When Breana Cappuccilli jokes about still not really knowing what she wants to do “when she grows up,” it’s not to cover for anxiety about still having a lot up in the air as she closes out her undergraduate years. In fact, in many ways, the mechanical engineering graduate has made an art out of keeping an open mind, embracing unforeseen opportunities, and “not knowing what my next step is until I take it.”
It’s hard to argue the approach hasn’t worked out well for her. She’s off to Purdue University to start a Ph.D. program with a full scholarship in hand following Sunday’s graduation from UM-Dearborn.
And it turns out, she does, in fact, have a few things figured out about herself. Her senior project is a decent shorthand for where her passions are taking her at the moment. It’s a prototype of a wearable wristband that uses low-voltage electricity to stimulate bone regrowth for people with osteoporosis; a device, she said, that was not-so-loosely inspired by her mother’s twiced-used Ab Shocker, an As-Seen-On-TV miracle that claimed it could get you fit while relaxing on the couch.
“We thought it would be cool to make something more beneficial than just giving someone a six pack,” Cappuccilli said, smiling. “But, right now, I’m just really drawn to biomechanical research; like, learning about the body and what causes injury or what happens with age. The human body is this incredibly complicated mechanical system. And the fact that you can bring it back to all these fundamentals you learned in your thermal fluids classes is pretty amazing to me.”
Her passion for the nuances of engineering is unapologetic and contagious, though the specific interest in biomechanics is a more recent discovery. Early on, she was tracking toward automotive engineering, following a paid co-op position with Ford Motor Co., testing innovative applications for aluminum. It was a defining experience—one that she said revealed her love of research.
But Cappuccilli also remembers feeling like she wasn’t totally ready to make a no-looking-back commitment to the industry. Her junior year, she decided to listen to the persistent internal voice telling her to add a dual-degree in bioengineering—despite it being “a little late in the game” to make such a bold move. Then, a routine assignment in a composition class offered up another nudge in that new direction.
“They made us write a resume for a specific job, and at first, I was like, ‘I already have a job [with Ford], I don't need to do this,’” she said. “But my professor encouraged me to take it seriously. So I found a research opportunity in Ann Arbor, where undergrads got to do graduate research. I put together my application, and since I’d completed it, I thought why not send it in?”
The simulated application led to an actual job—a short-term research post in a UM-Ann Arbor lab doing work on artificial cells. There, Cappuccilli spent the summer building tiny “bubble blowers” that made microscopic membranes—and she loved the work. With another experience tugging her toward a research track, she decided, with just five months to go before applications were due, to take a shot at grad school. Purdue was happy she did.
It’s all worked out just fine for Cappuccilli, even if very little of it was worked out ahead of time. She and her husband are now busy planning their pending move to West Lafayette, a place she said she chose, in part, because it felt like home.
“It’s a bigger university, but it felt small,” she said. “I’ve always done well at UM-Dearborn because I haven’t ever felt like a number; my professors are approachable and they care about me as a person. And the opportunities here just seem like they’re unmatched. Like, there will be an email calling out for student mentors, and you apply, and they write you back the next week telling you where to show up. It’s like you say you want something, and somebody’s there to make that happen for you. Honestly, I feel a little spoiled by this place.”
She admits to some nerves as she leaves a university community where a walk down the sidewalk means bumping into three people she knows. The future, in contrast, feels like “taking a road trip without packing a map.” Cappuccilli, however, seems to do just fine letting the road open up in front of her.