Lessons Learned by a First-Year Student
As a first-year student he did undergraduate research, worked at WREK Radio, participated in the Grand Challenges program, and worked as a DJ on the side. BME major Ben Warstler got a crash course in the ups and downs of Georgia Tech last year, and he wanted to share what he learned with prospective and incoming students so they don’t overlook Tech’s wealth of opportunities or invaluable support system.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up choosing biomedical engineering and Georgia Tech?
I've lived a lot of places in my life. I was born in Cincinnati and I've lived in Arkansas, North Carolina, Switzerland, and then I moved back to Cincinnati. I moved back in the eighth grade and we had the ability to take a teaser into engineering and robotics. We focused on VEX robotics, building little machines. That kind of sparked my interest in engineering. In another class in eighth grade, we had to research a potential career path for us. I researched and found biomedical engineering to be extremely appealing. I was really good at math and science and biomedical engineering is a great combination of the two.
My high school offered engineering classes so I took those all four years. The summer of my sophomore year I went to Duke for their talent identification program, which was focused on BME. I learned a little more. It was more of a camp than heavy academics, but at the same time you got to explore topics and I found out I really liked BME. I thought it was the future and decided it was something I wanted to do.
What first put Tech on the map for me, actually, was that one speech- Nick Selby's convocation speech from 2013. I thought that was pretty cool and it moved Tech from the back of my mind to closer to the front. As I did a lot of research about colleges I found that Tech was affordable and has a really solid engineering program, plus I have family down here. So those were the main factors. I came to the Connect with Tech program and I found the people to be really down to earth. People weren't stuck up. They were friendly, and nerdy friendly. Everyone here is at least a little bit nerdy and I really enjoyed that atmosphere. So when it came time to apply to colleges I applied to Tech through early action and the rest is history.
With a year under your belt, what is your impression of Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech has been extremely welcoming to me. I'm in the Grand Challenges program here at Tech, so I got really close with a lot of people very quickly since it's such a small community. I've gotten involved in a bunch of clubs, like the biomedical robotics club. I'm an operator at the radio, and I was able to get into a research lab within my first two weeks at Tech. I thought that was really surprising.
What problem are you working on in the Grand Challenges Program?
Right now our group is trying to tackle the problem of hospital inefficiency. There's a phenomenon called alarm fatigue, where over time people tune out alarms because they hear them so often. It happens in intensive care because there are so many machines and alarms. We're seeing if there's a way to reduce the number of alarms while making the most important ones more noticeable so they don't get missed. Our idea is a device that receives the audio from an alarm and translates it if it's a significant alarm, into a light that flashes outside of a door. That's our concept for a prototype.
What got you interested in working for WREK, the campus radio station?
When I came to FASET they had all of these tables around. I'm a DJ, so I love listen to and playing music. So I took a flier and showed up, and it was enjoyable. They don't play a lot of music you would recognize, but it's that feeling of getting to play music and explore what you may not already know. I trained for a semester and then got a Tuesday morning shift playing classical music.
It would be nice to get my own show. I would love that, so I could play more of the stuff I enjoy. Maybe I’ll be able to do that in my second year.
What other hobbies do you have that you were able to enjoy during the year?
I've DJed a few times. I got my equipment out for a hall party at Halloween. I love being in Atlanta. There are so many things to do. I've been to Ponce City Market a few times. And there are so many concerts. As a member of WREK radio I have the ability to get free tickets to some concerts, so as someone who loves music that's been a really great experience.
I knew nothing about Atlanta before coming to Tech. I grew up near cities, but never in a big city. I can honestly say that while living at Tech you don't even feel like you're living in a city. It's its own little world, which I enjoy, but also because it's in the middle of the city there are endless possibilities. You can go to Atlantic Station to watch a movie or downtown to Skyview or Centennial Olympic Park. There's so much to see and do. It feels like home to me.
You did some undergraduate research your first semester. How did that come about?
The first or second week of school there was a BME research fair. They had a bunch of booths set up with researchers and people were invited to come. I printed out my resume, which at the time wasn't that great. I went around and made connections and talked to people about opportunities. I gave them my resume. One of the labs contacted me after I gave them my resume, asking what I was interested and how many hours per week I was looking for.
That was one of the things I really like about Tech- the access to professors is pretty amazing. People respond quickly to emails, and you can reach out to anyone you want to.
The summer of my junior year of high school I did research at the University of Cincinnati's Integrative Biosensors Laboratory. Over that summer I helped a PhD student work on her thesis. I did research into different microfluidic ways to isolate cancer biomarkers.
I think having prior research experience was so helpful in getting the research position on campus. Everyone here is smart and has good grades. The students are incredible. Having that experience sets you apart. There are opportunities out there, and you have to search for them and be willing to go after it.
I am working in the Bio-Interfaced Translational Nanoengineering Group with Dr. Yeo as my research mentor. I spent a lot of time learning how to use an aerosol jet printer. What it does is take an ink and uses an ultrasonic atomizer to shoot the ink into the air in a fine mist, and then it sprays that onto a substrate and you can use it to print metals, or anything you want.
Being able to do research as a first semester freshman really blew my mind. That doesn't happen anywhere else. At many schools you have to wait until your sophomore or junior year. Being able to do it at a school as good as Tech is truly incredible.
What was the biggest challenge of your first year?
I definitely underestimated Georgia Tech in some regards, and there were some challenges because of that. My second semester I focused on my academics and making sure I got through my classes.
I discontinued my research a little while into the second semester, but I plan to go back to it. I realized I needed to focus on my coursework, but I left everything on good terms. It was everything I could have hoped for. I met a lot of great people and made some great connections. I learned a lot.
Tech has humbled me in a way. In high school you might be at the top of your class, but when you get to Tech you realize everyone is just as smart as you.
Was there anything in particular that made the transition from high school to college difficult?
I think the majority of the challenge was time management. You have a lot of free time (or at least you think you do), and if you don't spend enough time on homework, things won't go as you planned. The courses I took my second semester were a lot more challenging than the first semester, which was more like a review of high school in some ways. Those harder courses made me reach out and use the resources that Tech offers, like tutoring and help desk and those kinds of things.
Every time I reached out for help I felt like my needs were answered and I was able to bounce back and get caught up to where I needed to be, even if I was struggling with something and really lost. They were able to guide me through it and I was like, "Wow, you guys are so smart."
What’s the biggest lesson you learned during your first year at Georgia Tech?
You can't go through Tech alone. There are people and services that are here, and they're here for a reason. They're extremely helpful. You don't need to do it by yourself, and you probably can't.
What was a highlight of the year?
My best experiences at Tech have been on those nights when I didn't have anything planned and could do whatever I wanted. That's where being in Atlanta is great. What you do is up to you.
What plans do you have for the rest of your college career?
I want to study abroad, so it's time to start planning that. I want to go to Oxford or Galway. Galway has a really great BME program and Oxford is supposed to be a really fun program. You backpack around Europe for half the summer and take some classes and then you go to Oxford for the other half. I heard about both programs in GT1000.
I’m planning on joining the triathlon club and I’d like to be a mentor for the BME program. I'm also in a fraternity. I'm going to be the new member educator for Phi Kappa Psi. It will be like TA'ing but on a lesser scale.
Finally, what do you want to get out of your Georgia Tech experience?
I think ultimately what I want to get out of Tech is both research and internship experience so I can keep my options open. I want to go on to grad school or go into research and development after I graduate. I like hands on applications, and I think research combined with development could be very interesting. Getting a graduate school education could further enhance my knowledge and allow me to specialize in a field of interest like cancer diagnostics. I know Tech can prepare me for all of that.