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Finding The Right Fit: From Honors Thesis to Career

Fifth-year honors mechanical engineering student Robyn Wells’s thesis emerged at the intersection of one of her long-time passions, marching band, with her engineering research. Working with Dr. Xinhui Zhu, an assistant professor of industrial engineering, Robyn has studied the physical impacts of band members’ workload and discomfort after one football game day.

“Originally, I wanted to focus on posture for different instruments, but it turned out that was complicated to do,” Robyn says. “For some instrument types, we only have eight people, so there’s not a large enough sample size, because you need at least 30 people.” Instead, she focused on measuring workload and discomfort across all instrument groups.

Robyn at Oregon State band practice.

Robyn began the process by reading research articles, and she wrote two different Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposals to get approval for human subject research. The IRB protects the rights and welfare of human research subjects and reviews – with the power to approve, disapprove or monitor – all projects involving human subjects.

She began data collection in fall, 2017. She asked all band members to fill out surveys before and after football game days that measured factors such as players’ level of discomfort over 24 body regions as well as physical and cognitive frustration. She asked about their level of experience, whether they were a leader and their gender. Her guiding question became: Does a marching band players’ experience level, role, or gender impact their discomfort or workload? During winter term that year, she carried out the data analysis and began writing. She has now been able to submit findings to several journals.

Looking back as she approaches the finish line, she would advise students who are just starting out, “Make sure that whatever you choose, you’re passionate about because you’ll be spending a lot of time doing it. Make sure you’re comfortable with your principal investigator (PI) and comfortable asking questions.” Robyn has a strong relationship with Dr. Zhu, which was essential through the course of a project that changed significantly along the way.

And, importantly, strong communications with her mentor allowed Robyn to maximize the experience. “I’ve always been interested in product development and computer assisted design (CAD). That’s why I was interested in working with Dr. Zhu in the first place, because she does ergonomics, which is tied to product design – which is really what I want to do.”

The Oregon State marching band performs at an OSU football game.

The experience of managing a long-term thesis project has provided Robyn with invaluable practical experience, in addition to the in-depth knowledge she is taking away about ergonomics and human practice engineering. “So overall it was a really valuable experience, especially doing the statistical analysis and having knowledge of human factors analysis for product development.”

Robyn interned at Schneider Electric in Tualatin, Oregon during spring and summer 2018, and she hopes to continue in the design field in the future. Her work during her internship focused on development of housing for thermostat controls. “Even something as boring as a thermostat is really interesting to design,” she says. Her thesis path nearing its end and her post-graduation job search already underway, she feels prepared and confident for whatever comes next.

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