Michelle Hefner is exhausted.
The fourth-year student in the Biomedical Engineering/Chemical and Biological Engineering program is taking 16 credits, working up to 12 hours a week as a student ambassador, conducting research with award-winning faculty, and running the CSU chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, known as SHPE.
Not a lot of extra time to play guitar or teach herself piano, or just watch her beloved documentaries on Netflix. And with COVID-19, there’s definitely no salsa dancing with friends.
But Hefner is cheery and focused, not just for her own future but for an 8-year-old cousin who needs to see beyond her violent neighborhood in Cali, Colombia.
“She wants to be like me – she wants to study in the U.S. and go to Harvard,” said Hefner, who is 21. “I’m proud that I can have an impact on her. I didn’t have anybody like me to look up to when I was growing up. My mom was a huge role model for me, but I don’t have a step-by-step guide on how to do this.”
Hefner, who grew up in New Mexico near the Mexican border, initially started at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey but transferred to CSU to be closer to home. Hefner wanted to get involved and meet people when she got to Fort Collins, so she connected with SHPE. That meant participating in SHPE’s outreach to Fort Collins and Greeley K-12 families through “Noche de Ciencias,” or family science nights. Eventually, she became the fundraising chair and president of the CSU chapter.
“I got inspired by showing young kids science experiments and STEM, so they know that it’s possible,” she said, showing them that “I’m not just some prodigy – I’m just a regular person and they can do it too.”
Bringing people together
She has been active working with students and college leadership to increase the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Since Hefner became president, SHPE has hosted popular resume reviews with industry, expanded its social media presence and grown to 50 students.
As a result, earlier this year, the national organization honored Hefner as one of the three best chapter presidents for Region 3.
“This award isn’t about me, in my opinion. It’s about my peers that make up this SHPE family we call the Ramilia who work tirelessly and put their blood, sweat and tears into making this chapter the best it can be,” Hefner said. “This in no way was a one-woman job, and this is all thanks to all my officer team and the love and support from our friends over at the DPE.”
She motivates others, said Jacqui Goldring, Undergraduate Recruitment Programs manager who works with the ambassadors in the college’s Don and Susie Law Engineering Success Center.
“Whatever Michelle is doing, you want to be part of it,” Goldring said. “Michelle is a change-maker. She stands up for social justice and calls others to action. On the ambassador team, she serves as the Director of Fun. She plans and facilitates team building exercises while grounding the team in shared values of inclusion, trust and respect. She is working toward a better tomorrow and making a big difference today.”
Studying human health
Through her degree program, Hefner works on research part-time with Brian Munsky, a professor in Chemical and Biological Engineering with a joint appointment in the School of Biomedical Engineering. Hefner mostly works with Aga Burzynska in the College of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Human Health and Family Studies as part of the the Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Neurosciences Program.
“Michelle is a fantastic student with a diverse range of interests and a tireless drive for independent and interdisciplinary research,” Munsky said. “As an undergraduate research assistant working with Dr. Aga Burzynska’s group in the BRAIN Laboratory at CSU, Michelle recently catalyzed a new inter-college collaboration between Dr. Burzynska’s team and my own. Now, Michelle is adapting advanced machine learning codes to understand and interpret how extremely complex brain imaging data correlate with health and aging in human subjects.”
With all that she has going on, how does she stay organized? Hefner’s advice for first-year students is to get a planner and write everything down. She meditates for her own mental health. And to hear her talk, she helps other students understand the importance of teamwork and collaboration, especially in engineering.
“When you have a team, you should use them – it’s easy to balance when you trust your teammates,” Hefner said.
That’s probably why Maria, her 8-year-old cousin in Colombia, looks up to her.
“I’m pretty proud of the impact I’ve been able to have on younger students, whether through SHPE or my research or family and friends that I know in my life,” Hefner said.