Shalaka Madge: Hard Work Pays Off

When Shalaka Madge was in first grade she vowed to someday build a kilometer-long pool in her backyard. It was a giant vision for a small person, but dreaming big always came naturally to Shalaka. The ambitious project represented two key traits that have defined her academic and athletic career: determination and imagination.  

“At the time, I felt my kilometer-long pool displayed my immense love for swimming, although others felt it just displayed my lack of a sense of measurement,” jokes Shalaka, whose hard work and perseverance molded her from a young guppy at the YMCA into a competitive club and high school team swimmer. “The discipline and diligence that I gained during my time at the swim club has been invaluable to my success in other aspects of my life and career.”

From a very young age, Shalaka found joy in building, designing, and repairing items. When she was not practicing her stroke in the pool, Shalaka could either be found strumming a tune on the guitar or trying to fix a broken gadget. Her interest evolved from small household do-it-yourself projects in grammar school to designing bridges with CAD, creating circuits to illuminate bulbs, and printing LEGO blocks on the 3-D printer in high school. Today, as a rising junior in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, Shalaka’s academic pursuits have been as multi-faceted as her hobbies, ranging from tissue engineering to fluid mechanics and spacecraft design.

“Once I learned more about science and technology in school, my love of fixing became more refined with a focus on the world instead of a focus on bookshelves. Engineering gives humans the power to create solutions to the world’s greatest problems, which is something I have wanted to do all my life,” says Shalaka, who is also pursuing certificates in Applications of Computing, Engineering Management Systems, as well as Materials Science and Engineering. 

In high school, Shalaka entered a contest that used engineering to solve real-world problems. Motivated by the Syrian refugee crisis, she devised a plan to place 3-D printers and pre-developed shoe designs at major shelters. Individuals who are displaced from their homes often lose their footwear and are at risk of injury and immobility. The competition taught her a valuable lesson she carries forward in her work today. “Engineering is not simply about fixing, building, or innovating,” she says, “it requires implementation.”

No matter the project, Shalaka is always thinking about how the solution would fit practically into the real world. With a strong interest in biology, she worked in Professor Daniel Cohen’s Lab last semester characterizing a stencil cutter for application in the study of tissue expansion and wound healing. She also worked with Professor Sujit Datta in the Chemical and Biology Engineering department to understand the behavior and directionality of flow through aerogels.  

This summer, she is pursuing aerospace engineering as an intern for the ThinSat program under the guidance of Michael Galvin. “ThinSat is a program where Universities across the country design small-scale space exploration missions and build payloads that will go up into space via a thin satellite,” she explains. “I am working on modifying and testing the flight software for our satellite as well as designing a pendulum shock test fixture in Creo to conduct shockwave testing on the satellite.”

“Shalaka has been working with me throughout the school year and her summer internship on various projects related to our first ThinSat, including custom-tailoring our ThinSat flight software, and testing all the various edge cases of its interaction with the official ThinSat ground station’s own data pipeline software, all to ensure that our orbital mission data gets downlinked to the ground successfully, even under all possible contingencies,” says Mike Galvin, Senior Technical Support in Mechanical Engineer at Princeton University. “She has also been working on building up our own in-house nanosatellite test facilities, by performing the mechanical design of a fully-custom pendulum shock test fixture, for testing the robustness of all our future nanosatellites to the shock loads that they’ll suffer during launch.  She absorbs new information like a sponge, and brings a great, positive attitude to every challenge.  She is a joy to work with!”

One of the things that separate Shalaka from her fellow classmates is her passion for both engineering and the arts. Her artistic interests also vary from music and comedy to photography. She enjoys taking classes outside her major whenever possible. Thus far, her favorites are: Economics of Music and History of Fashion Photography. Shalaka is also a producer of Princeton Tonight, a TV show on campus, and was a leader of the Theater Arts trip for Community Action Orientation. Always willing to expand her horizons, this fall Shalaka will also be leading a backpacking trip as an Outdoor Action Leader.

As a child when Shalaka wasn’t practicing to swim like Michael Phelps, she dreamed of becoming Hannah Montana. She even started her own YouTube channel in high school, called “The Pink Guitar Girl.” Shalaka sang, played guitar, made song covers, and learned about video editing, production, and sound editing. What she enjoyed most about posting videos on YouTube “was there was no need to be somebody else.”

Her experience with YouTube gave her an important perspective on social media and life. “It is very easy to focus on the bad and ignore the good. When making my channel I was genuinely afraid of being attacked online. The YouTube community showed me that for every callous person and ugly comment I encounter there are far more kind people and supportive comments.” Today, Shalaka says playing guitar is still her favorite pastime. “It is the perfect reprieve from all of the technical parts of academics,” she adds.  

From her early days in the pool, Shalaka has always taken pride in working towards a goal even when the going got tough. Her hard work came full circle this fall when she worked as an undergraduate course assistant helping other students in Multivariable Calculus for Engineering, a class she struggled with during her freshman year. There is no doubt there will be many more exciting payoffs in the future. And in case you thought she had forgotten—someday, Shalaka says, she will build that kilometer long pool.

-Carolyn Sayre