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BYU electrical engineering degree powers $320K Columbia fellowship

After participating in BYU commencement this week, soon-to-be BYU graduate Steffanie Kuehn will head to Columbia University with a $320,000 scholarship to develop ways for devices to interact with the brain.

Kuehn, who is earning a BYU degree in electrical engineering, will pursue an all-expenses-paid Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. She turned down comparable offers from Harvard and UC-Berkeley.

She was similarly accomplished coming out of high school in Gilbert, Ariz. With a perfect 1600 on the SAT and a 4.0 GPA, she had her pick of universities, but decided to come to BYU.

"I knew a lot of kids who went to Ivy League schools or MIT and their experiences have been very different from mine," Kuehn said. "I feel so comfortable approaching professors, and there are so many ways for undergraduates to be involved because that is the focus of this institution."

But now the Ivy League has waited long enough. At Columbia Kuehn will be studying under Paul Sajda, director of the university's Laboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing.

"I was impressed with the breadth and depth of Steffanie's research projects at BYU," Sajda said. "She has an excellent background in hands-on, cutting-edge engineering. It is very impressive considering she's just an undergrad."

In grad school Kuehn will help create prosthetic limbs that could be connected to the brain and move just like a natural arm or leg. This kind of research could also allow doctors to help paralyzed individuals by modifying the spinal cord to receive signals again and transmit them to parts of the body that have been immobilized.

"I want to have a job that I'm passionate about, and I want to be directly involved in impacting people," Kuehn said. "Creativity with impact is how I see engineering."

Her passion and excitement stood out in her interview at Columbia.

"You get people who are enthusiastic but haven't accomplished a lot, and you get people who have done a lot but don't seem very enthusiastic about their work," Sajda said. "Steffanie is the best of both worlds."

As a junior, Kuehn worked on her program's senior project to create a quadrotor aerial vehicle that tracks a moving target. Senior projects are an opportunity to see what students can create without explicit instructions, said electrical engineering professor Clark Taylor, an advisor on the project.

"Usually with undergrads, you know what they're going to come up with, but she surprised me," Taylor said. "The computer processor they use is very small, and I expected them to get it processing at five frames a second, but her team was actually able to get it running at full speed, 30 frames a second."

While other teams borrowed their software from other sources, Kuehn wrote the software from scratch to make it more efficient.

"She has the drive to do everything well -- she pushes beyond the bare minimum," Taylor said. "She is one of the best students we have, and I expect her to do very well."

Kuehn's senior project success led to an internship with NASA's Robotics Group. She spent last summer working on the vision system for the next generation of planetary rovers.

"It was really fun," she said. "I wanted to see if space robotics was something I really wanted to do career-wise. And I liked it, but I think I like medical technology better."

Despite BYU's challenging engineering program, Kuehn has made time for side projects such as photography and graphic design, which she said help her stay balanced and sane.

She also worked in the presidency of the Society of Women Engineers this year to help break down stereotypes about women and science.

"The faculty has been really supportive of what we've been doing to recruit and retain women, so I definitely think we're headed in the right direction," Kuehn said.

Although she is very focused on academics, Kuehn is anything but boring, her mother said.

"She puts a lot of zest in the family," Barbara Kuehn said. "She is the adventurous and outgoing one."

Barbara Kuehn admitted that she is a little nervous to have her daughter moving to New York City, but is confident she will be successful in whatever she does.

"Gilbert is a lot like Provo, and New York City is as different from those places as it could possibly be," Steffanie said. "But I figure if you're going to live in New York City, this is the time in life to do it."

Writer: Camille Metcalf

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