Strongwoman Finds Her Engineering Niche

ME senior Romy Fain, showing off her battery charger (which she lovingly calls "the duck"), has taken the circuitous route to end up right where she belongs at Berkeley Engineering. PHOTO COURTESY ROMY FAINME senior Romy Fain, showing off her battery charger (which she lovingly calls "the duck"), has taken the circuitous route to end up right where she belongs at Berkeley Engineering. (Photo by Romy Fain.)Transfer student Romy Fain came to Berkeley Engineering via a route that could have been plotted by Rube Goldberg (B.S.1904 Metallurgy). Originally a creative arts major at San Francisco State University, Fain ventured out as a touring musician, a bike mechanic, the owner of her own metal fabrication company and even a circus strongwoman before arriving in Berkeley two years ago to pursue her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Now entering her senior year, Fain believes she’s landed right where she belongs. “Every once in a while I just have to pinch myself,” she says. “I feel really lucky to be here.”

With plans to minor in materials science and go on to graduate school, Fain has thoroughly immersed herself in the academic engineering experience. Along with her coursework she is conducting independent research on piezoelectric energy harvesting, a technology that captures wasted vibrational energy by applying a stress to specific ceramics and polymers. As the outgoing outreach director for Berkeley’s Society of Women Engineers, she launched a weekly “Tinker Day” to give students hands-on exposure to engineering projects. Most recently, she started working as a student assistant in Professor Paul Wright’s lab.

“I always had an inclination toward mechanical things,” she says. As a child growing up in Texas, she often questioned how and why everyday items were built. Her mother encouraged her to do her own analysis and propose better designs. An avid cyclist during her early college days, she landed jobs as a bike mechanic and doing frame building and metal fabrication. In 1995, Fain started her own metal fabrication business and has built everything from custom motorcycle parts to furniture to large public art for the Burning Man festival.

While her passion for engineering grew gradually, she sees the field as a perfect way to blend her interest in science and math with her creative side. She studied performance art at San Francisco State from 1988 to 1992, building interactive sculptures and designing performances for dance and other events. She and her mother, both musicians, took a six-month tour of Alaska performing jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll standards and originals. At one point, Fain joined a counter-culture circus, constructing trick bicycles and performing as a strongwoman called Rominator X.

Fain's poster describes her work in piezoelectric materials. Her electronics case, which harvests wasted vibrational energy to charge portable electronics devices, could reduce the need for AC adapters, increase user flexibility and save energy. Click here to see a PDF of the poster. COURTESY ROMY FAINFain's poster describes her work in piezoelectric materials. Her electronics case, which harvests wasted vibrational energy to charge portable electronics devices, could reduce the need for AC adapters, increase user flexibility and save energy. (Photo by Romy Fain.)But the urge to return to school kept cropping up.

“It’s a really great feeling to come up with an idea and then make it happen,” Fain says. “I had the hands-on experience but felt there was so much more I could do with a rigorous engineering education.” After suffering a neck injury, she began taking classes at local community colleges to prepare herself for her goal of transferring to Berkeley.

Intrigued by the potential of piezoelectric materials, Fain recently designed a project demonstrating how a battery could be charged using a piezoelectric thin film, lead zirconate titanate, as a generator. She is now developing the concept to build a battery-charging case for portable electronics that lengthens a battery’s charge and lifespan by absorbing vibrations from surrounding movement. She will present a paper on the topic at the PowerMEMS 2009 workshop in Washington, D.C., this December.

“I’m tired of carrying around a power supply,” she says. “If we can figure it out, it could be a really elegant solution to the problem.”