Hajim School students who excel at humanities as well

October 11, 2021

Photos of the three recipients.
Left to right: George Funkebusch, Helena Schreder and Yiyao Yu, the 2021 recipients of the Wells Award.

Three seniors at the top of their class in the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have “gone above and beyond” to excel in the humanities as well, says academic advisor Hana Goldstein.

As a result, George Funkenbusch, Helena Schreder, and Yiyao Yu are this year’s recipients of the Wells Award, created by the family of Robert L. Wells, a ’39 graduate of mechanical engineering. Wells, who became a top executive at Westinghouse, felt strongly that engineers “needed the balance of the humanities” to be competent in their field.

“What really sets top engineers apart is having not just technical skills but humanistic skills, such as the ability to create, to convince people, and to see multiple points of view. The humanities give you that in spades,” says Wendi Heinzelman, dean of the Hajim School in a conversation with Joan Shelley Rubin, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Director of the Humanities Center. Read more here

Finding a sense of community

George Funkenbusch says he tried optics “on a whim.” He found he not only loves the subject, but has excelled at it. For example, he received the Fujimura Prize, presented to sophomores who represent The Institute of Optic’s values of academic excellence, research, and campus citizenship. He is the head teaching assistant for the physical optics labs for The Institute this school year. 

“Something that sets optics apart from other departments is the sense of community,” Funkenbusch says. “Since we're a small field, all of the professors tend to know the students and all of the students know each other. It can be really nice to have a personal relationship with most of the professors instead of just being a face in a crowd.” 

Funkenbusch says it's also “really important to try to branch out and take a break from pure STEM every now and then.” So, in addition to his major in optics, he is pursuing a minor in Japanese and participating in a cello choir at the River Campus.

The choir “strikes the right balance of playing for fun but also being serious enough to give good performances,” he says. Funkenbusch took up Japanese because “even though I'm not ethnically Japanese my parents lived there for a long time, so that culture has always been present in our household growing up. It's nice because it helps me feel more connected to my family and our friends abroad.” 

Funkenbusch is especially appreciative of Andrew Berger, a professor of optics. “I’ve taken classes with him and worked for him as research assistant,” Funkenbusch says. “Even the heavy physics that he teaches ends up being really interesting and fun to learn about when he's the one explaining it.” Berger was also supportive and accommodating during the worst of the pandemic Funkenbusch says. “Overall, almost everything he does is in the best interest of his students, which is really refreshing and comforting.”

After graduating, Funkenbusch plans to get a PhD in optics or biomedical engineering and do research in biomedical optics. “Long term I would really like a job where I can both teach and do research,” he says, “so hopefully I'll be able to get a job as a professor or something similar.”

Cluster system brought her to Rochester

While she was in high school, Helena Schreder says, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a career. “But I knew that I loved math and that I loved art,” she says. And, ultimately, that’s why she ended up attending the University of Rochester.

The University’s cluster system, she says, allowed her to pursue both a mechanical engineering major and a studio arts minor. “I always thought I was going to have to let go of art after high school," she says. "I never thought I would be able to pursue both of my passions in college."

The two pursuits have complemented each other well, Schreder says. She enjoys the problem-solving aspect of engineering, and the creativity of studio arts. “I think one of the most impactful things I’ve gained from art is that it’s helped me let go of some of my perfectionism,” she says. When drawing a tree, for example, “you don’t have to draw every single leaf; you just need some properly placed highlights and shadows and you still get the same effect.””

That’s helped her accept the approximations that need to be made even in a field as exacting as mechanical engineering. “In order to make a model, there are certain assumptions that you make and certain factors that you can leave out because they’re not that important,” Schreder says.

She’s gained valuable hands-on experience as both a researcher and teacher. Schreder was invited to join the research lab of Douglas Kelley, associate professor of mechanical engineering. She’s working with Kimberly Boster, a postdoctoral research associate, on using analytical modeling and algorithms to measure resistance to flow in the parenchymal tissues of the brain. This is part of the lab’s work on understanding fluid flows in the brain’s glymphatic system. She’s thankful and very excited for the opportunity to help write a forthcoming paper and present on these results at the APS DFD conference in November.

Schreder has also been a teaching assistant for statics and Matlab classes taught by another “great mentor” for her, Laura Slane, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. This included working with other TAs to help create assignments for the Matlab course. “I’ve never gotten to see the other side of a class and it was a valuable challenge to come up with engaging ways to teach students,” she says.

Another valuable experience has been her involvement with the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Schreder is now ASME’s president. “I’ve always really enjoyed the work I do in ASME, because I think it’s so important to build a community of engineers,” she says. “Knowing the people you are working with makes collaboration so much more cohesive and even makes doing work fun."

After she graduates, Schreder says, she plans to pursue a PhD. Given her love for teaching and research, she does not rule out the possibility of eventually becoming a professor herself.

A new appreciation for ethics

Yiyao Yu spent two years in Corning, NY as a grade school student before he and his family moved back to Shanghai, China. So, when he looked for a college to attend in upstate NY, the University of Rochester caught his eye. The clincher was the acceptance letter he received from the University. It mentioned the computer programming Yu had had been doing in China to support a library system for underprivileged schools. “It made me feel like the University really cared about what I was doing,” he says.

Yu, who became interested in computer science in high school, quickly found a way to apply his skills at the University. Starting his first semester, Yu began working at the University’s IT Center to help students with their technical issues. He also helped test the UR Student information system before it was launched, and, to this day, continues to help iron out the wrinkles—for example, making it easier for students to select courses and apply for financial aid.

“It’s been a great way to help others, but on top of that it was a really good learning experience,” Yu says. “It also helped me gain confidence fairly early on.” He is especially grateful for the help and guidance he received from Berthenia Coltrane, who manages the AS&E IT Center Student Help Desk, and Justin Turner, a former coordinator with University IT.

Yu, who completed the International Baccalaureate Program, came to Rochester planning to major in computer science, but “the philosophy minor was something new,” he says. A 200-level course on Philosophy of Mind, taught by Jens Kipper, a professor of philosophy, sparked his interest in further pursuing the subject. Of the five philosophy courses he has taken, Ethics of Technology, is his favorite. Early on, Yu says, he believed software should be available to anyone to use. Now, Yu says, he sees how philosophy can “provide us a very nice analytical framework” to also help ensure that new computer programs don’t cause more harm than good.

Yu has also had an opportunity to do research with another important mentor for him, Michael Scott, the Arthur Gould Yates Professor and Chair of Computer Science and an expert in computer systems. “Research is a fairly new thing for me; I’ve only started this year,” Yu says. “But it is a direction I am very happy with, and very interested in.”

He plans to apply to graduate school. “I would definitely like to learn more about computer science,” Yu says. “I’ve barely scratched the surface.”