Designing, building, testing

Undergraduate research inspires personal discoveries

ZIBUSISO (ZI) DHLAMINI
Hometown: Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Major: Mechanical Engineering

More than 7,000 miles from home, Zibusiso Dhlamini settled comfortably into the Materials Lab in Butterfield Hall, the base for his engineering research.

For his senior project, he focused on building a tensile stage that will be used to test materials under an optical microscope. While this may sound like a straightforward undertaking, consider: Comparable professional-level stages purchased from a research equipment provider can cost as much as $30,000.

Working completely from scratch, Zi designed and built the system, then wrote the code to operate it, analyze the data and display the results.

Zi’s final design has roughly 90 parts – of which a third are custom-built.

“The work that Zibusiso was doing was very creative and beyond undergraduate level,” says Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ron Bucinell. “He was able to use all of his engineering course work and independently extend his knowledge of motors, design for manufacturing and machine design.”

Said Zi: “Professor Bucinell thought this would be a great project for me, and it was perfect.”

Zi presented his research at Union’s annual Steinmetz Symposium, a day devoted to research and creative projects in all fields. Here, he talks about what he loves most about mechanical engineering, the research process and life at Union.

How did you get involved in your research?

It was a continuation of preliminary research I started in Professor Bucinell’s lab the summer after my junior year. He received a National Science Foundation grant to work with a local biomaterials company that creates earth-friendly packaging materials. There are a lot of Union students working on different parts of this research project.

What was your role in the research?

Before we can produce and manufacture a new product, we have to know how strong the constituent materials are. Once we’ve analyzed their properties, researchers can use engineering theories and computer models to predict their behavior in the real world. My task was to build a device that allows these properties to be tested. 

Describe your relationship with Professor Bucinell.

Professor Bucinell was my senior project adviser, and he has been a great mentor. He pushes his students to learn more. He says, “You can do it. I have faith in you.” The design process is pretty long. You constantly have to go back and make things better. Professor Bucinell is very good at giving constructive feedback.

Has your materials research changed your view on everyday objects or structures?

I really noticed the different materials that are used in buildings and structures on campus. I am more curious about understanding how the individual components such as gears and chains interact to make everyday objects work. I am constantly thinking about how I could redesign the machines around me to make them better and searching for engineering solutions to everyday problems I wasn’t aware of before my engineering studies at Union.

Have you taken part in other Union research?

The summer after my first year, I was a research assistant for Professors Robert Olberg (Biology) and David Hodgson (Mechanical Engineering). I helped improve the 3D prey simulator, an apparatus that’s used to test how dragonflies track other insects. This also involved the complete engineering process, from design to production.

What was one of your early engineering experiences?

In eighth grade, in my boarding school in Zimbabwe, we had to turn the lights out at 8:30 p.m. I needed a way to study, so I made a lamp from old cellphone batteries, small bulbs and a toothpaste box. I mounted it on top of my wardrobe, and I was able to read until midnight. My friends were amazed when they saw the light coming off the box, but making stuff with my hands has always come naturally to me. My older brother was a tinkerer who made his own robots, and early on, I got very comfortable breaking down old radio parts and other mechanisms.

Why did you choose Union?

I liked that I could combine engineering with the liberal arts, such as classics and languages. I wanted to learn Spanish and French. Through my coursework, I now have full professional proficiency in Spanish, and I’m working on my French. I’m interested in classics, too; in particular how ancient civilizations solved problems with limited technology and resources. My first-year preceptorial was on water, and I was particularly impressed with the Roman aqueduct system. At Union, I also was drawn to the undergraduate research opportunities and the small classes that encourage strong student-professor relationships.

What comes next for you?

I will be applying to grad schools. Professor Bucinell has already helped me in planning my future. On campus, I took advantage of opportunities to network through the Becker Career Center, especially at its career fairs. I also reached out to other faculty who could guide me in my path. Union professors are very friendly and approachable and have an open door policy. You walk in, and they talk to you. That’s been really exciting for me. In the meantime, I was selected to be a Union Minerva Fellow in rural Ecuador for nine months. I’m stationed in Estero de Platano, a very poor village close to the center of the recent earthquake. I’m applying my mechanical engineering skills to civic projects and community development sites. Essentially, I’m helping with whatever the community needs.


What are you driven to discover?:

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