Antonia Zaferiou: A Journey of Movements

Postdoctoral Fellow, Antonia Zaferiou, perfectly blends her interests to find her true passion

My childhood dream was to have a different job each day: dancer on Monday, singer on Tuesday, architect on Wednesday, doctor on Thursday, and artist on Friday. I had loving parents who encouraged me to dance, sing, build, deconstruct, and explore. I was enveloped in a world of artistic expression of moving and singing within, and through, different types of music. I am thankful that this cascade of influential experiences and people in my life eventually led me into my current fields of engineering and biomechanics. It all started in a dark corner of my grandparents’ home in Flushing, Queens, in New York City.AZ

I have fond memories of the basement in that house, which lent itself to highly competitive cousin ping pong tournaments, and building fort labyrinths in the empty basement bar. We were initially confined to an area including oval-framed, yellow-tinted grayscale portraits of distant relatives on the wall, a ping pong table, a stationary bicycle, a small couch (for whoever was on deck to play ping pong next) and the oversized bar we called “the cave.” When we were about nine, we were officially allowed into the back room.

At first we were all pretty scared of this room; it had been dark and elusive for so long. We would fight over who had the responsibility to go back there to retrieve the ping pong ball that snuck through the tiny mouse-sized hole at the bottom of the door to the back room. I’m not sure why we wouldn’t cover this hole with a couch cushion, but I suppose they were all used up for building our fortifications. The room’s cold concrete floor sent ominous shivers up our spines. There was a deep walk-in closet that smelled like something strange and old immediately to the right after entering. Now we recognize that smell as the odor from mothballs; it was a perfect grandchild deterrent. Beyond the closet, there was a large table centered in the room, loud laundry machines, a large sink, a dangling single lightbulb over the table, and a monstrous oil burner in the corner.

My grandparents used this room to teach us some important life skills. My grandmother taught us how to sew and do laundry, and one day, bored with our sewing assignment, my older cousin dared me to sneak past the oil burner. Clinging to the wall opposite the oil burner, carefully shuffling past its radiating warmth, I discovered a dark room with another dangling single light bulb that I was too short to reach. It was, in fact, my grandfather’s mini machine shop. The room had a single counter I couldn’t quite reach, and tools hung organized on the wall, the only one of which I could reach was his meter-long T-square. After telling my grandfather about my discovery, he started to teach me how to use some of the tools, like the vice, and how to create technical drafts with his T-square. I found out that he was an engineer, which meant that he could design, make, and fix things.

Around the same time, I can also recall the excitement and butterflies I felt when I was deemed ready for ballet pointe shoes. I was convinced that these shoes were going to be so much fun. Ballerinas effortlessly floated on the tips of toes, elongating their lines, spinning like tops, all due to these magical shoes. I had been so excited that for years prior, I would secretly build my own pointe shoes by stuffing Legos and blocks into my ballet slippers. Little did I know, the actual shoes would inflict the same amount of pain on my toes as did the Legos.

The dance teacher told my mother that because I was about to embark on this new pointe-shoes adventure, it would be very important for me to take more ballet classes and keep my weight to a minimum. I became a weight-obsessed awkward pre-teen, terrified to wear sandals that would expose my raw blistered feet. After years of this routine I still felt the ability to be lost in music when I would perform or take a dance class. But by the time I turned 16, I grew weary of ballet’s strict guidelines of artistic expression. Luckily I would find another outlet for this lifelong passion, only this time, I would find it in science.

As a junior in high school I had an energetic physics teacher who understood the importance of hands-on activities to embed physics fundamentals. He once brought us outside and challenged us to try to break an egg by throwing it as hard as we could at the blanket other students held as a target. Through exercises like this, I found – and was surprised by the fact – that physics came to me so easily. Ballet training developed my habits of perseverance and perfectionism at an early age. But finally I was a natural at something. I now had the tools to relate to the motion I observed in our surroundings, and indeed felt as a dancer.

I decided to take AP Physics the following year. My teacher, Ms. Pritchard, was a female engineer, and I suspect that she had a lot to do with the decision to apply to engineering programs. It’s not as if I remember the exact moment that this occurred to me, because at the time I was applying to 17 schools with interest in majoring in dance, singing, education, psychology, and/or physical therapy. But interacting with this teacher was when it all came together. I now realize that all of the moments leading up to that class – loving design and building, understanding what an engineer was from an early age, and being a natural at physics – were finally working together, pushing me towards my eventual course of study in engineering. Ms. Pritchard seemed to be able to have a career in both engineering and teaching, so maybe I could do the same. We were assigned a project to explain physics fundamentals as they related to our hobbies. I presented the “physics of ballet,” but didn’t realize that this was more than a project. It was foreshadowing of things to come, the very things I now study.

I strategically applied to The Cooper Union early decision for mechanical engineering. Just as ballet is a good base for other forms of dance, engineering, I thought, would provide a robust foundation to pursue other careers, and provide me with a hirable skill-set upon graduation. I was attracted to Cooper Union because it offered a full-tuition scholarship and was situated in the East Village. With its pay-it-forward model, I was excited to attend, and to be able to give back to the small and rigorous school after graduating. I knew that engineers help create the world that we want and need, but I wasn’t so sure how much creativity could be involved.

In my first semester at Cooper Union I was randomly assigned into a section of an “Engineering Design and Problem Solving” class led by an adjunct professor who studies sport biomechanics. This put biomechanics on my radar as a potential field of study I could use to weave dance into mechanical engineering. In the meantime, I persevered through chemistry and math classes that were completely unnatural to me. Finally, when classes became more hands-on, visual, and design-oriented, I flourished and acknowledged how natural and exciting engineering was to me. The professor who introduced me to biomechanics also helped me secure a research internship at a dance biomechanics lab. Eventually I was an undergraduate attendee of a national biomechanics conference.

At this conference I saw a flyer for a PhD studentship that must have been MADE for me: “PhD studentship focused on biomechanics of performing arts.” If someone had asked me to do so, I could not have written a more perfect opportunity for my interests. The next day I met the professor who posted it, introduced myself with my resume, shared a lunch with her, and secured the position. She has remained my advisor and mentor throughout my pursuit of a PhD. She guided me through developing my specific aims and designing my experiment to mitigate measurement error and challenge the performer sufficiently to reveal preferred mechanical strategies, using dancers as a model system.

Ballet dancers spend years undergoing very specific training. This leads to very well practiced, deliberate, and goal-directed movement patterns that allow for systematic research on the subject. Turning is something we all have to do in daily life to circumvent obstacles and navigate our surroundings. Dancers can perform multiple rotations supported by a very small base, and typically perform these turns in a position that makes it challenging to maintain balance. Our goal is to understand how dancers overcome these extreme challenges, in hopes of helping others who have physical limitations that reduce their ability to turn in daily life.

I have been using my mechanical engineering foundation to uncover the control strategies dancers use to push on the ground prior to different types of turns, and how they balance during these turns. I have also collaborated with the VA to uncover how older adults perform changes of direction during walking. I strive to creatively convey my findings so that a person who wants to learn how to turn can do so in a fun way. This may include developing systems that interact with a user in real-time to communicate mechanics through sound.

Through these collective pursuits I see that my creativity can be intertwined with research, so that I am a hybrid scientist-engineer-dancer-teacher. My dream is to uncover mechanisms as a scientist, and design creative interactive products, to provide these findings to an end-user in an artistic way. For example, I have been developing a system to provide real-time sound feedback to communicate successful patterns of how to push on the ground for balancing, weight shifting, and performing dance turns. By encoding certain force patterns into music patterns, a dancer can interact with music to learn about movement.

As a fellow of a NSF GK-12 and USC Viterbi grant, I had been given an unbelievable opportunity to partner with a local middle school science teacher to infuse engineering into the curriculum and learn how communicate my research to larger audiences (especially and arguably, the toughest crowd – middle school kids). They ask the best questions, ranging from, “Why do we close our eyes and tear when we yawn?” “How do rubber erasers erase?” and, “Can black holes collide?” to “Why are you studying how dancers turn?”

While I have learned a great deal from these students, the thing I can’t seem to overcome is the realization of how stacked the deck is against these kids. Engineering is not on their radar as something “cool” to do, especially for the girls. So I hope my work can inspire the idea that a really creative career can emerge from pursuing interests outside of school, in tandem with hard work in the classroom.

I believe that efforts to infuse engineering into K-12 curriculum, the popularity of characters like “Tony Stark,” and engineering-oriented toys like “GoldieBlox,” are monumentally important to promote engineering as the amazing and empowering field I know it to be. After all, not every student is blessed with supportive parents, an insightful and handy grandfather, and the opportunities I was afforded growing up in a good school district. I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that today’s generation of ballerinas can grow into the engineers of tomorrow.

Antonia Zaferiou
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Michigan

Originally from New York, Antonia earned a B.E in Mechanical Engineering from the Cooper Union and recently earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on the body’s control and dynamics during turning tasks. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She aspires to help individuals with control deficits by creatively communicating results of mechanically-founded investigation of movement performance.  Antonia is dedicated to teach scientific fundamentals in creative ways and is thrilled to participate in various STE(A)M outreach activities.

Philipp Wolf — My Single Greatest Motivation

Mechanical and automotive engineer Philipp Wolf tells the story of how one fateful June evening changed his life — and his studies — forever.

Philipp_Wolf_PictureI grew up in a quiet neighborhood, close to a beautiful green forest, in a city called Frechen – a peaceful suburb of Cologne, Germany, made up of 50,000 residents. I loved this place – not least because of the tennis club a few hundred meters up the street. I went there to practice almost every day, mostly with my older brother. My dad would also often take time off to take us to tournaments, and I had serious ambitions to become the next Pete Sampras. In my childhood optimism I thought my prospects were quite good.

Back in 1999, when I was 11, I can remember sitting at home in the living room with my mom and my uncle on a warm and clear June evening. We were all excited to go to my parent’s friend’s 40th birthday party, where my brother and I could play with fellow kids in their huge backyard. We were waiting for my dad to arrive home from work, and as usual he was running late. It happened fairly regularly. He ran his own company – a small business specializing in providing high-end dental prosthesis – and just recently relocated his Frechen office closer to Cologne to accommodate his main client base.

I was sitting on a couch next to my uncle who was in his twenties and would always play football or tennis with my brother and me in the garden. That day I was more excited to go to the birthday party, though. At quarter to seven PM I got impatient and picked up the phone to call my dad’s office. The answering machine picked up which meant that he was on his way. He drove a light blue metallic Golf III convertible. It wasn’t the newest car but I loved it. On weekends we would clean it together and my dad would explain me how parts of the vehicle work. He had a thing for cars. In the summer he would take me to tennis tournaments with the roof open and Michael Jackson tunes blasting out of the car. When he arrived home I would recognize him by the sound of the car’s engine, run to open the door and jump in his arms. He always worked long hours so I was happy to see him during the week.

At eight PM finally the doorbell rang. Strangely enough I didn’t hear my dad’s car, but was nonetheless excited to finally leave for the birthday party. Only, it wasn’t my dad waiting outside the door. It was two young policemen standing in the doorway. “Ms. Wolf?,” one of them asked my mom, “Can we come in?”

It was a peculiar scene. My uncle and me were sitting together on a couch by the wall when my mom came back into the living room and stopped right beside us, the policemen standing across from us right in the middle of the room. Their skin was pale, the looks on their faces serious, even anxious. Their uniforms accentuated their strong physique. Guns, bats and handcuffs hung around their waists. They looked utterly out of place, like a disruptive element in a peaceful sphere. The scene was one of ominous tranquility. Yet the man in the front who was about to break the silence had a soothing aura about him. He spoke with a steady, reassuring, almost paternal voice. But his eyes didn’t reflect that. His eyes looked sad and it seemed as if he had an inner reluctance to deliver whatever he was about to say.

“Your husband was involved in a fatal car accident,” he said. Silence. For what felt like hours no one spoke a word. An oppressive atmosphere filled the room. I didn’t fully get what he said. “What happened?,” I whispered to my mom. My mind was racing: car accident? How is he? Where is he? Can we go and see him? I looked at my mom for clarification, but she was just gazing back at the policeman with incredulous incomprehension. Then I turned to my uncle who was sitting there stonily. I noticed the policeman looking at me. I looked back. When our eyes met I could feel his unease, an inner struggle to stay reassuring, knowing the scope of what he just announced, knowing that with one sentence he just destroyed a family’s world, knowing that my mom lost her husband, knowing that I would grow up without my daddy. He saw all the things that I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to understand at that time. What I did understand though, was the feeling that his look left me with. I’ll never forget that moment, and it was then when I realized that something terrible had happened.

I heard my brother coming down the wooden staircase. Unlike me he understood immediately. He smashed his keychain on the ground with all his strength and started shouting. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Emptiness started to lay over me like a veil, leaving no space for emotions. The next thing I remember is lying in my bed, staring at the wall for hours, days, feeling nothing but grief and sorrow. People came in to pass on their deepest condolences, and while I knew to appreciate their support, I didn’t really care. Nothing mattered. Words wouldn’t bring back the person that I loved so much. I started questioning my own faith, my sense of everything. I tried to understand. I wondered if everything would have been different if I had called just a minute, or even a second earlier. I didn’t accept the truth and I was sure I would see him again someday. It took me a while to let go of that thought. Before the funeral I kept asking my mom if we can see him one last time to say goodbye. She would answer that I wouldn’t want to. It was one of the worst things for me, not being able to say goodbye. I’ll never forget when many years later she told me how she went to see the post-mortem examination report and left sick to her stomach after reading the doctor’s note: “heavily deformed body.” I was glad then that I didn’t see him again.

But in his passing, my dad passed on his passion for cars and technology. That is a piece of his legacy to me. It is also what has driven me on a mission to improve car safety. Motivated by my experience I committed myself to study mechanical engineering, eager to learn as much as possible about cars to continuously raise the bar of my ability, and propel me towards new ways of preventing others from experiencing what I and my family had endured. I got accepted to Germany’s top engineering school and made incredible strides. Much of this passion culminated in a design challenge, focused on creating parts for a small-scale formula-style racing car. The goal of the competition was to design, build, test and race said car against other teams around the world.

Our challenge was to reduce the weight and costs of the formula-style racing car by five to 10 percent. Being part of the suspension team, I chose to re-design the wheel hub and adjoining parts of the car. Aware of our affiliation to one of the leading engineering schools in Germany, we were determined to push the limits and go the extra mile. We didn’t want to just achieve the ambitious goals we set ourselves as a team, but also to come up with something special that no other team had ever implemented.

For this reason we chose to deploy a drive shaft – the part of the vehicle that connects different critical parts of the car, allowing the vehicle to operate as one machine – made from carbon fiber reinforced plastics. It has a much higher specific strength (strength-to-weight ratio) than steel, providing significant weight advantages, and most importantly to us, it was the coolest thing out there. High-end, high-tech racing teams use carbon fiber materials to explore their car’s full potential, and in our case it added the final touch to the carbon fiber look of our car.

However, using this material for the design of the wheel hub – which is how the wheels connect to the body of the car – brought about a whole new set of challenges. A stress-bearing, composite-to-steel connection had to compensate for the differing material characteristics, and the much larger diameter of the new drive shaft required a new connecting device. Not least of all, the new design had to ensure that the connection between drive shaft and wheel hub would allow for stress to be transferred without causing fractures or failure to any one part.

Fond of the idea to create something exceptional, I came up with a novel solution. I reversed the connecting area from the outside to the inside of the wheel hub, and made use of a self-reinforcing polygonal-shaped connector, rendering screws superfluous, and enabling a smooth transfer of forces. The design was not only implemented and successful, but it over exceeded the target cost and weight savings manifold.

Ultimately we did not win.  But it didn’t matter because the sublime challenges we overcame, not only as individuals, but even more so as a team, made us rise above ourselves professionally and personally to achieve what nobody thought was possible. For me this made us winners regardless of the competition. In addition to the challenges mentioned, we were among the very few first student teams to build not only a conventional racing car, but also a second electric racing vehicle for the first-ever formula student electric competition. Being affected by the financial crisis through our sponsors, the story behind our success was motivated exclusively by passion, team spirit and an aspiration for the extraordinary.

My studies equipped me with the skills, theories, creativity and courage needed to overcome the status-quo and make an impact for the better. But it is hard for me to imagine even pursuing these ambitions without that tragic, fateful night many Junes ago. That experience, and my family’s loss, remains my single greatest motivator.