Magdalena Henke '16


Like many family members before her, Magdalena Henke, or ‘Lena,’ loved science. Her father and sister are physicians, and Lena has long been interested in medical engineering and sustainability. In Aachen, Germany – Lena’s hometown – students choose a specific educational or vocational route at a young age and are limited to that track.  When deciding upon college, Lena chose to explore options outside the traditional European trajectory, as she also really enjoyed exploring nonscientific subjects.

Princeton offered Lena the liberal arts education she was seeking; she joined the class of 2016, knowing she wanted to major in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and pursue outside interests. “Mechanical engineering combined the things I was interested in, without being limiting,” Lena said. “Nor was it scary because it was so broad.” Lena also applied to certificate programs in Applications of Computing and Robotics and Intelligent Systems. She balanced her science courses through exploration of the liberal arts – with classes in acting, musical composition, Christian ethics and entrepreneurial leadership as highlights – Lena’s transcript lists six more courses than the 36 required of a B.S.E degree.

Lena’s passion for sustainability led her to a 2014 summer internship at Metabolic in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Metabolic is a systems consulting and cleantech development firm founded in 2012 with a mission to transition the global economy towards a fundamentally sustainable state. She worked on a project that explored what to do with human waste; “this sounds gross, but it is awesome.”  Lena designed, built, implemented, researched and documented black soldier fly composting – a method of using black soldier flies to compost household food scraps and agricultural waste products. “This was the first time I realized that I could combine my passion for mechanics with something that would be good for the world,” she said, “and work on the technical challenges of such a project. I was also reminded that to have new experiences, meet new people and learn new things, it’s not necessarily about how far away you travel, but about how closely you look.”

By closely watching each other swing at a park– Lena and friend, Rosa Ciummo – came up with a senior thesis idea that they could work on together: building a robot that emulates human swinging. The project combines the theoretical aspects of math and physics with hands-on work of computer coding and mechanics of building a robot. Everybody knows the [swinging] motion, Lena said, but understanding it is “really, really, cool.” In fact, there is intense scholarly discourse on how people swing, as well as academic papers devoted to this subject,. Ultimately, her project integrates and applies what she learned throughout her undergraduate curriculum at Princeton, serving as a perfect capstone to her studies.

Rosa admits that some friends don’t make great teammates, but for Lena and Rosa, this was not the case. Lena brought experience with software and programming, while Rosa had professional experience with design and manufacturing. “If I had to describe in the simplest way, how we divide our work, I’d say that Lena is working on simulations and theory, while I work on the robot design,” Rosa said. “When we get to programming electronics, we will probably have to put our heads together.”

Together they approached Professor Clancy Rowley, their Automated Control Systems professor, to serve as their thesis advisor. “Rosa and I loved the way he teaches; he’s very approachable and excited about his subject,” Lena said. While Lena and Rosa are just beginning to build their robot and therefore do not know what mechanisms they will incorporate into their project, having Rowley as an advisor – with his enthusiasm for his students, this project and his knowledge of engineering math and science – was the ideal choice.

Rosa and Lena also had to consider the variables that would help them work well together. For this project, Lena and Rosa must define parameters of their thesis, which is open-ended. “In the beginning, I think we did a lot of talking past each other, but we’ve gotten a lot better at the listening part.”

Whether the challenge is letting a partner define certain parameters or how to divide up responsibility, Lena thinks this is what a thesis is all about: “Setting up a big challenge that you don’t know how to do, and then learn how to take it on: step by step, little challenge by little challenge.”

Upon graduation, Lena will face a new challenge: to code 3D models that designers are developing at “Floored,” a startup software company where she interned in the summer between her junior and senior years.  Lena will build upon the cumulative knowledge acquired in obtaining her degree and her certificates; she really enjoys programming and, as a start-up that is doing super well, Floored provides the opportunity to further develop these skills while learning about start-ups and how they function.

At some point, Lena imagines she may end up back in Germany, but for now, she is happy remaining on this side of the Atlantic, developing her computer skills and learning about the various opportunities out there, as she launches her own professional career. 

-- Femke de Ruyter