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Mechanical engineering conference unites a broad field

Cross-departmental MECON event returns after pandemic to bring together graduate students for research presentations.
Group photo of students and faculty in front of Stanford MECON 2024 projected on a screen.
On May 9, students across the Mechanical Engineering department gathered to showcase their research. | Hong Clark

Graduate students showcased revolutionary robots, biomedicine breakthroughs, and innovations of all kinds on May 9 at the revitalized Stanford Mechanical Engineering Conference.

The conference, known as MECON, included 18 oral presentations and 40 posters from students in subfields across the Department of Mechanical Engineering. MECON was held annually from 2015 to 2017. Ellen Kuhl, chair of mechanical engineering, said graduate students revived the conference in an effort to bring people in the department together.

A committee of 12 graduate students organized every aspect of MECON, from developing the schedule to inviting faculty judges to promoting the event.

“Our current group of students have not been to many conferences because of COVID,” Kuhl said. “This was a great way to create a conference experience. We empowered the students to lead the organization and to invite people they wanted to interact with.”

For first-year PhD student Sophie Leanza, MECON was an opportunity to share her work creating soft robotic arms with artificial muscle fibers that mimic the complex bending and twisting of an elephant’s trunk. Her work advances the field of soft actuators, which currently have a limited range of deformations and movements.

“We’re hoping that we could use this for grasping or manipulating different objects, because these soft robotic arms have very high degrees of freedom,” said Leanza, who won the best podium presentation award.

But MECON was also a meaningful opportunity for Leanza to meet other mechanical engineers. She said she enjoyed learning about her peers’ research and seeing familiar faces among the crowd.

Having the space at conferences like MECON to foster cross-disciplinary connections can help advance research in exciting and unexpected ways, Kuhl said.

“Many mechanical engineering departments like ours have a huge breadth of research: fluid flows around an airplane wing, robotics and autonomy, energy and the environment, and even human health. Students know their own research areas in depth, but they don’t see the full breadth of the department,” she said. “Exposure to different ideas and tools helps students to connect their own research to the work of others.”

Practicing communication

Natalie Larson, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who joined the department in March 2024, was among the group of faculty and staff members who supported and mentored the student organizers. She said MECON challenged students to stretch their communication skills.

“Bringing a diverse and broad community of mechanical engineers together gives students an opportunity to practice pitching their research to different audiences – people from their own field, and people from very different fields where they might need to provide a broader background and overview of the impact of their research,” she said.

First-year PhD student Gowri Subedar said preparing for MECON forced her to think about how to present her research in an accessible but meaningful way.

She received an honorable mention for her presentation on developing a mathematical framework for modeling the interconnections between the gut and skin, with the goal of better understanding and treating psoriasis, a chronic skin disorder. Psoriasis patients often have variations in the microbes living on their skin and in their gut, so her model aims to provide a clearer understanding of how bacterial, immune, and skin cell interactions might affect disease progression in people with psoriasis.

“Our mathematical model can also help formalize the experimental framework for treatments or in identifying therapeutic targets,” Subedar said. “It can potentially serve as an initial step toward the personalization of medicine.”

Expanding the community

Fourth-year PhD student Savannah Cofer received third place for her presentation on foldable metamaterials. Her research uses mathematical modeling to study the movements and properties of reconfigurable materials inspired by origami, as well as to develop computational methods to design complex 3D tessellations from multiple origami units. Cofer handed out dozens of small origami samples to the audience to help demonstrate the concepts. Her work has potential applications in soft robotics and deployable structures.

Cofer said MECON was unique because it brought the mechanical engineering community together as a whole. The field is by nature interdisciplinary, she said, and researchers frequently reach beyond their department – for example, she often interacts with people in computer science. But MECON allowed her to explore other mechanical engineering subfields in greater depth.

“I thought it was a really great experience to see how mechanical engineering principles can be applied to a lot of different areas,” she said.

More than 250 people from the department, from across Stanford, and from local companies registered to attend MECON. Larson said the organizers hope future conferences will continue to draw people together.

“This would stimulate even more discussion across the department, the university, and the local community, providing opportunities to connect, collaborate, and build our community as a whole,” she said.

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