Undergraduate Research Profile: Drew Mitzelfeld

When senior Drew Mitzelfeld wanted to get involved in research last year, the enterprising electrical engineering student emailed several professors and asked if they had any room for him in their labs.

Mitra Hartmann, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, checked in with her graduate students to determine if any of them needed some help with a project. One of the graduate students, Blythe Towal, responded with an interesting problem: she was training rats to determine whether a wall was flat or curved. Since rats use their whiskers to detect their surroundings, Towal had developed a system using an infrared sheet of light and a high-speed video camera to watch how those whiskers move as the rats approach the wall.

The problem lay in creating a curved sheet of infrared light. Mitzelfeld started to work with Towal on how to curve the sheet, and a year later they had found the answer, and then some.

"It was an interesting optics problem, and ultimately I created a setup, and then designed circuits to drive it with motors," he says. Now Mitzelfeld and his peers, eager for other students to find undergraduate research opportunities, have created the McCormick Undergraduate Research Society.

The group has started a web site, where professors can post and students can peruse research openings. Mitzelfeld hopes the portal will help more students take advantage of research opportunities.

"A lot of people go through school and don't realize they could have been working in a research lab," he says. "Students might be intimidated or think they don't know enough. And at first, it was intimidating. When you're an undergraduate, you come into the lab and at first you feel like you don't belong. You're hesitant to ask questions, because you don't want to annoy people. But everyone is really friendly and willing to help, and many times they are trying to work out the same problems you are."

When Mitzelfeld first started working on creating a curved sheet of infrared light, he didn't have much experience in optics. Mitzelfeld didn't see that as a hindrance: he saw it as an opportunity.

"That's the cool thing about research — you end up having to learn new things," he says. "At first you think, I can't do this, I don't know enough. But then you learn about it."

The first part of the problem was theoretical: how to produce a curved sheet of light with lenses. Then Mitzelfeld had to figure out how to mount the system and set it up in the lab. He also had to consider how to automate it so users could adjust the radius via computer. Mitzelfeld spent about 10 hours in the lab each week, and by the end of his junior year, he had a working system.

"As an engineering student, I've taken many classes that are difficult and stressful, and research is a break from that," he says. "It's more free-formed, but it challenges you more. In class, whether you do well depends on if you've done the reading. In the lab, you need more creativity because there is no set solution. You have to have faith and confidence that you'll be able to find a way. And when you're done, you get a bigger sense of accomplishment, as well."

Mitzelfeld received a grant to continue his research throughout this summer, and now he's creating programs to process the video data acquired from the infrared light sheet. He will continue to work in the lab throughout his senior year, and though he's unsure of a career path right now, he knows no matter what, his research experience will help him.

"If you have any interest in it, you should do it," he says. "It teaches you how to solve problems, and that will help you wherever you want to go in your career."

Get more information on undergraduate research opportunities at Northwestern.