Faces of the Pack: Passion for mechanical engineering helps graduate student succeed

Rebecca Histed, graduate student, won a prestigious National Science Foundation award and makes a difference in the mechanical engineering department

A student stands in the laboratory in front of her research.

Rebecca Nealis in the lab.

Faces of the Pack: Passion for mechanical engineering helps graduate student succeed

Rebecca Histed, graduate student, won a prestigious National Science Foundation award and makes a difference in the mechanical engineering department

Rebecca Nealis in the lab.

A student stands in the laboratory in front of her research.

Rebecca Nealis in the lab.

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Since middle school, graduate student Rebecca Histed’s academic goal was to be a mechanical engineer. Originally from Southern California, she came to the University to get her undergraduate degree, and has stayed in Northern Nevada because of the family-like community she has been a part of during her time here.

“I chose to attend the University for multiple reasons,” Histed said. “I have family in the area and the majority of my relatives have attended here for degrees in engineering, medical school and nursing. For me, it was a great choice considering the cost of education, the quality of the undergraduate engineering program, and the accessibility to Lake Tahoe. I have been skiing and snowboarding my whole life so it was an easy decision. Reno is a beautiful place to live.”

Histed will be completing her master’s en-route in the spring, and continuing afterwards with her Ph.D. program.

“I didn’t specifically know what I wanted to do in the field of mechanical engineering, since it’s so broad,” Histed said. “Right now, I’m focusing on research in advanced manufacturing and smart materials, topics that I became interested in during my undergraduate research. It’s a pretty open field as there is still a lot to discover, but it’s rewarding to be able to contribute to the scientific community.” After graduation, Rebecca hopes to work in the industry to gain experience.

In April, Histed won the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, or GRFP. It allows for three years of funding, networking and internship opportunities, and is what Histed calls “an honor to receive.” Her research proposal, titled “Enhanced Electroactive Polymer Actuators for Soft Robotics Applications” focused on understanding the mechanisms of charge transport coupled with electrode morphology characteristics in ionic polymer-metal composites, or eIPMC actuators, a problem in the discipline that has not been fully explored.

Its research is critical to changing the performance of soft actuators, or lightweight and affordable flexible materials for soft robotics and a wide variety of other applications, like soft prosthetics and rehabilitation, a topic Histed enjoys and is the catalyzer of her engineering and scientific interests.

“The biggest challenge in my research right now is learning how to overcome unforeseen obstacles,” she said. “Every project I have worked on so far has had barriers but they have allowed me to be creative with my problem-solving approach. I’ve learned that your research often takes you in directions you hadn’t anticipated, but that is also a part of what makes it enjoyable.”

As a graduate student, Histed has acted as both a research and teaching assistant. In the past spring semester, Histed was a TA for ME 350, which is a computer aided design and manufacturing course. She enjoyed the one-on-one interaction with students and allowing them to participate in hands-on application of the concepts taught in lectures.

When it comes to advice, Histed says to “not hold yourself to a strict idea of what you’re going to do,” as plans change often in college. “Seeking out internships or research opportunities, working with advisors to find funding and learning about topics that interest you” are also her recommendations for engineering students.

“Rebecca will be able to help people through her research in soft robotics and advanced manufacturing, and I expect that Rebecca will be very successful in her graduate career at the University, producing high-quality and world-class relevant research,” said Matteo Aureli, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the graduate program. “She shows true potential for a career as a leader in the academia, where she can become a role model as a scientist and educator for women in engineering and advanced manufacturing, and benefit the country and next generation of engineers.”

The NSF GSRP is among the most prestigious awards that a graduate student in the STEM field can receive, as it is extremely competitive and selective.

“With a success rate of under ten percent, 40 people selected for the award have later gone on to win the Nobel Prize,” Aureli said. “Rebecca is truly in good company, sharing this very prestigious award with the brightest minds in our country.”

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