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Spotlight on Students: Alyssa Henning

Alyssa Henning '11 is a member of the Phoenix Society.

  • Affiliation: Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.

When Alyssa Henning applied to colleges, she thought she wanted to major in biology, but soon after she decided she wanted to be an engineer. "I've always been interested in how life works—the chemical processes and how things go on inside the body," she says. "But I wanted to take that knowledge and actually do something with it."

Henning found that she would be locked in to biology at the other schools she applied to, but not at Cornell, with its motto of "…any person…any study."

"When I was visiting other colleges I asked about transferring into engineering but they said, 'You can't do that,'" she says. "But they are definitely true to the motto here. When I asked about it, they said, 'Oh, yeah, you can definitely transfer over.'"

To satisfy a longstanding desire to conduct research, Henning sought out a project she could contribute to. She found it in assistant professor Jonathan Butcher's lab, where she helps study the development of chicken embryos to advance the diagnosis, repair, and replacement of heart valves. She uses a new machine, the third of its kind in the world, to get the best image possible of a live embryo. "I really like venturing into uncharted territory," she says. "I'm doing something that no one has ever done before."

Henning carries on a Cornell Engineering tradition in the Phoenix Society, which designs and builds an effigy of the mythical bird to confront Cornell architecture students as they pass by the engineering quad on Dragon Day. "You want to build a simple, yet elegant, structure," she says. "It's a great way to say engineers have an artistic side as well."

A clarinetist since fifth grade, Henning has played in the CU marching band and CU Winds, which does musical outreach in the United States and abroad. "This year we went to a couple of Philadelphia middle schools," she says. "Next year, hopefully, we'll go to Costa Rica to bring instruments to children there."

Henning is on iGEM, one of the newest Cornell project teams, which plans to compete in the 2009 International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition. In preparation, the team observed the 2008 competition, won by a team from Slovenia that created and tested three vaccines. "It just blew me away, interacting with so many people with knowledge and experience in this new discipline," she says. "It was a side of biology you just brush the top of in class."

Staying in Ithaca last summer to take physics, Henning had a chance to explore the area's natural beauty. "I really love hiking. It's actually one of the things that attracted me to Cornell," she says. "There's so much more I can do here than back home."

With so many activities, Henning says she must manage her time wisely, especially with an engineering course load. "It's very challenging, but I like that, too," she says. "Working hard is how you learn the most. If it's easy, I'm not learning that much."

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