Area of Focus: Electrical Engineering
Graduation Year: Spring 2017
“I learn something new every time I am at the lab”
What Makes Nicholas Schleif a Winning Engineer?
Who is Nicholas Schleif?
Hi! My name is Nicholas and I am from a small town called Big Lake in Minnesota, about an hour north of Minneapolis (Go Hornets). As a child, I was always fascinated with how things work. My favorite question then and now is “why?” My curiosity about the world has always stemmed from the beauty found in nature, from the microscopic to the astronomical. And I strongly believe that nature and its wonders should motivate us to use whatever gifts we have to serve others.
A combination of my curiosity and belief in service has motivated me to study engineering. The Big Lake educational system helped foster this curiosity and provided many opportunities to learn. When one of my peers started preparations to test for his HAM radio license, I was encouraged to take the test too. This exposed me to the wonderfully complex field of radio theory and communication. The experience was a turning point and with the guidance and support of many people, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2013 to study electrical engineering.
My Experience at the U
Since freshman year at the U, I have searched for opportunities to get involved with engineering projects and research. I learned that there was a product design minor offered through the College of Design and took a class on creating, rendering, and printing 3D models of objects. The experience has helped me focus on important aspects of creating such as brainstorming, creativity, human factors, and even humor. The techniques I have learned in the product design classes have impacted my work in all projects I have undertaken since.
Another opportunity I heard about during my freshman year was the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The program allows undergraduate students to work directly with a faculty member and graduate students, and help make important contributions to research. Through events at Truth in Science and Engineering, and Anselm House (two student groups), I was introduced to Professor Bethanie Stadler. When I mentioned my interest in research through the UROP program, she helped me find a suitable project. We sent in the research proposal, and were approved to begin work in the fall of my junior year.
I helped Professor Stadler and her team of researchers investigate magnetic nanowires. Nanowires are nanometer-sized wires with novel applications in photonics, memory storage, energy storage, and even biology. My work was to research methods to answer the question, “What is the length of the nanowires in this sample?” Traditional methods use scanning electron microscopes that necessitate counting the nanowires individually. This process is tedious and time consuming, and made me wonder if there was a better way to do this. My research indicated quicker ways to accurately measure nanowires, and I hope these methods can be improved and used to save time and reduce errors for researchers across the world. The experience gave me the opportunity to work with world-class minds, and develop professional research skills such as designing experiments, and developing effective communication with other researchers.
The experience gave me the opportunity to work with world-class minds, and develop professional research skills such as designing experiments, and developing effective communication with other researchers.
The Wearable Technology Lab
One afternoon, during the spring semester of my sophomore year, I was at the ECE Depot and chanced upon a small sign on the checkout counter advertising for an undergraduate research position at the Wearable Technology Lab (WTL) on the U’s St. Paul campus. The position entailed a focus on electronics, the making of prototypes, and working with team members from different majors. I immediately responded and scheduled a meeting with the WTL director Dr. Lucy Dunne. A few weeks later, I received an offer (I was ecstatic!), and I soon began working at the lab. This was during the spring semester of my sophomore year.
My key responsibility in the WTL has been to support the technology part of wearable technology ideas and prototypes. When I first started, nearly everyone else was a student in apparel design, and I faced some challenges in this environment. How do I communicate my questions? How do I communicate my needs? How do I understand their expertise? What is the difference between apparel and textiles? (still working on this one). But all my co-workers understand the interdisciplinary nature of the lab, and have been very patient and gracious with me. I have found the work to be a two-way street: I am learning about the design and apparel side of integrated products from my colleagues while teaching them about electronic systems and how to work with them. I learn something new every time I am at the lab.
I have found the work to be a two-way street: I am learning about the design and apparel side of integrated products from my colleagues while teaching them about electronic systems and how to work with them. I learn something new every time I am at the lab.
In the spring of my junior year, Dr. Brad Holschuh joined the WTL as co-director. One of Dr. Holschuh’s fields of expertise is shape memory alloys (SMA), metal alloys that after being deformed can return to their original shape when heat is applied. The lab came up with the idea to integrate SMAs into a children’s vest which can compress and hug the user when activated. This hugging sensation, or ‘deep touch pressure’, has been studied for its calming and soothing effects on children with autism spectrum disorder.
I was approached for help with activating the vest wirelessly, and I jumped at the offer. Along with Julia Duvall, a graduate student in apparel design at the WTL, I began work on the project. One of the most attractive aspects of this idea was the possibility to send a hug over a physical distance. This is key as an actual hug may not be possible or suitable in some situations. Children with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, can sometimes become aggressive during meltdowns. I decided to use a Bluetooth module paired with an iOS app to connect the vest. After several weeks of prototyping, debugging, breaking, fixing, and tinkering, the vest was finally working as intended. An average person could download the app, connect to the vest, and send a signal to hug the user wearing the vest. Seeing the finished prototype was very fulfilling: we had developed a new way to use technology to interact with people.
The ISWC Conference
To explore interest in our idea, we submitted our SMA Vest design to the International Symposium of Wearable Computing (ISWC). ISWC is an annual conference on wearable technology that provides a platform for researchers to connect with industry professionals. To our delight, our SMA Vest was accepted to the design exhibition for ISWC 2016. With financial support from the ECE department, I attended the conference in Heidelberg, Germany in September 2016.
I found the atmosphere of the conference electric (no pun intended): the energy was palpable, the conversations were meaningful, and the vision was grand. There were research paper presentations during the day, and a social event at the end of each day. Not only were the research presentations inspiring, but even the coffee breaks were fantastic. Over the three days of the conference, I made friends from the United Kingdom, Finland, Holland, and Japan. All of these friends have helped expand my view of the research community, connect me with novel research, and even inspired future collaborations.
All of these friends have helped expand my view of the research community, connect me with novel research, and even inspired future collaborations.
Julia and I presented our SMA vest design over lunch and also at other times during the conference. There was not only widespread interest in our design, but also a slew of design questions. Why did you do it like that? Why not the other way? How does this part work? The questions helped us critically analyze our design and the choices we made, and even think of future prototypes and implementations. Questions like these, simple as they may sound are the most important and impactful; they encourage you to revisit your choices, and decisions, and constantly explore and experiment.
A Chance Meeting
When Julia and I arrived in Germany, we had to fix the vest at a nearby hotel (things ALWAYS break when you are about to present them). A gentleman who happened to be staying there, starting chatting and offered some tools to help us. Over lunch I saw him again and struck up a conversation. A casual conversation about our vest and his tools quickly turned into a journey into his background and career. I soon learned that the gentleman I was talking to was none other than Greg Priest-Dorman, one of the pioneers of wearable technology. Greg had an incredible story. He has been wearing electronics in some shape or form, since the 1970s to help him overcome learning disabilities. His personal interest has transformed into his current career as one of the technical leads for Google Glass, and he has helped shape an entire field of research, technology, and products through his motivation to help others. But he chose to spend his time at the ISWC talking to an undergraduate student like me!
We continued talking for about an hour on various subjects such as job opportunities in wearable tech, exciting research ideas, and even German culture. We exchanged our contact information and have have kept in touch since the conference. People like Greg Priest-Dorman symbolize the motivated, yet humble research community that I am grateful to have experienced.
My experience at ISWC has certainly been transformative. I had the opportunity to meet with the innovators of tomorrow.
My experience at ISWC has certainly been transformative. I had the opportunity to meet with the innovators of tomorrow.
I was given career advice by one of the founders of wearable technology. I got feedback on our design from people with world-class expertise and understanding. I made friends across the globe with a common passion. And I helped show that the University of Minnesota is an active participant of a vibrant research community that is making waves in multiple disciplines across the globe. It would be difficult to place value on an experience like that.
Where Am I Now?
Currently, I am working with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in their Pathways Co-Op program. I will continue alternating semesters at school (for a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the U) with this program for the next two years. And after that? I am not sure. But the world lies ahead!
My Advice for Rising ECE Students
My advice to you is three-fold:
Discover who you are and what you treasure. To even begin asking questions like “What do I want as a career?” or “How do I get involved with X?”, you need to know who you are. What do you really care about? What goals will help you make an impact on the things that matter most to you? Maybe it’s improving how computers work. Maybe it’s providing clean water in developing nations. Maybe it’s helping provide justice for millions of modern day slaves. Understanding a problem and empathizing with the people affected by it can be one of the most powerful motivators.
Find a way to utilize your talents. Seek a community of individuals who share your values, and seek opportunities to serve with that community. I have found that volunteering is a great way to learn what you are gifted at. What kinds of things do you naturally gravitate towards? What kinds of skills are you not good at? In a diverse community, you can begin to seek people who have different talents and learn from their experience and wisdom.
Learn what resources the University of Minnesota has to offer for you. My life wouldn’t be the same without the numerous opportunities, student groups, projects, classes, people, and experiences that were available to me. Learn about them! If you have an interest that does not have a structured event, you can help make that happen.