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Renee Zhao

Assistant Professor
Mechanical Engineering
I study soft composites and soft robotic systems for use in minimally invasive biomedical devices.

“Soft” means that the material is more compatible with the human body, and we’re using magnetic fields to control the motion and shape-changing ability of these materials, which have potential applications in things like tiny soft robots capable of being swallowed, then directed through the body to a specific place to deliver drugs or even to generate heat to kill tumor cells. Many medical procedures today require surgical operations, but soft robot technology lets us imagine a future where all surgical procedures would be non-invasive and safer.

I really love this work, but there was a time at the start of my PhD when I began to believe I’d never go into academia. I’d switched my focus from mechanical engineering systems with a design focus to fundamental solid mechanics, and early on I found myself struggling and out of my comfort zone. I was sure that no matter what, I’d be going into industry. But a funny thing happened in the third year of my PhD. I took a summer internship at a computational mechanics company. People were really nice, but the work was quite routine. Every day we all ate lunch together at a big table – people of all ages, and I felt like I could see what my future looked like, decade by decade. One day I suddenly realized that lifestyle wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted new challenges and excitement, and to explore new things. At that moment, I decided to stay in academia, and I ended up loving my PhD studies.

When I started my independent academic career, although I really enjoyed my new life, there was another hurdle. Some people told me I was in my position because I was a woman. It affected my confidence, and I began to question myself. Was I good enough to be an independent researcher? To mentor students? To teach? I spent a lot of time trying to prove myself to others. But my parents, friends, and my mentors at other institutions reminded me that I wasn’t doing this work to prove myself to others; I was doing it because I loved it. I love research, I love interaction with students, and I love to work with brilliant minds.

My advice for students is to be confident, and don’t worry about proving yourself to anyone. Look for new situations; step into them with an open mind and embrace the challenges. You need to put your foot into new fields in order to improve. That’s how you stand higher to have a larger view of this whole world.

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