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Meet Jenna Gorlewicz

Posted by on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 in Successful Alumni.

Drawn by the faculty and research at Vanderbilt, Jenna Gorlewicz worked on many projects during her time at Vanderbilt.  Eventually, she formed her research as a way to connect with the people that use the technologies she was developing.  Haptics and touchscreens are a match made in heaven, and the potential it has for education is currently being mined.  Many mathematical concepts in geometry, algebra and calculus can be hard to understand without the ability of sight.  Jenna began to tackle this challenge with the use of surface haptics.  Using vibrations and tones on touchscreens, visually impaired learners can trace lines or find points on a graph displayed on the screen.  She has been able to continue her research as Assistant Professor at Saint Louis University, as the Director of the Intelligent Mechatronic, Haptic, and Robotic Systems Lab, and through her own startup – ViTAL (Vibratory Touchscreen Applications for Learning).


Jessica Parks-Piatt: Tell me about how you got to Vanderbilt and what you did here.

Jenna Gorlewicz: I was exploring possibilities after graduating with my bachelor’s and attending graduate school was an interest of mine.  I was not entirely sure what I wanted to study, but I was interested in looking for a place to apply my engineering skills in medical settings.  I decided to go to graduate school as a pathway to dig deeper into the things that I loved.  I ended up choosing Vanderbilt because I saw it as an incredible place to meld my many interests.  I was particularly drawn by the amazingly cool things Dr. Webster (my advisor) was doing there.  At Vanderbilt I was really able to combine my interests in teaching and research throughout my graduate career.  Furthermore, having the medical center right there on campus was a huge plus, and the city of Nashville can’t be beat!


JP-P: How did your degree and other experiences help you in your career?

JG: My experiences and degree made me incredibly prepared to pursue both an industry or academic job upon graduation. I had established numerous networks through the collaborations and conferences I attended as a graduate student, I had built up a sound technical skillset in robotics, and I had acquired critical soft skills for teaching, mentoring, and accomplishing tasks in teams. It was incredible the number of opportunities that I had post-graduation (and the variety of them!), and I attribute much of that to the experiences and training I had at Vanderbilt.


JP-P: What are three key tips that you have for students early in their grad programs?

JG: 1) Be open to opportunities that come your way.  It is easy to get overwhelmed with classes and research, and finding your passion which are all really hard.  Yet, sometimes, that next opportunity or experience is going to be the one that opens entirely new pathways for you.  So seek opportunities out, even if you’re not sure how things will go.  For example, I wanted to connect with people and do research that would benefit people.  Along this pathway, I ended up substitute teaching at Harpeth Hall while a graduate student, which was tremendously rewarding for me.

2) As hard as it is to find time to network and be social, do it.  Graduate school is a small span in life when you have a window of time to be in this exploratory realm which is a unique—but amazing—facet to graduate school.  Connect with as many people as you can, and you’d be surprised by the different areas that you get to experience because of it.

3) Have a pitch. It is so important to be able to talk about your research in thirty seconds in a way that everyone can understand.  It’s hard, but being able to contextualize and sell it to the general public is invaluable. It also helps you be continually reminded about why you are doing the things that you are doing.


JP-P: What are three key tips for students at the end of their graduate programs?

JG: Hopefully, you have made all of these networks in graduate school.  Don’t forget about them and don’t be afraid to reach out and leverage your network.  You are almost done and the last part is always hard, but it is really just the start of awesome things to come.  When I graduated, I had numerous offers both in academic and industry positions. This was in large part, for me, having done the three things mentioned above really well.  In the end, though, I needed to reconnect with the networks I established, determine a pathway forward that was of interest to me, and be creative with the career pathway I was setting out on. It’s also important to remember that nothing has to be permanent.  You’ve established a skillset that will hopefully make you versatile and agile and always willing to learn.


JP-P: What was the biggest challenge in preparing for your job search and career and how did you overcome that?

JG: I had big ambitions for a career, and, personally, my husband and I wanted to situate ourselves in a location for both of us to get a job and be able to have a work-life balance. The dual career isn’t an easy task however, so I had to learn to be upfront and open about it. When I went to interviews, I asked if they could help get my husband connected in the community to obtain a job.  Know what you want in the job and outside of it.  Life outside of the job is just as important.  Everyone needs time away from work and to have balance.  Being open with potential employers was instrumental in helping me figure out what places might be better than others for us to settle in.


JP-P: Any last thoughts?

JG: I had a wide variety of interests.  I saw advantages in working in academia and in industry.  I had a really hard time choosing which pathway I wanted to go down.  I had to realize that I could go down one pathway and later decide to shift if it was not the right one.  To help me decide I did a lot of thinking about which pathway would be the hardest to go down later.  That’s why I started looking for positions in academia first.  While it’s not impossible to start in industry and then go tenure-track, there are a few more barriers with that shift rather than the latter. For those who are in their programs but are starting to doubt whether or not they want to stick it out for a Ph.D. (I understand and also thought about leaving after the master’s), stick it out.  It’s worth it.  If you’re almost done with the program, take a moment to pat yourself on the back because you are setting yourself up to do really cool things.


Jenna’s Fun Facts!

Current city: St. Louis, MO

Current position: Assistant Professor of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, St. Louis University; Director of the Intelligent Mechatronic, Haptic, and Robotic Systems Lab; Founder of ViTAL (Vibratory Touchscreen Applications for Learning)

Degree program: Mechanical Engineering

Dissertation advisor: Dr. Robert Webster

Favorite Nashville restaurant: The Pharmacy

Favorite place to study: In the MED Lab

Thesis: Efficacy of Surface Haptics and Force Feedback in Education


If you would like to learn more about Jenna and her work, send her an email.

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