Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning more about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Jacob Guggenheim is a 1st Year Mechanical Engineering PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Check out the work he does with the d’Arbeloff Laboratory.
Describe your research in a haiku.
Harvesting one cell
They make it happen
What is the focus of your research?
I am attempting to build an integrated system for the selection and manipulation of single cells in 2D culture by automating both the selection of cells using computer vision and manipulation of cells using micro-capillaries.
Why do you think interdisciplinary research is important to pursue?
My project and research would not exist without interdisciplinary research. I am working to combine biology and robotics. This basically means that I can look at a problem that biologists have known about for a long time and attempt to solve it with a new (to biologists), robotics-oriented approach. I think all the coolest research is happening at the intersections of different fields.
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
Lots of sports. I play ultimate, soccer, tennis, and volleyball through intramurals and pickup games. I am also a fan of New York sports teams (Knicks, Giants, Rangers, Yankees).
I am also really into hiking/backpacking/anything that gets me outdoors. I am looking forward to getting up to Acadia, Maine sometime this fall.
Favorite book? 100 Years of Solitude, no question.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
Domitilla Del Vecchio. She is a professor at MIT in the Mechanical Engineering department. She works in the intersection of control theory and bioengineering to build some pretty incredible synethic bio circuits. I took her class this last semester and was blown away by her.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
When I talk to some of my engineering friends, it is clear that I am not cut from the same cloth. I didn’t take apart a radio at age 5. Nor did I watch my father fix our car’s engine hour after hour. I don’t come for a long line of engineers and I certainly had no aspirations to be an engineer during middle school. I enjoyed math and science, but I enjoyed English and history as well. Perhaps the most interesting subject to me was biology, not physics. And, as was natural for a 14 year old, I decided that meant that I should be a doctor.
Entering junior year of high school, I was dead set on going to medical school. But that was the year I joined my high school’s robotics team, Gunn Robotics Team (GRT). The robotics team was centered around the FIRST Robotics Competition, an annual national competition where high schools design, prototype, fabricate, and test a robot that is designed to compete in the given challenge—for example, during my senior year we had to design a robot to play a slightly modified version of soccer.
Joining GRT changed the trajectory of my life. For six weeks during the competition period we lived robotics. I would go to sleep thinking about how to solve that buggy vision system and wake up with a crazy idea on how the kicker mechanism should be designed. We had an in-house machine shop where I learned how to use everything from a power drill to a mill and lathe. I became the teams’ co-lead welder and spent many hours tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding the frame of the robot together after finalizing the frame on a computer aided design software, Inventor. With many problems to solve and the resources to solve them, GRT was a problem-solvers paradise. As a result, I decided to go into bioengineering as I figured it split the difference between being a doctor and an engineer (interdisciplinary!!!).
During college I found myself gravitating back toward the robotics side of bioengineering. I took classes in computer science and mechanical engineering while taking every opportunity to build something tangible. I worked on side projects with friends to build a shoe that stored engineering in capacitors via piezo-electrics and an arm that moved based upon a person flexing their bicep. And I began to do research with professors in both computational biology and biorobotics (basically GRT for grown-ups as far as I can tell).
From there it was a natural step to graduate school. My time spent so far as a graduate student has allowed me the opportunity to talk with and bounce ideas off some incredibly creative people. I have been challenged and pushed further by these people, and hopefully learned a little from it. I’ve really enjoyed my time in graduate school and am looking forward to the next couple years.
What keeps you motivated to pursue your work?
Research is 90% banging your head against a wall hoping something works and 10% actually getting something to work. For me, the payoff of finally seeing something work more than makes up for the grind of getting it to work.
On Work-Life-Research balance:
In college people sometimes said, “School, sleep, social: choose two”. I do find myself sacrificing, usually sleep, to do the things I want to do socially and school-wise. All that said, if I find something I particularly want to do, I am always able to make time for it. I’m really happy with the flexibility that graduate school affords me. For example, just today Andy Murray, my favorite tennis player for the last 8 years, was playing in the semifinals for Wimbledon. I was able to take the time to sit and really enjoy the match despite it happening in the middle of the day.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Startup? It’s a great question and I don’t have a great answer. I always been a kind of “go with the flow” kind of person so I could easily see myself ending up in a number of different things.
What is some advice you would give someone considering science research?
- Enjoy the grind. You have to be willing to put in some hours but the more you put into it the more you’ll get out of it (clichéd I know, but it’s been true for me).
- Take on projects. I have learned a lot from seemingly random extra projects that I have tried to build with friends. Build a robotic car with an Arduino. Design a personal website. Whatever your feeling, look up some tutorials and try it.
- Talk to people. I feel like there is a bit of a stereotype about scientists being locked up in their windowless lab but I have learned a ton from (much smarter and more creative) people. And, as I wrote earlier, I feel like the coolest research is interdisciplinary, so go outside your bubble as well.