Pre-Engineering

Cameron Spitzfaden

When I was a sophomore, Dr. Victor Argueta asked me (and fellow student Hope Ayers) to join his summer research team, with the goal of designing and building a motorized prosthetic hand. While there are already quite a few designs for prosthetic hands, they tend to be extremely expensive and complicated, which limits availability. We wanted to come up with a design that could be fabricated at home for a low cost.

Growing up, I built quite a few hobby/craft projects by hand, but for this project, Dr. Argueta encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and learn how to use some really cool (but intimidating) tools in the physics student shop, such as a laser cutter and a 3D printer. I ended up designing 3D computer models for all the parts, and I learned how to use a 3D printer to manufacture the parts.  I was also involved with designing the electronics to sense electrical signals from the forearm muscles and open/close the hand.

My hometown when I was a student was

Charlotte, MI

I graduated in

2017

I studied

I majored in Physics and Mathematics with a minor in Dance. 

I currently live in

Ypsilanti, MI

I am now

I am currently a graduate student research assistant at the University of Michigan’s Physics Department.

Since graduating from Alma

After graduating from Alma College in April, 2017, I spent the following spring and summer studying and preparing for a graduate program in physics at the University of Michigan, which I began in August, 2017. This is a combined Master’s / PhD program, and it comes with full financial support: I work either as a Graduate Student Instructor or a Graduate Student Research Assistant (depending on the semester), in exchange for a tuition waiver and a paycheck. I began the program by teaching introductory physics labs as a Graduate Student Instructor, and later I transitioned to a Graduate Student Research Assistant while I finished up my courses. I earned my Master’s degree in December, 2018.

Continuing on with the PhD portion of the program, I have now found a home in the research group of Jennifer P. Ogilvie. We are researching photosynthesis—specifically the molecular processes involved with “harvesting” the energy of light. We use ultrashort pulses of laser light to measure and learn about these processes, which happen on an extremely fast timescale! We hope that our research may help to improve how humans make artificial light-harvesting devices (such as solar panels).

My Alma education

At Alma College, professors strongly encourage (and support!) student research. As a sophomore and junior, I worked with Dr. Victor Argueta (and fellow student Hope Ayers) to design and build a motorized, 3D printed prosthetic hand, and as a senior, I worked with Dr. Jim Mazzuca (and fellow student Ethan Akans) to study the molecular origins of mad-cow disease. The research skills I learned at Alma College directly apply to my physics grad school studies.

Alma College also offers meaningful opportunities for on-campus employment. I gained so many life skills working as a Resident Assistant, Resident Computer Consultant, Physics/Chemistry Tutor, and a Teaching Assistant. Perhaps the most influential of these jobs was being a Resident Assistant. The Student Life Office pushes their Resident Assistants to be fierce advocates for the safety and well-being of students, and honestly this job has made me a better person!

My favorite place(s) on campus included

  • The dance studio in the Heritage Center
  • Mitchell Hall, where I was a Resident Assistant
  • Empty classrooms of SAC in the evening, when they are quiet and perfect for doing homework!
  • The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail

My favorite professors(s) included

In alphabetical order: Dr. Victor Argueta, Dr. Morgan Fonley, Crystal Fullmer, Dr. Steuard Jensen, Ben Munisteri, Dr. Cameron Reed, Hazel Sabas, Prof. Timothy Sipka, Dr. Brad Westgate…

My most vivid/best memory of my time at Alma is

The live piano accompaniment of Anthony Patterson in our dance classes!

My off-campus study experience(s) included

In the summer between my junior and senior years at Alma College, I participated in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program (REU, funded by the National Science Foundation) at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering. I got some excellent hands-on experience with optics research (which is what I am doing now), as well as nanofabrication, which is the collection of techniques used to build microscopic devices and circuits.

My research advisor, Dr. Todd Hastings, did a great job at modeling an effective, healthy, and happy mentor relationship, and I am so thankful I got to work for him. When things are difficult in my current graduate studies, I look back fondly on this experience.