In the middle of fall semester 2013, Lauren Vallez, an undeclared freshman, couldn't have engineered a more serendipitous encounter. While standing in line at Summit Marketplace in Anderson Student Center, she discovered herself, unwittingly, in the middle of a light-hearted debate between engineering professor John Abraham and one of his students. The student was attempting, and failing, to make his case for missing one of Abraham's classes.
"Apparently, he had to miss one of John's classes because he had to go out and buy dress pants for an interview, and John was telling him, jokingly, 'I don't think that's acceptable!' Then he turned to me and asked if I would let him off the hook." Vallez responded mercifully, and Abraham, as simple as that, acquitted his pleading pupil.
But afterward Abraham, a loquacious scholar, according to Vallez, turned his line of questioning onto her.
"After John freed his student because I said I would let him off the hook, he asked me what year I was and what I wanted to do with my life," she recalled. His latter, weightier question flummoxed her at first, but he followed with a series of queries – Did she enjoy writing? Did she love the sciences? Did she feel the need to help improve humanity? Did she want to travel the world? Together, they were his soft pitch that she consider an engineering major. Though he knew nothing of Vallez, other than her beneficent nature, he couldn't have posed his questions to a more veritable prospect.
"When I was younger I wasn't the type to play with Barbies," Vallez said. "I would play with LEGOs and set up trains. I'd draw designs of buildings. In high school I didn't have much exposure to engineering, but I took an architecture class because it involved creating things, which I really enjoy, so I think the seed has always been there whether I knew it or not."
Her leaning interests toward engineering didn't escape her father, who through the years had become well-acquainted with her penchant for applied physics – a science similarly steeped in discovery and creation. He suggested, prior to her first semester at St. Thomas, that she explore engineering as a career option.
In another stroke of coincidence, while in line, Vallez divulged to Abraham that for years she'd wanted to travel to Uganda. As it turned out, Abraham and his wife had adopted one of their daughters from Uganda, and he was more than happy to help Vallez turn her wish into a reality.
"Right then and there I decided I was going to Uganda over J-Term, but it took a while to convince my parents," Vallez said. Luckily, she had Abraham and his charisma in her corner. "At one point, he got down on his knees and begged my dad to let me go to Africa!" she recalled.
In just a few months, Vallez and her mother were bound for Uganda – Vallez's first trip overseas.
"We did a lot of bucket-list things, like going on safari and tracking gorillas in the rainforest, but I also wanted to prioritize visiting some orphanages," Vallez said.
Before she left, Abraham had helped put her in touch with a couple of orphanages in the country. Upon her return, she met with him again to seek advice on fundraising for the orphanages. Though she and her mother had carried food with them to Uganda to give as donations, Vallez returned home feeling like she hadn't done enough.
"When I got back, John and I brainstormed on more ways to help. In the end we decided school was the most important because – while I was over there I noticed that some of the kids couldn't go to school because they didn't have uniforms," she said. "While the food my mom and I brought was appreciated, I felt that food provides a few months worth of help, which is great, but there's no expiration date on the value of education. The benefits last a lifetime because it helps people help themselves."
With more guidance from Abraham, Vallez chose Oasis of Life, an orphanage in Uganda's capital city of Kampala. He also used his connections to ensure her money was wired to the appropriate people.
Vallez still had no idea at this point that her random chat while waiting in line for coffee would ignite a chain reaction of research opportunities, or that she'd unwittingly jumped into a current that would carry her closer to answering questions many freshman pose to themselves: What do I want to major in? What kind of work is important to me?
Soon after their conversation, Abraham had another idea. He'd promised the Guardian, a daily British national newspaper, an article on smart energy sources in the developing world, specifically East Africa. Because Vallez would be in Uganda anyway, would she mind interviewing Benon Twineobusingye, senior human resource manager in the Office of the President of Uganda for the article? Vallez enthusiastically accepted, and by spring semester, she was officially – as quoted in the March 2014 Guardian article, for which she is credited as co-writer with Abraham – a "freshman student of engineering."
While getting to know Vallez during her trip preparations, Abraham didn't have to think twice about asking her to interview such a high-profile political figure. “I spend my days working on challenging problems that I hope will make this world a better place. From powering remote villages in Africa to designing medical devices for patients in Minnesota," Abraham said. "And I am always in need of the most talented students to help in my research: Someone who has the unique combination of passion, intelligence, curiosity and diligence. Lauren has these attributes and more. Simply put, I need her help to create a better future for all of us.”
Working on the story was a momentous first taste of engineering for Vallez. She followed it up that spring with something a bit more traditional – ENGR 150, a 1-credit introductory course to engineering designed to give students an idea if engineering is for them – to make doubly sure she was headed in the right direction.
By fall, not only was she a mechanical engineering major, she'd also signed on as a teaching assistant for ENGR 150 and was assisting Abraham on one of his paid research projects for Smiths Medical, a St. Paul-based medical device company.
For this first project, Vallez made multiple weekly trips throughout J-Term and early this semester to a lab in Eden Prairie to run experiments.
Though Vallez doesn't have medical experience, she's not intimidated by the work. "Even though I don't know so much on the biology end of what we're doing, I'll be taking higher level engineering courses, so I'll be more prepared for things like heat transfer in medical tools," she said. "And John has already advised me on what courses to take this spring so he can use me over the summer, which I'm happy to do!"
Abraham is just as happy to have her on board. “In my research, peoples’ lives are literally at stake. There is very little room for error when you are designing devices that will be implanted into bodies, or trying to remove pathogens from dirty water that a village relies upon," he said. "I need the very best students who I can depend upon to recognize that while engineering is fun, it is also deadly serious. Lauren is such a student.”
For the foreseeable future, Vallez's research schedule shows no signs of letting up.
Later this spring she'll help Abraham and Plourde with the initial stages of a prototype that will convert air into water. For that, she's auditing a graduate-level course taught by Plourde in which she'll master the computer program used to make a model of the prototype. This summer, she hopes to return to Africa, this time to Kenya with Plourde, to work on a water purification project.
"I feel like I'm on a fast-paced and steep learning curve," Vallez said. "I'm really thankful that I bumped into John and for all that he's done for me. He's opened up so many doors. I tell him all the time how I feel like I'm forever indebted to him!"