Michael Zakoworotny '21 - Exploring all that mechanical engineering has to offer

Michael Zakoworotny

Michael Zakoworotny ’21, mechanical engineering major in the Cornell Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, found engineering as an outlet for his curiosity early on – inspired to question “how things work” by influential teachers in school.

When choosing a major, Michael was drawn to mechanical engineering for the adaptability of its applications and seemingly endless concentrations. In the Sibley School, students study all areas of mechanical engineering, from materials and structures to robotics, to the science of aerodynamics. 

Michael was able to explore many areas of mechanical engineering during his time in the Sibley School, including computational solid mechanics. After taking Mechanics of Engineering Materials with Alan Zehnder, professor in the Sibley School, Michael pursued an opportunity to conduct research, working with Professor Zehnder and Professor Hui on a project concerning the fracture of soft materials, which include hydrogels.

Michael worked to quantify the dependency of the energy release rate – a quantity associated with fracture – of a material sample on its geometric parameters. The ultimate goal was to provide a formula for the energy release rate, which serves as a useful comparison for experimentation. He used finite element analysis throughout this project, a powerful computational tool to solve complex structural and mechanical problems.

“Michael came into the project as a sophomore knowing just some basic mechanics, but kept asking questions and trying things until he got his calculations to work,” says Alan Zehnder, associate dean for undergraduate studies and professor in the Sibley School. “ His persistence through ups and downs led to a journal article correcting the established and widely used analysis for fracture toughness testing of soft materials.”

This undergraduate research experience taught Michael to approach engineering problems and explain mechanical phenomena, by using both theory and computation in conjunction.

“I’ve been able to adopt a research-focused mindset and a passion for improving our understanding of novel materials,” says Michael. 

In addition to conducting undergraduate research, Michael is also gaining experience in aerospace engineering, as a co-lead of Design Build Fly, an engineering project team. Members of Design Build Fly develop, build, test, and optimize a custom radio-controlled aircraft to compete in the international DBF competition. He has worked on structural design and analysis on the team. One project in particular that he enjoyed was the design of a wing-folding mechanism. “This has been a great opportunity not only to work on creative design problems but also to develop leadership skills and serve as a mentor to others,” says Michael.

Michael was also able to explore the area of energy and sustainability while interning at TerraPower, a company that works on advanced nuclear reactor designs. The skills he learned through his courses in the Sibley School prepared him for his internship – contributing to the development of core mechanical analysis software. “It was fulfilling to work on a large-scale environmental sustainability project,” says Michael.

During his time in the Sibley School, Michael also had the opportunity to work on the Cislunar Explorers CubeSat project. The main goal of the project is to demonstrate the use of innovative technologies, such as water electrolysis propulsion, on a pair of spacecraft approaching a lunar orbit. “This project showed me the breadth of applied research MAE has to offer and allowed me to explore a passion for space,” says Michael.

After graduation, Michael will be pursuing a Ph.D., focused on the mechanics of materials, and eventually plans to work in research and development. 

His advice for students is to make connections in the department. “There are opportunities to learn almost any aspect of mechanical engineering you may be interested in, it’s just a matter of making the right connection. I highly recommend getting to know your professors, and upperclassmen, who are happy to give advice and point you in the right direction!”

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