B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’12
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Fun Fact: Is tinkering with developing a robot that self-balances on two wheels
Kaelin Ellis just graduated in December. He already has a job lined up with ConocoPhillips in Anchorage that starts in January. He spent last summer at the University of Michigan (UM) (ranked 5th in the nation out of mechanical engineering schools) working on a research project. During one semester as an undergrad, he took 20 credits at a time.
We’re not surprised when he humbly says, “I wanted a challenge,” when asked why he was interested in studying mechanical engineering.
He adds, “I am really thankful that I chose engineering and very happy with my decision to attend UAA.”
Kaelin is quick to point out that all of his hard work and dedicated focus to school has paid off, given the full-time job he’s going to step into with ConocoPhillips, but he also talks a lot about UM’s Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) and UAA’s Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) that helped him gain invaluable skills along the way.
When you first learn that Kaelin passed up an opportunity with NASA to attend SROP at UM, you might be surprised. But as Kaelin puts it, “For someone who isn’t living in the technical world of engineering and research, of course, they’d recognize NASA as great—they’re doing pretty awesome things—but the University of Michigan, honestly, in the technical world is just as prestigious; it’s right up there with Stanford and MIT and has its own incredible opportunities available.”
SROP is an eight-week undergraduate research program that Kaelin learned about when a UM professor presented to UAA’s School of Engineering and ANSEP last fall. Only 18 students were chosen out of 300 applicants. “This is an incredible achievement on Kaelin’s part,” says one of his former UAA engineering professors, Jennifer Brock, Ph.D.
So Kaelin arrived in Ann Arbor and was paired with Professor Brent Gillespie, Ph.D., in UM’s Haptix Laboratory. “Haptic” relates to the sense of human touch in perceiving and manipulating objects. Gillespie’s assignment for Kaelin was to develop a piano gauge that could aid piano technicians in measuring the amount of force required to depress each of the 88 keys of a piano.
“Piano players like to have the same resistance among all of the keys,” Kaelin explains. “Piano technicians use a set of real weights to determine how much lead to add or subtract from any key that isn’t consistent with the others.”
This process can take up to 15 hours sometimes for technicians. Kaelin’s task was to design and build a tool that technicians could use to cut that time down.
“I did all the mechanical design in solid works and set up all the hard components,” says Kaelin. And then he passed it on to an electrical engineering student for the second phase.
Kaelin Ellis’ piano key gauge, designed and built during University of Michigan’s Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP).
Kaelin Ellis presenting a poster of his SROP piano gauge project.
“Since it was such an independent project, I really learned to just take initiative, ask questions and step up and do what I thought needed to be done to finish the project,” he says. “I also learned a lot of applied engineering skills.”
Being at a prestigious school such as UM, too, Kaelin couldn’t help but notice the other big schools represented in his fellow SROP students.
Being from UAA, Kaelin says, “I didn’t feel like I was any less prepared than any of them. And at the end, the professor said that, as far as the work I did for him, that I far exceeded his expectations of how much I accomplished.”
Kaelin attributes much of his success at SROP to the time he has spent with ANSEP throughout his UAA career as well. Having had the opportunity to teach recitation courses to ANSEP students helped him develop his public speaking skills and teaching skills in conveying complex engineering concepts to others.
“There are very high caliber students in ANSEP,” Kaelin says. “And when you’re surrounded by high quality individuals, it makes you want to push yourself, makes you want to succeed and be successful.”
Working odd jobs and earning scholarships also helped Kaelin through college, as well as connecting with the role models he found in his professors.
“I had really great faculty in the School of Engineering,” he says. “My professors are really passionate about teaching and also improving the school and getting the resources to make it even better.”
And considering that having completed SROP could have earned him a guaranteed five-year graduate fellowship at UM, he has put graduate school on the back burner for now and is instead committing to Alaska.
“I’ve talked to a lot of professors here at UAA, and looking through their resumes and CVs, the ones who I’ve really connected with have worked a few years, didn’t go straight into academia,” he says. “I’m going to gain a lot of skills and applied knowledge in this job; it’s going to be great.”
So although he might get some skiing or tinkering in before his job starts later this month, we have no doubt, that once it does, Kaelin will hit the ground running.