Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Rebecca Hu ‘15: From Government Major to Wheelchair Engineer

By Anna Fiorentino
August 2015 • CoolStuff

Imagine a wheelchair that operates through a smartphone app—a wheelchair that doesn’t need anyone to steer it or wheel it away when it's vacant. This is the innovative technology developed by San Francisco-based startup WHILL, and the focus of the recent internship of engineering and studio art major Rebecca Hu '15.

"There is a negative stigma associated with disability that is perpetuated by ugliness and dysfunction in assistive technology," says Hu, who discovered the startup at angel.co. "I think WHILL and Thayer School have very similar philosophies—both excel in many different areas, recognizing that being good at one specialized task or field is not enough."

Hu, who originally planned to major in government, didn't start taking engineering classes until the fall of her junior year. "As I went on in my studies, I realized the upper-level classes in engineering were fascinating and what I really wanted to be studying," she says.

Rebecca Hu
Rebecca Hu '15 test drives the "WHILL Model A" in a department store.

Her decision to pursue engineering had little to do with the fact that her father, Thayer Board of Overseers member Christopher Hu D'69 Th'70, had also attended Thayer.

"My dad loved his experience at Thayer and spoke very highly of the school's quality of education, but I chose to study engineering because it was the right path for me," Hu recalls. "Thayer has been a great shared experience for both of us."

She says that her experience in ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering became the foundation for understanding how the WHILL wheelchair was created—especially in terms of its user-centric approach. 

WHILL, founded by Japanese engineers, has won numerous awards for its combination of design and technology. The wheelchair is not only Bluetooth-enabled, but also battery-powered, can travel up steep hills and over variable terrain, and its patented "All Directional Wheel Technology" gives the device a near zero turning radius.

In her role as intern, Hu utilized the teamwork skills she learned at Thayer to work with a team of eight on everything from customer home visits to routine wheelchair maintenance. She also represented WHILL at the Chicago Auto Show— the nation's largest and longest-running auto show.  

"I really enjoyed getting such a broad picture of how a startup operates and getting to actively participate in the process," says Hu, who plans to go on to obtain a master's degree related to industrial design. "What was most interesting to me about my time at WHILL was how each person in a small company has to take on such a multidimensional role. Each member of the team really took the time to teach me and allowed me to leave my internship with a greater understanding of marketing, sales, and hardware and software engineering."

Tags: career, design, extra-curricular, students

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