Department Spotlight: Jessica Towns, Ph.D. Candidate, Camarillo Lab
In high school, I was deciding between a culinary program and a STEM program at different high schools, and I thought, “These are two very different things. How am I going to pick?” I honestly picked the STEM program because it would allow me to continue cheering for the high school team. I cheered through college, too, so I thought of it as a way to enjoy my extracurriculars and academics simultaneously.
When I chose to pursue biomedical engineering, I knew there could be some sports medicine tie, although I didn't know how to get there. The summer going into my senior year, I participated in Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Wake Forest School of Medicine, and that's when I learned about biomechanics. In that program, I worked on a gymnastics project about tumbling – the head and how it moves during a rotating skill – and how we might predict if you're going to fall. Once I learned that researchers are actually looking at this sort of thing, I realized I could go down a biomechanics path within the bioengineering discipline.
While looking at PhD programs, I had multiple conversations with Dr. David Camarillo. There weren’t any other programs that went into as much depth on specific projects and what it would look like to be a researcher in the program. The faculty here have been very supportive. If you have questions or need a connection, they're always willing to point you in the right direction.
I'm excited to learn new skills and have joined the CamLab. The CamLab has a mechanical engineering focus, which is not my background at all. I’ve started learning how to use specialized machinery and work with finite element models to drive my current projects, which explore helmet technologies aimed at reducing concussion risk. I like the challenge of learning all these different methods and techniques that involve making something new or working hands-on. Culinary is my other passion, which in its nature is tactile. I love getting onto a workbench where I can hit something or make something, especially if I get to learn how it works. I might break it and then have to fix it. Then you really understand how something works.
At Stanford, I get to pursue all of these interests in a lab with a culture that I really appreciate. Engineering is a male-dominated field, and being one of the few women in the room can be intimidating when you want to say something. Having a voice in the room feels extra important to me. In the CamLab, even if I look like I'm about to say something and don't, all heads turn to me, as if asking, “What were you gonna say?” It's nice to feel my colleagues have my back and want to listen to and support my ideas.
Everything revolves around relationships with people. If you can learn how to work with people, whether it's in business, in the lab, or in class, and if you can understand where they're coming from, then you can learn how their strengths will merge with yours. Doing that will set you up to be pretty successful, especially in an environment as collaborative as Stanford.