Sheryl Gracewski

‘A truly impressive list of accomplishments’

Imagine chaperoning 20 or so engineering students to remote locations in Alabama, Tennessee, California, or Kansas every spring so they can race their off-road vehicle for four days against other university teams.

This means four days of dust, noise, oil leaks, mechanical breakdowns, and lack of sleep.

Sheryl Gracewski, emeritus professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, did that for 20 years as faculty advisor for the University of Rochester Baja SAE team.

“That’s called ‘service,’ an often unheralded but vital part of what a faculty member contributes to a department, to a university – and most of all, to our students,” said Wendi Heinzelman, dean of engineering and applied sciences, when she presented Gracewski with the Hajim School’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. Gracewski was the first woman to receive the honor.

Gracewski, who was also the first woman tenure-track faculty member in engineering at the University, “epitomizes the faculty member who quietly goes about her work out of the limelight, all the while compiling a truly impressive list of accomplishments,” Heinzelman said.

For example, Gracewski is internationally recognized for her expertise in modeling the interaction of ultrasound fields with bubbles and stones within biological fluids or tissues.

And she compiled an outstanding track record as a teacher and mentor, receiving University awards for both undergraduate teaching and service in helping with PhD defenses.

As Meghan Patrick ‘18 explained: “At every step of the way, whether it was choosing a minor and working my curriculum around it or figuring out which study abroad program worked best for me, Prof. Gracewski made sure I felt supported and gave me valuable advice.

“Without her help and direction, I wouldn't be where I am today,” wrote Patrick, who is currently an R&D engineer with Entegris, a provider of products and systems that purify, protect, and transport critical materials used in the semiconductor device fabrication process.

A first-generation college student

Gracewski, who grew up in Enfield, Connecticut, enjoyed math and science from an early age, and received an award from the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) while in high school.

At the time she was also working part time “flipping hamburgers” at a McDonald’s restaurant. A co-worker, who attended RPI, “was the one who told me if you love math and science, you either go into science or engineering. And that was as much as I knew,” Gracewski says.

She decided to attend RPI and excelled there, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1979 after maintaining nearly a 4.0 GPA.

She then completed an MS in mechanical engineering at MIT followed by a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She was the first in her family to obtain a PhD. Her dissertation, supervised by Professor David Bogy, presented an analytical model to nondestructively evaluate flaws at the interfaces where thin coatings or layers are bonded to thicker substrates.

She joined the mechanical engineering faculty at the University of Rochester in 1984. When asked if it was difficult being the only woman faculty member in engineering, she replies, “people basically treated me as an equal.” However, she noticed that the standardized letters sent out to the students she advised continued to state, “go talk to your advisor and ask him for his advice.”

A pivotal moment at this stage of her career occurred when she was introduced to Edwin Carstensen, a professor of electrical engineering and a pioneer in biomedical ultrasound.

An early focus on ultrasound

In 2017, Gracewski was among the scientists who paid tribute to Carstensen at a special session of the Acoustical Society of America. “I realized as I was preparing the presentation just how much I benefited from him,” Gracewski says. “I didn’t have a mentor or collaborator at that time in mechanical engineering, and (Carstensen) really provided direction for my career at that point.”

Carstensen, who was about to launch the Rochester Center for Biomedical Ultrasound (RCBU), studied the effects of ultrasound and lithotripsy (use of acoustic shock waves to break up kidney stones and gallstones). Gracewski began collaborating with his lab, initially focusing on understanding the mechanisms of kidney stone and gallstone destruction caused by the ultrasonic shock waves used in lithotripsy.

For example, research had documented lithotripsy side effects, including hemorrhaging in large organs and lungs, and premature contractions of the heart. Gracewski was part of a broad team of RCBU researchers who investigated this problem. The center’s 20-year retrospective credited Gracewski with helping document how both cavitation (formation of small vapor-filled cavities) and purely mechanical action of shock waves caused by ultrasound were involved in stone destruction.

Gracewski even obtaineda lithotripter that Strong Memorial Hospital wasn’t using any more so she could do experiments in her own lab using “phantom stones.” More often though, her role was to provide a theoretical framework for the experimental results being obtained in Carstensen’s lab, and later, in the lab of Diane Dalecki, Carstensen’s last PhD student who now serves as Distinguished Professor and chair of biomedical engineering and director of the RCBU.

Gracewski says that Carstensen “was very motivating, very supportive, and made you feel good about what you were doing. He would gently nudge you in new directions. I remember a number of times he mentioned the possibility of getting me involved in the modeling of the interaction of ultrasound with microbubbles (used to enhance ultrasound imaging) and eventually that’s what I ended up doing.”

By 2011, for example, Gracewski and her lab were “developing unique capabilities to computationally simulate the response of microbubbles to sound exposure within a confining blood vessel,” according to that year’s RCBU annual report. “Experimental measurements and observations within the Dalecki lab are used to validate the simulation results from the Gracewski lab in order to obtain new insights into the nonlinear bubble dynamics that can occur within blood vessels.”

For her research in advancing the understanding of acoustic cavitation in biomedical ultrasound, Gracewski was named a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America.

An equally important part of her research was done in collaboration with Rochester’s traditionally strong optical manufacturing and metrology industry. Her lab worked on determining the effects of machine vibrations and tool properties on ground precision optical surfaces, with a particular interest in determining how to minimize machine chatter and tool marks (surface flaws).

‘She gave us so much advice’

When she stepped down after 20 years as faculty advisor for the Baja team, she wrote that she had witnessed a “remarkable evolution of the team” during that time in:

  • The growing number and diversity of its members.
  • A refined organizational structure, including recruitment and training of freshmen to carry on after older teammates graduate
  • Improved design, analysis, fabrication and overall engineering skills.

“The team members, especially the team leaders, seem to have boundless enthusiasm and put in an enormous amount of time and energy into the team. It is not unusual to find 10-20 BAJA members working in the shop or BAJA office on a Saturday or Sunday,” Gracewski wrote.

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know so many outstanding students.”

Those feelings were reciprocated by many of the team members.

“She gave us so much important advice and guidance for sure,” said Peter Fiala ’17. “We relied on her so much for design validation, and that really enabled us to build our own confidence. Without her assurance, a lot of what we tried would’ve felt like a shot in the dark.”

Added Alan Grier ’17: “One of her qualities that struck me… was how candid she was with her students and mentees. She helped (team members) understand the engineering decisions they made, the math behind a complicated derivation, the consequences of specific actions.

“Her challenges were not always easy to answer, but learning and growing are not meant to be a trivial task. It is about struggling with challenging problems, understanding the consequences of difficult decisions, and being cognizant of what you do not understand. Professor Gracewski may not have specifically taught these principles, but I understand it from how she mentored and guided me.”