Engineering ambassador

Engineering ambassador

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Lexi Basantis made her mark at Rowan through engineering outreach, mentorship

Whether she’s tapping holes on an oscillating cylinder air engine, rustling up ring neck snakes, challenging middle schoolers to figure out an engineering concept, or taking an elbow to the chin in a co-ed intramural basketball game, Alexis “Lexi” Basantis is all in.

She knows no other way.

Take the air engine Basantis and her fellow Rowan University mechanical engineering majors designed, fabricated, tested and analyzed her junior year.

“I remember just sitting there, tapping holes and holes, surrounded by my classmates late at night,” she says.

Then, there was the herpetology class, which required her to catch snakes and identify frog calls.

“I was excited to dive on the ground for them,” she says. “I also loved my entomology class. It was so much fun collecting bugs. Frogs, snakes and bugs are all I talk about right now.”

Next, there are the hours upon hours she has spent volunteering in outreach programs for Rowan University’s Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, working with middle and high school students.

“I love being able to teach, to help them out and guide them. I’ve seen a lot of them grow up,” she says.

And that elbow to the chin? She needed stitches, Basantis says with pride…and a little bemusement.

“I’m really competitive in sports. I’m super aggressive. I like to play against the guys,” she explains.

Virginia Tech for biomechanics

Clearly, her Rowan experience has been defined by academics and involvement, service and more than a few stories. Now that she has graduated magna cum laude and prepares—after her third summer at NASA—to enter the graduate program in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech, Basantis is excited to work on issues that impact society.

What’s more, the outdoorsy, creative and outgoing Basantis is jazzed about combining both of her passions—engineering and the life sciences—in her study of biomechanics.

At Virginia Tech, she’ll work with Zachary Doerzaph at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, where she will study driver safety in distracted driving situations, as well as driver safety and ergonomics in self-driving cars.

“The work I do will be saving lives directly. It will be a new adventure for me,” she explains.

Recipient of the Irene Elizabeth Tracey Medallion for Excellence in Engineering, awarded to a senior who has demonstrated excellence in scholarship, leadership, service and character, Basantis in some ways grew up in the College of Engineering.

The daughter of two engineers—her mom, Melanie, is director of engineering outreach at Rowan—she attended the Attracting Women into Engineering (AWE) summer program for middle school girls. The program exposes girls to the broad field of engineering.

NASA’s WISH Program

Still, Basantis wasn’t thoroughly convinced she would pursue engineering as a major. But NASA’s Women in High School STEM Aerospace Scholars (WISH) program changed that. Chosen for the program while a rising senior at Shawnee High School, the Medford Lakes resident was one of only 100 females nationwide selected to participate in the program.

WISH students participated in online forums on STEM topics and then competed to qualify for a six-day summer experience at Johnson Space Center, where they worked with mentors to, in effect, design a mission to Mars. Basantis made the cut. She traveled to Houston, where she met NASA engineers—many of them female—and learned more about STEM careers through the free program.

“I’ve loved space since I was a kid,” says Basantis, whose father, John, is chief engineer for the V-22 Modification Program at The Boeing Company. “After WISH, I knew engineering was what I wanted to do.”

Rowan’s College of Engineering—“I think the Rowan engineering program is one of a kind,” she says—was a logical choice for Basantis, who minored in biological science. Though she had dreams of attending a large, Division 1 institution, “after the first semester of my freshman year, I knew Rowan was for me,” Basantis says.

“I had such a great Rowan experience. I would 100 percent choose Rowan again,” she says.

“I went into mechanical engineering because I like working with my hands. It was the best fit for me. I chose that with the hope of going into biomedical engineering later.”

‘A high point in my life’

Her sophomore year, Basantis independently researched engineering internships and found the Engineering Pathways Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She applied and was granted an interview.

“During the interview, I was sweating and shaking,” laughs Basantis, who exudes calmness, energy and positivity. “Getting that internship was definitely a high point in my life. It was a really big pat on the shoulder.”

The past two summers, Basantis has been a Pathways intern, working with NASA’s Mechanical Analysis and Simulation Branch to create and test satellites for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, which is part of NASA’s Joint Dark Energy Initiative. The mission will launch in 2024.

“I’ll see this project up until launch, which is crazy,” says Basantis, who will return to the Pathways Program again this summer before heading to graduate school.

Today, Basantis might nonchalantly start a sentence with, “So I was sitting at my desk at NASA…,” but she never forgets how special that experience is and how important it has been to her development as an engineer and a person.

“At first, I couldn’t believe I was there,” says Basantis. “There was a steep learning curve. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It helped me become more confident in my abilities and in myself. Sometimes I still can’t even wrap my head around the fact that I’m there.”

Though she had a post-graduation job offer from NASA—and another from Adidas in Germany—Basantis decided she needed to explore biomechanics before committing. The Pathways Program will offer her a fulltime job when she completes her fully funded Virginia Tech studies.

“I’m excited to go to a program where I’ll be using all of my engineering knowledge, but where it won’t be at the forefront of everything I do,” she says.

Engineering outreach mentor

An engineering ambassador of sorts for pre-college students, Basantis was an AWE mentor for years and also mentored students in the Boys’ Engineering, Science and Technology and Rowan’s Introduction for Students to Engineering summer programs. All programs required her to lead and guide students through STEM projects.

Since her sophomore year, she has organized an engineering sequence every other Saturday throughout the academic year to students enrolled in the Creating Higher Aspirations and Motivations (CHAMP)/Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) program. Basantis works with various engineering clubs and plans, coordinates and directs hands-on, engineering projects with CHAMP students in sixth through 12th grades. Annually, CHAMP serves more than 400 students from the City of Camden.

Basantis is a gifted mentor, says Winona Wigfall, director of pre-college programs in Camden.

“Lexi made the program stronger,” says Wigfall. “She motivated our students. She didn’t just show them how to do the engineering projects. She questioned them to get them to think. She challenged them.

“Her work with us was completely volunteer. Even though she has a very challenging course load as an engineering major, she was always there, October through April. We definitely have more kids thinking about engineering careers now because of their participation in the program.”

‘Think Like a Girl’

Basantis took her engineering education into a different realm when she joined with two other engineering majors, Megan DeGeorge and Gaby Rochino, to establish “Think Like a Girl”—engineering activities kits for girls ages six to 12. The kits, which earned $5,000 in seed money from the Rowan Innovation Venture Fund and also earned the team the top prize in the University’s Elevator Pitch Competition, are designed to attract girls to STEM fields—especially engineering. Basantis serves as chief operating officer and co-founder of the project.

“Only 14 percent of engineers in the United States are female. Girls in middle school don’t really know what engineers do. We wanted to develop a product to show them what engineering is like in the real world.

“It’s a project near and dear to my heart,” Basantis continues, adding that “Think Like a Girl” has challenged the team in a multitude of ways. “It’s the business side of engineering, integrating critical thinking and creative thinking.”

“Think Like a Girl” is a tremendous accomplishment for Basantis and her classmates, says College of Engineering Dean Anthony Lowman.

“Lexi has been involved with outreach for so long and she’s a great model for kids, especially female engineers and scientists,” Lowman says. “But ‘Think Like a Girl’ isn’t about continuing the outreach we’ve been doing, but building something and putting their stamp on it.”

Basantis has excelled in the college, Lowman adds.

“She’s a great, great student—engaged, unselfish and very dedicated to the college,” he says. “The students in the outreach programs know she’s there because she loves it. She’s very genuine.”

Basantis is proud of “Think Like A Girl,” of her outreach work—and of the education she has received in the College of Engineering.

“We’re all ‘Type A’ people, all trying to be the best,” says Basantis, who was her college’s student speaker at Commencement. “But you start working together on projects with your classmates and you start relying on each other for help. You become a family. It’s a really good experience.

“You also learn about resilience…how hard you can work, how hard you can push yourself.”