Dyslexia did not deter this ‘fearless’ researcher

July 27, 2020

Caroline Cardinale '21 is an Astronaut Scholarship recipient.
Caroline Cardinale ’21, an Astronaut Scholarship recipient, “is at least as productive as my graduate students and requires astoundingly little supervision,” says Jessica Shang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Some undergraduate students are at loss when they begin working in a research lab. Research is not the same as solving problems in a classroom, where the answers are already known --where students are graded on how well they’ve mastered the equations and other tools they’ve been taught to arrive at those answers.

In a research lab, the problems are open ended. The answers are not known. And it may not even be clear what methods should be used to find those answers.

While some students flounder in this sea of uncertainty, other students – such as Caroline Cardinale ’21 of mechanical engineering -- take to it like a duck to water. Faculty members describe these students as having “the knack,” or “the hands.”

Cardinale, an Astronaut Scholarship recipient, “is an ideal research assistant in the lab, a self-starter, intuitive, independent, and assertive – she knows her own mind,” says Jessica Shang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Cardinale joined Shang’s lab the summer after her freshman year.

And already the rising senior “is at least as productive as my graduate students and requires astoundingly little supervision,” Shang says.

Cardinale also excels in the classroom, maintaining nearly perfect grades.

This is particularly impressive considering that Cardinale overcame dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) as a middle school student.

‘Born to be an engineer’

Cardinale grew up near Princeton, NJ, and remembers as a child spending long hours playing with a set of magnetic gears on the refrigerator in her home.

“That’s how my parents (both medical doctors) knew I was ‘born to be an engineer,’” Cardinale says. “Those magnetic gears were the first engineering-type things that got me started. I started playing more with those kinds of toys instead of dolls or whatever.”

In her early grades at school – even as she struggled with reading because of the dyslexia -- she found she had affinity for working with numbers. She gravitated toward math and science. Later, she attended a special middle school, where she got additional help with her dyslexia and ADHD and was able to catch up on her reading and writing skills.

Though often the only girl in the math and science classes she took in middle and high school, “I was always able to keep up,” she says. Cardinale’s interest in engineering was bolstered by her participation on an all-girls robotic team. “That was really helpful, to be on a team with a bunch of women who also enjoyed engineering. It gave me confidence that, yes, I could do this. That was how I knew I wanted to continue doing engineering in college and as a career.”

A way to give back

The University of Rochester wasn’t even on her radar initially. But after a visit to nearby Rochester Institute of Technology, Cardinale dropped by the River Campus and “immediately” loved what she saw. “Everybody really seemed to care about the school, but also had other interests they could pursue,” she says.

The first impression has been borne out. “I cannot wait to get back to campus,” she says. (Cardinale and other undergraduates at UR, as at other universities, finished the spring semester learning remotely because of COVID-19. The university plans to bring students back to campus this fall. Read more here.) 

“I have really great friends, I love the academic part of it, and the professors are really approachable,” Cardinale says.

And she, too, has been able to pursue other interests. As vice president of the Eye to Eye student chapter, for example, she and other UR students with learning disabilities do art projects once a week with middle school students with similar disabilities at Rochester Preparatory Charter School.

“We’re someone they can look up to, and realize they can also overcome their disabilities,” Cardinale says. “When I was younger, I was in the program as well. I was one of the students that college kids came to mentor, and it was so impactful for me. That’s why I do it now, as a way to give back.”

‘Fearless’ at finding solutions

Cardinale knew coming into the University she would major in mechanical engineering, and at first intended to study four years as an undergraduate, get her degree, and immediately start working in industry.

Then she started working in Shang’s research lab at the end of her first year, and “fell in love with that. Now I want to pursue a PhD,” she says.

“Working with Professor Shang is truly the greatest opportunity I’ve been given. She’s great because she really lets me take the reins; she trusts me.”

During Cardinale’s first summer in the lab, for example, Shang assigned Cardinale to work with another undergraduate on coming up with a vibration-based mechanism that could effectively propel a small device across water and land, using relatively simply components and geometries. Shang was impressed by Cardinale’s willingness to try all kinds of “quirky designs”; by the end of the summer, the two students had produced designs that could traverse a mock transition from beach to water and vice versa.

Next Shang asked Cardinale to create a small wave tank and paddle wavemaker, to simulate a wave environment for the devices. Shang says she handed Cardinale an actuator, motor driver, and an Arduino, sketched out what she wanted, then “let her at the problem.” Even though Cardinale “had no experience with stepper motors or microprocessors, within a few hours she had it wired up and moving,” Shang says. “When the driver did not work as expected, she troubleshot and landed on an alternative solution.  I am impressed with her fearlessness in finding working solutions with very little intervention on my part.”

Even before arriving at Rochester, Cardinale participated in summer research internships at Rutgers University, then at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, NJ. Her work at NOAA involved computational fluid dynamics, “actually working in code” to debug inconsistencies in a giant fluid dynamics model that a lab had been working on since the 1980s.

Most of her work in the Shang lab has involved experimental fluid dynamics. As Cardinale began thinking about pursuing a PhD, she envisioned continuing to do experimental research. However, to be sure, she again immersed herself in computational research with internship last summer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, developing simulations of explosions.

“Well, I fell in love with it,” she laughs. “So now I want to do computational mechanical engineering.”

She’s not sure where she’ll land after earning a PhD. Wherever it is – in academia, a national lab, or industry – she is determined to continue doing research. Her lifetime ambition is to make at least one discovery – no matter how small, no matter whether she gets credit or not --  that helps advance her chosen field.

It will not surprise her mentor if Cardinale achieves this goal, and then some. Of the dozen or so undergraduates Shang has taught, Cardinale is “the only one so far in whom I have been unable to find a weakness.”