Olin in Space: Grace Ahn ‘16

Allison Basore ‘20

After a robotics-filled career at Olin, Grace Ahn went on to work at Emulate, Inc., where she is currently a Project Team Lead. Grace has found amazing work with studying organ cells in space, and recently, a version of her team’s product was launched on the Falcon rocket.

Grace in front of the launch site for SPX16 in Cape Canaveral

Why Emulate?

Grace starting working for Boston-based Emulate after graduating from Olin in 2016.  She learned about them by taking the class Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assistive Technologies, where she designed a prosthetic arm prototype for a rock climber named Chris. Grace considers this one of the most meaningful design projects of her career. After working with the students in the class, Chris was impressed with Grace’s work and offered her a job at Emulate after graduation. More information about that project can be found here.


During her first year there, Grace worked on smaller scale projects that “...helped with discovering novel technologies in robotics and mechanical engineering, and implementing better ways to help current biologies and engineers do their jobs better.” One project she worked on was automating data collection in a biology lab. This project was able to reduce the number of hours biologists had to put in, often on weekends. Since then, Grace has transitioned to working full time on the discovery team: specifically on experiments putting organ cells in space.


Emulate is a revolutionary start-up studying human biology “...to understand how different diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health.” They make use of their “Organs-on-Chips technology” to expand the boundaries of experiments with human biology. Their website news page covers some of the amazing things the company is up to. Grace loves her job and appreciates the flexibility and work-life balance that Emulate encourages.


What is she working on now?

As part of the discovery team at Emulate, Grace is working on a fascinating project to study the effects of space travel and microgravity on different organ cells using organ chips. “Basically we had to build a refrigerator with automation, cooling, and storage into a tiny box - the size of two Kleenex boxes,” Grace says. By working with the NASA administration in charge of the launch, her team was able to get the first prototype of the box included in the Falcon launch. This first launch was a testing version for her team. Their device will be included in another launch in the spring that has real loaded cells. “Being able to do the first launch was super valuable,” Grace adds. Now she and her team are racing toward a deadline to iterate the first version and prepare for the next launch.


What is an average day at work like?

As the lead of the organ simulation project, Grace says she does a lot of up-front planning and scheduling. Since Emulate is a biology company at heart, she works with a lot of biologists. Grace says this requires detailed experiment planning since biological experiments have many time-sensitive processes. “The bio-engineering aspect is critical in terms of planning,” she says. Her team of five relies on her leadership to make sure everyone is on the same page with running experiments in parallel, making designs, and analyzing tests. Once the week’s planning is done, Grace spends time doing CAD designs, prototyping, running diagnostics and more, depending on where they are in the project timeline. “This is a high functioning, amazing startup environment,” Grace says. She enjoys the flexibility and work-life balance that she feels make her team more efficient.  


Grace filling her off-work hours with extreme activities

How did working in the Robotics Lab at Olin impact your career?

While at Olin, Grace spent a considerable amount of time in the Robotics Lab (Robo Lab) with supervising professor Dave Barrett. Her first summer after Olin was even spent doing research in the Robo Lab. “A lot of my growth as an engineer happened there,” Grace says. “As a young female engineer, I learned a lot about rapid prototyping, CAD, and manufacturing during that summer.” She enjoyed working with like-minded engineers and having the opportunity to experiment without worrying about making costly mistakes.


Grace reflects on how much she benefited from the guidance and encouragement of Professor Dave Barrett. His support gave her confidence that fueled the rest of her career as a mechanical engineer. Grace often refers back to the projects she worked on in the Robo Lab, utilizing the lessons from mistakes made, and referencing the design thinking techniques she learned. On top of it all, Grace likes talking about the cool projects she worked on, and the lessons they taught her.


Why Mechanical Engineering?

Coming into Olin, Grace was planning on majoring in General Engineering with a concentration in Robotics. After working in Dave’s lab, she found that a broader mechanical engineering degree would better suit her learning goals. Grace says that at her current position at Emulate, “...the biology is the bread and butter, which is a different paradigm for me. Having a more general understanding of engineering helps her understand how things work in other departments. For example, I’m not on the instrument team, but I understand how the instruments work. Understanding how the system works helps me build upon ideas to make the next generation of instruments, which is what the cosmic project I’m working on is all about. Automation, calculations, making models and even thermodynamics are all important for background experience.”


“If you want to work with other types of engineers, a broader understanding is better.”


Advice for Olin students?

With her extensive experience starting with the Robo Lab all the way through her work today as project manager and engineer, Grace has plenty of advice for past, present, and future Olin students. “I talk about Olin all time. I have learned how to communicate the important perspective I gained there. I truly feel like it’s one of the best educational programs out there - Oliners are just trained in a different way,” Grace says. At Olin, she also learned the importance of utilizing the strengths of others in each project.    


Grace appreciates Oliners for their “...high-functioning, high performance abilities, and their genuine interest in science and engineering. They want their stuff to work.”


Yet she cautions students from investing entirely in technical pursuits. “Use the other side of your brain too,” she says. While at Olin, all students complete an Arts Humanities, Social Sciences (AHS) Concentration as part of their course load. Once you’re out of school, Grace cautions that you have to challenge yourself to keep finding and pursuing your passions in those non-technical areas.


And finally, “Don’t let your job be your life.”

                                                                                                                                                   Grace enjoying her hobby of skateboarding

Posted in: Alumni Speak; Olin Employers, careers