Engineer of the Month for August

By: Desiré Bennett

Mechanical engineering student Rebecca Matthews soars to new heights through hard work, dedication, and curiosity.

JPL

Rebecca Matthews

Rebecca Matthews is the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science Engineer of the Month for August.  Rebecca maintains a 3.87 GPA as a mechanical engineering senior while working toward dual degrees of Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering in the college’s ACCEND program.

Rebecca’s love of design drew her to study the field of engineering. “I loved the idea of making things work and improving things and helping society in that way,” she said.  “I also like to build things, while having a design in mind, and that kind of sounded like engineering to me.”  Rebecca plowed through AP physics in high school and admits that the class was a challenge, but is thankful to those who helped her to push through. “I loved my high school AP physics teacher, Dr. Mukolobiez.”  

Rover

Rebecca with the Mars Curiosity Rover.

This type of dedication helped Rebecca to be a part of making history earlier this year. In August, Rebecca completed a double co-op at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where she watched NASA's Curiosity Rover complete a daring landing on the surface of Mars. “Being there with all of my co-workers for the landing and celebrating with them almost made me tear up,” Rebecca reflects. “It was something that I’ll probably never experience again in my lifetime just because of the advancement of that type of landing and the drama that was associated with trying this new approach.”

While working in the Mobility and Mechanisms group at JPL, Rebecca conducted post-launch testing on the actuators, or the mechanical joints, of the Mars Curiosity Rover.

“We’d done previous testing in a nitrogen atmosphere but on Mars the atmosphere is low pressure carbon dioxide,” she explained. “JPL had me test one of the actuators at different atmospheres to prove that the results were the same in air, in carbon dioxide, and in nitrogen. It was like a confirmation testing on the brakes of the rover.”  Although the Rover was already on its way to Mars by the time Rebecca started her co-op, her contributions were invaluable. “The wheels have to move – they have to steer – and those actuators make that happen.”

JPL sign 2

Rebecca at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Rebecca also briefly worked on another project developing a visualization tool for the imagery that comes back from the rover. “It was a tool that would analyze what the rover was doing up on Mars,” she said. “It sends back signals like temperature, for instance.”

Rebecca credits her recent success, in part, to her education. “I noticed that when I worked at JPL, I needed all of the knowledge that I’ve learned at UC.  I didn’t disregard any part of my mechanical background – I used it all.”

When she wasn’t studying statics and dynamics or thermo dynamics (her favorite subjects), Rebecca served as one of three event chairs for Relay for Life, a fundraiser to support the American Cancer Society’s education, advocacy and research programs. Although she is taking on a smaller role this year, she is proud of the organization’s achievements. “The University of Cincinnati is one of the biggest and most successful relays in the region and we were number one this year yet again,” she said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve raised $1 million at relays, which is incredible for a collegiate event.”

Relay for Life

Rebecca, with Interim president Santa Ono, at the Relay for Life.

Rebecca says she put her heart and soul into the fundraisers, just as she pours herself into many aspects of her life. She is able to do this because she believes it is possible to maintain balance in her life without sacrificing excellence. “The harder you work initially, the more fun you can have in the long run,” she explained. “Whenever I sit down to study, I study as hard as I can so I can go play harder later.”

In commenting on what advice she’d give to aspiring outstanding students, Rebecca states, “Set goals for yourself, follow through with them and know that it will pay off.”

After graduating, Rebecca plans to pursue opportunities like the one at JPL but says she hopes for a small respite before entering the workforce full time. “I’d love to see South America or more places in Europe or even Alaska.”

Wherever she goes, we know that she’ll rise, as this CEAS August Engineer of the Month has already proven that the sky is not the limit.

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