Making the Shoe Fit
In many ways, mechanical engineers are like superheroes. They look like you or me out on the street, but when they get to work they can solve almost any problem, big or small.
Gabrielle Whittle, E’21, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Northeastern, comes by her interest in mechanical engineering naturally. Her father is an engineer and she took particular interest in his projects as she was growing up. But that doesn’t mean her career interests after Northeastern are in a traditional engineering field.
Whittle is breaking the mold. She’s applying rigorous engineering concepts to something many of us don’t think about too much: making better, more stylish, more functional shoes.
You see, in addition to her passion for engineering, Whittle also has a passion for fashion. And her time at Northeastern has helped her foster her interest in both.
Making the most of co-op opportunities
To say Whittle has made the most of her co-op experiences would be an understatement. Her three co-ops have been completely different and yielded completely different lessons.
An underrated aspect of co-ops is that they can provide insight into what a student doesn’t necessarily want to do with the rest of their life. A co-op that doesn’t end up being a perfect match isn’t a failure at all, in fact it’s a great learning opportunity. That’s one of the lessons Whittle found from her first co-op.
“My first co-op was in the medical device industry, and it just wasn’t a great fit,” Whittle explains. “One of the reasons I chose mechanical engineering is because I thought I wanted to pursue a career in biomechanical technologies. And though I still have a strong interest in that industry as a whole, this co-op helped me rule some things out.”
Her second co-op was more of a traditional success story. It was with Flex (formerly Flextronics) where she learned more about the type of work and company atmosphere she truly enjoyed.
“I loved my next co-op. It was in California at a product design firm,” she recalls. “It was very hands-on and creative, and the environment was very fitting for me: friendly co-workers, nice weather, getting to spend all day building my ideas.”
In addition to her co-ops and classwork, Whittle is an active member of the Black Engineering Student Society (BESS) and recently earned the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) scholarship, which is offered as part of Northeastern’s new partnership with the organization. The scholarship will cover many expenses, including living expenses, allowing her to focus on academics.
“Being a NACME scholar allows me to network with other underrepresented minorities in engineering, gives me access to wonderful workshops and career-building opportunities, and is a prestigious distinction that to me, further validates how hard I’ve worked in my years at Northeastern,” she says. “And It feels very good to be recognized for that work.”
Third time’s a charm
Whittle has taken the idea of building her ideas and run with it during her third co-op. It’s part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s aftermarket co-op initiative headed by Professor Andrew Goldstone, whom she works with directly and is her advisor for the project, and Professor Rifat Sipahi. She’s spending her time creating a design for “convertible high heels.” As she describes, these shoes are both more comfortable and more functional than traditional models.
“I’m designing shoes that can be adjusted to be high heels or flats,” she explains. “I’m also looking at alternative, weight shifting sole designs that might alleviate some of the pain associated with wearing high heels.”
Whittle is ready for the next step. She hopes to launch the company as a business, and her post-Northeastern goals are big: “My hope is to one day have my own shoe brand that centers around the empowerment of women through comfortable and fashionable solutions.” In 2021 she won first place in Northeastern University’s Women Who Empower Innovator Awards in the undergraduate student awards category for her start up Phoenix Footwear.
In thinking about advice to give to new students, Whittle says, “Prioritize a healthy work-life balance. It can be really easy to get burned out, so it’s very important to incorporate fun and relaxation into your schedule.”
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