Inspired by Nature
Mechanical Engineering Student Innovates with Biological Systems in Mind
Autumn Pratt didn’t have a typical upbringing. At age 8, her parents took her on a five-month vacation to hike the Appalachian Trail — an approximately 2,200-mile mountain path that spans 14 states from Georgia to Maine. It’s said to be the longest footpath in the world, and Pratt completed it, carrying school books and candy bars, hiking 16-17 miles a day.
While passing through historic battlefields, she studied the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Her younger brother learned the decimal system by decoding mile marker signs. They both learned about flora and fauna.
Along the way, the Twin Falls native was awed by the well-designed intricacies of the natural world and human body.
This intellectual curiosity grew exponentially, and Pratt eventually chose to study at the University of Idaho. She will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering. Her initial interest within the field involved designing prosthetics — something “fairly unequivocal” in the difference it makes, which was important to Pratt.
Now, after four years at U of I, which included summer internships in Germany and at Oregon State University, and three semesters as a teaching assistant in Professor Edwin Odom’s Computer Aided Design Methods class, Pratt has acceptance letters from various universities to pursue a doctorate in mechanical engineering. She plans to continue her focus on bioengineering.
While Pratt is on track for success, her college experience didn’t come without apprehension. Her unconventional upbringing — she and her family lived in a wall tent on the Palouse for five years following their hike, and Pratt spent hours splitting wood and milking goats — bred misunderstanding among her peers.
She remembers her first engineering class when the professor required students to work in groups. Pratt was hesitant. She was tired of explaining her background when the topic surfaced in social situations.
“I didn’t like group projects,” she said. “But then I started talking to my classmates about engineering stuff, and I actually knew what they were talking about and they understood what I was talking about. I really enjoyed learning to work with people that were fun and wanted to do well and were interested in what they were doing. And they were willing to put the time into it. We came out with really cool stuff in the end.”
Pratt said one of her most exciting school experiences was a collaboration between other engineering students and students in the Apparel, Textiles and Design classes in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Using a 3-D scanner, Pratt is helping build personalized mannequins of opera students for whom textile students are designing costumes.
The process involves scanning students with a handheld laser that transmits their data points into a computer. Then Pratt uses a computer-aided design program, which she learned to navigate in Odom’s class, to make cross sections of the models. She uses a laser cutter to cut the sections from cardboard, leaving room for foam, and the clothing and design students assemble the mannequins.
“As a school project, the point is to get other departments involved so they can see what possibilities are out there,” Pratt said. “Hopefully we’ll get to go see the production and see the costumes they made so it brings it full circle.”
In the meantime, Pratt’s practice with the 3-D scanner has given her experience with advancing technology in her field. Bioengineers often use scanners for anatomical reconstruction.
This real-world application is important to Pratt. She wants her work to be tangible, and she wants to connect to people.
Looking back at her experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pratt attributes the people she met to her most cherished memories: two girls who hiked barefoot; a man who left origami birds along the way; and an old man and his dog, hiking until they passed away. People, Pratt said, “who were taking time to consider their lives.”
Similarly, Pratt’s most memorable experiences at U of I involve her classmates.
“It hasn’t been just doing math problems in my head by myself,” Pratt said. “When I was working late at night, my friends were there, too.”
Article by Kate Keenan, College of Art and Architecture