casual,” Smith says.
Smith plans to earn a doctorate degree before pursuing a research career, which she believes is her best fit. She says that her research experiences and Downey’s mentorship has given her a different perspective during her undergraduate studies.
“With research, I have recognized the value of doing,” Smith says. “When you have a problem, you not only find 1,000 ways of not being able to solve it but 1,000 new things, so it's a very aggressive approach to learning. I feel more confident in my ability to solve issues, and everything seems more attainable.”