Ready, Set, Research!

April 25, 2016 / By: Kelly Engebretson '99 M.A./St. Thomas Engineer Magazine 2016
Lauren Vallez Ready Set Research

In the middle of fall semester 2013, freshman Lauren Vallez couldn’t have engineered a more serendipitous encounter. While standing in line at the campus convenience store, she discovered herself, unwittingly, in the middle of a light-hearted debate between engineering professor John Abraham and one of his students. The student was attempting, and failing, to make his case for missing one of Abraham’s classes. Abraham turned to Vallez and asked if she would let the student off the hook. She responded mercifully, so Abraham acquitted his pleading pupil. He then turned his line of questioning to her.

“He asked me what year I was and what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalled. His latter, weightier question flummoxed her at first, so he clarified himself with a series of queries – Did she enjoy writing? Did she love the sciences? Did she feel the need to help improve humanity? Did she want to travel the world? Together, they were his soft pitch that she consider an engineering major. Though he knew nothing of Vallez, he couldn’t have posed his questions to a more veritable prospect.

“When I was younger I wasn’t the type to play with Barbies,” Vallez said. “I would play with LEGOs and set up trains. In high school I didn’t have much exposure to engineering, but I took an architecture class because it involved creating things, which I really enjoy, so I think the seed has always been there whether I knew it or not.”

A CHAIN REACTION OF RESEARCH POSSIBILITIES

Vallez had no idea that this random chat would ignite a chain reaction of research opportunities, or that she’d unwittingly jumped into a current that would carry her closer to answering questions many freshmen pose to themselves: What do I want to major in? What kind of work is important to me?

Soon after their conversation, Abraham had an idea. He’d promised the Guardian, a daily British national newspaper, an article on smart energy sources in the developing world, specifically East Africa. Knowing Vallez had decided to travel to Uganda for her first January Term, he asked her to interview Benon Twineobusingye, senior human resource manager in the Office of the President of Uganda for the article. Vallez enthusiastically accepted, and by spring semester she was officially – as quoted in the March 2014 Guardian article, for which she is credited as co-writer with Abraham – a “freshman student of engineering.”

Working on the story was a momentous first taste of engineering for Vallez. She also was bitten by the travel bug.

That summer she traveled to France and Italy to study sustainable energy resources with St. Thomas engineering professors Greg Mowry and John Wentz. “This helped me realize my love for sustainable energy resources and the strong desire I have to continue learning more on this topic,” Vallez said.

By fall of her sophomore year, not only was she a mechanical engineering major, she’d also signed on as a teaching assistant for an engineering course.

PUBLISHED AUTHOR

In her short time at St. Thomas, Vallez has published six research papers in five journals – two as lead author. Her research has been diverse.

She and St. Thomas mechanical engineering graduate student Helen Sun worked on modeling the compliance of healthy and non-healthy arteries in ANSYS, an engineering computer physics solver, for Cardiovascular Systems Inc.

“We also found how much surrounding tissue is necessary to be included in the model for the most accurate results,” Vallez said. “We made this model to measure the change in compliance depending on the change in plaque inside the artery.”

Abraham, who oversaw their studies, commented, “In my research, peoples’ lives are literally at stake. There is very little room for error when you are designing devices that will be implanted into bodies, or trying to remove pathogens from dirty water that a village relies upon. I need the very best students who I can depend upon to recognize that while engineering is fun, it is also deadly serious. Lauren is such a student.” 

Vallez also has studied burns and their severity depending on the temperature of the burn, the amount of time a hot liquid is in contact with the skin, and whether or not cooling water is applied to the skin. “For this project, John [Abraham] had already organized his results, but he wanted to see if my results agreed with his. It was good practice for me,” Vallez said.

She also assisted Abraham on one of his paid research projects for Smiths Medical, a St. Paul-based medical device company, by running lab experiments to test surgical warming blankets.

The spring of her sophomore year, she helped Abraham and Dr. Brian Plourde with the initial stages of a prototype that will convert air into water. She audited one of Plourde’s graduate-level courses in which she learned the computer program used to make a model of the prototype.

“Without John and Brian, I would simply be your average student,” Vallez said. “I suppose I would still have decent grades and I would be involved in the School of Engineering, but I would be nowhere near as successful. I owe all my work to the people around me. We are a team, and I’m just happy to be a part of it all!”

This academic year, as a junior, Vallez has continued to follow her passions for research and travel. Fall semester she assisted in Abraham and Plourde’s graduate class on finite element analysis. And January found her traveling again – to Thailand for a month before taking spring engineering courses at Curtin University in Australia, with a short trip to New Zealand.

“I truly believe that traveling internationally makes me a better person. Not only does it increase my worldly knowledge by learning about other countries from the people who live there, but it is also a humbling experience,” she said.

As she prepares for her senior year, Vallez reflected on the conversation with Abraham that led her to an academic career rich with research experience.

“I’m really thankful that I bumped into John and for all that he’s done for me,” Vallez said. “He’s opened up so many doors. I tell him all the time how I feel like I’m forever indebted to him!” ■

UNDERGRADUATE LAUREN VALLEZ’S PUBLISHED RESEARCH

“Influence of Supporting Tissue on the Deformation and Compliance of Healthy and Diseased Arteries,” co-author, Journal of Biomedical Science and Engineering

“A New Computational Thermal Model of the Whole Human Body: Applications to Patient Warming Blankets,” lead author, Numerical Heat Transfer

“Estimating the Time and Temperature Relationship for Causation of Deep-Partial Thickness Skin Burns,” co-author, Burns

“Correcting a Prevalent Misunderstanding of Burns,” co-author, Burns

 “Numerical Analysis of Arterial Plaque Thickness and its Impact on Artery Wall Compliance,” lead author, Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine and Cardiology

“The Effect of Plaque Removal on Pressure Drop and Flow Rate Through an Idealized Stenotic Lesion,” co-author, Biology and Medicine

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