Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

Youssef Abdelhalim’s Journey to Becoming Passionate About Innovation and Engineering

9 minute read

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell us about your background

My name is Youssef Abdelhalim, and I am a second year mechanical engineering student at Northwestern. I'm currently starting mechanical engineering with a concentration in aerospace engineering. I am pursuing the BS/MS program, so I'm supposed to be getting my bachelors and my masters hopefully during my 4 years here at Northwestern.

What’s your dream job?

My dream job would be to either hopefully be an aerospace engineer or an automotive engineer. I’m on the Northwestern Formula 1 team and each year we build a formula car from scratch. We buy the tires and stuff like that and then we compete at the end of the year.

How did you first learn about Polygence?

At the time I was a Questbridge scholar, which is basically a program that's designed for junior low-income students who want to go to elite institutions but come from low-income backgrounds and usually are first-generation college students. There was a Facebook group chat with all the scholars and someone shared the link to Polygence, and that's where it all started. The student who shared the link was someone who was older and was a mentor.

I remember going to the Polygence website and seeing a lot of cool student projects on the homepage, and I was like, “this is exactly the stuff that I like doing. I like working on individual projects and I think right now would be a good time to do one.” So I just applied!

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Tell us about your first Polygence project!

Absolutely. My first project was a blast. I had a lot of time to get close to my mentor Herbert and he was a great person. He was also a fantastic engineer and a fantastic teacher. So, really, that was my first direct exposure to engineering, and my mentor made me fall in love with engineering. I got to present at the symposium, and I’m currently actually in the process of finding a patent for that project.

I basically created something that I called an AutoMelter. The way it would work is that there would be a bunch of sensors and the device would detect if there’s snow outside. If it detects it, then it would release the solution onto the driveway automatically to melt the snow and do it on a certain interval.

The reason I came up with this idea is because at the time I would be the one who would always have to shovel snow for the driveway, and I hated doing it. So the options were either you just shovel it with a good old snow shovel, which everyone hates doing or the more expensive option is an electric snow plow. The more extreme option would be having a heated driveway which is very expensive. So I wanted to build something that would be almost as cheap as a shovel, but as practical as a heated driveway or an electric snowplow.

That’s awesome! Tell me a bit about the process and the steps you took to make this project happen.

It first started with an idea from my first meeting with my mentor. I was sharing ideas, and he would tell me maybe that's too simple, or maybe that's too hard for the given timeframe that we have. We finally landed on an idea, and the process started by looking at existing solutions. So, as I mentioned to you, driveways, electric snow plows…there are pros and cons for all of these, and I was thinking about how I could make something that combines all of the pros and tries to minimize the cons as much as possible.

A good chunk of the project was spent on coding all the electronics because that was my first time ever having to work with electronics or embedded Python. So I had to do a lot of Arduino work and my mentor sent me a lot of resources to learn as I was going along so that was mostly the bulk of the project. And then there was the part where I built a tank. I built a tubing that the water would flow out of. 

For further steps, one of the things that I was thinking about was if I had unlimited time and resources I would have tried expanding this project further into a larger scale. Currently, cities use these big salt trucks that drive around after snowstorms and they’re bad for the environment and usually go out right after it’s been snowing for a while, so there’s still a window for accidents to happen. What I was thinking was if you use my product on a larger scale, you would have a water tower with the solution and you can have the tubes going alongside the roads, and it would just spread the solution onto the under the streets. This could be an automated and more effective solution that could prevent accidents.

So you talked about pursuing a patent, what’s that process looking like?

So after the project, a lot of people were telling me that this was a great idea and I should probably patent it. I got right into the process and I talked to the director at the time, her name was Staci Hill. She's just phenomenal, and she got me in contact with another Polygence mentor who had experience with engineering patents and he gave me a lot of feedback and connected me to some people. And now I'm working on filing the patent, which has been a lot of talking to lawyers back and forth, sending them information that they need. My mentor gave me a lot of information and saved me a lot of money by directing me to resources that weren’t as costly to get the patent. So that's something I’m thankful to Polygence for because I wouldn't have known that on my own.

Great, what was your second Polygence project?

My second project was investigating the current suspension system for Mars rovers. Over the past few years I've been seeing lots of problems with these rovers: they get stuck in the sand, and the wheels of these rovers are made of metal which can get eroded over time. So I wanted to work on a system that would prevent these things from happening, and what I came up with were mechanical walkers with actually no wheels at all. My project was inspired heavily by this guy called Theo Jansen. He's a European artist and engineer, and he built these kinetic structures that look like they’re walking.

Unfortunately, with this project, I didn't get to build a physical prototype just because it was super research heavy. In my research paper, I went through every single possible design step except actually physically building it. I had all the numbers, what exactly it should look like, and the animations of how it would walk.

You're in an interesting situation where you had two mentors. Tell us more about them and how they helped you!

My first mentor was Herbert and then my second mentor was Shail. Both of them were absolutely brilliant engineers. 

I think for my first project I needed significantly more guidance just because I wasn't even familiar with the engineering process. I'd never worked with Arduino's electronics. But Herbert was super patient with me. He was so open to hearing all sorts of crazy ideas, and worked with me to go through the thinking process of why it wouldn't be viable, or why it could be viable, instead of just telling me “no that doesn't work.”

When I was with Shail, I was in my freshman year of college so I had significantly more experience writing engineering reports with the whole design process. I already had a little bit more experience by the time, so I did a bit more on my own and I would reach out to Shail when I needed help, and he helped me with a lot of things like tolerancing and CAD. 

How did this learning experience differ from your experience in school?

Unfortunately, in high school, I never really got to experience anything like Polygence. I wish I had classes that were focused on working with someone on an idea. I was a great student throughout high school, but I just feel like my experience with Polygence was the closest that I felt to being an engineer in high school, and it's the closest resemblance that I have to my experience here at Northwestern. 

What was the most memorable part of your Polygence experience?

When I got an email about being invited to attend the Polygence Symposium!  I remember I was super happy and proud of myself, and I remember showing it to my parents. After the Symposium, I ended up also getting the most innovative design award, which is exactly what I felt like I was going for. It made me feel good about myself as an engineer, and I was really excited to actually do more of that stuff in college.

View Youssef’s presentation from the Polygence 5th Symposium of Rising Scholars.

What was the most challenging part of your project?

One of the big challenges was that it was all virtual and some of the work would have been significantly easier in person, especially because it was a lot of coding and wiring things together. So communication was definitely a barrier for my first project just because there were a lot of hands-on parts.

I found a small mirror online where you would put it on top of your screen and it would show your desk, so that was a pretty helpful trick to help me and my mentor out.

What are some adjectives you’d use to describe your Polygence experience?

Self-confident. As I mentioned, it was my first time seeing what engineers actually do, and that's when I started liking it. Innovative, because it was my first time doing something out of the box.  I never wanted to work in a field in the future where I just follow a blueprint. I wanted to be in a place where I get to design something for the very first time, and just iterate on it.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to do research? 

Absolutely do not stress too much about failing, because if you're doing something new, chances are you're gonna fail like 1,000 times, and it's very much an iterative process where

you need to go back and figure it out all over again. But that's where you learn the most, and it’s how I learned most of my coding skills, like how to debug.

What advice would you give for a student considering Polygence?

I would say definitely do it, and the reason for that is because this is one of the very rare experiences that you get as a high school student or even an undergrad to work on something that is purely your idea instead of someone else’s. It's not something that's easily accessible. I really recommend it because as I mentioned, it was my first time in high school feeling like a real engineer. I wouldn’t just lump it with undergraduate research or doing research with a professor because it is not the same at all. Both of them are fantastic experiences, and you will learn a ton from both of them, but it's very different working on your own thing as opposed to working on someone else’s thing.

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