MACON - It began in January.
Mercer biomedical engineering student Danielle Drury was named Georgia Engineering Student of the Year by the Georgia Engineering Foundation.
"I was really excited and surprised by that," said Drury, who learned that Mercer Engineering Dean Dayne Aldridge had nominated her for the honor.
But for the 22-year-old this was just the beginning of a long list of recognitions she would receive her spring semester at Mercer.
While she was knee-deep in her senior design project, Drury's euphoria about her new state title was beginning to fade. That is when she received word that she was one of an estimated 30 students in the country to receive a biomedical engineering graduate fellowship from the Whitaker Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to improving human health through the support of biomedical engineering.
With an estimated value of $111,000, the fellowship pays for Drury's tuition in the biomedical engineering graduate program of her choice anywhere in the country. She also receives an annual stipend for living expenses.
Drury is the first Mercer graduate to receive a Whitaker Fellowship. She said when she learned about the award she was feeling pretty stressed about her senior design project—the two-semester project all engineering students must complete at the culmination of their studies. But that stress quickly faded.
"This was huge," she said with a smile.
Dr. Edward O'Brien, chairman of the Biomedical Engineering Department, said he wasn't surprised that Drury received the Fellowship. During her four years at Mercer, Drury has continually impressed the faculty.
"In terms of scholastic achievement, she has a perfect 4.0 GPA. In my classes she didn't just get an A, but the highest A," O'Brien said.
He said her academic accomplishments are the result of a combination of "raw horse power" and "pure talent." Drury doesn't shy away from staying hours after lab to get a job done right. And Drury has more than a solid understanding of engineering theories. She can actually apply the theories in the lab as well—a task few undergraduate students can master. O'Brien said it's rare to find an undergraduate student so talented both in the classroom and in the lab.
"She's a highly intelligent person," he said of Drury.
And she's maintained this perfect academic record while remaining active in a laundry list of groups outside the classroom.
Drury plays in Mercer's Flute Choir, is a member of the Karate Club, volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, serves as a supplemental instruction leader and is on the University Special Events Team. And in clubs, she has been not only a member, but also a leader. Drury served as the treasurer of the Biomedical Engineering Club, the vice president of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, the treasurer of the Society of Women Engineers and the student vice president of Phi Kappa Phi honor society.
Yet, with all her studies and all her activities, Drury maintains balance in her life.
"She never appears flustered," said O'Brien. "She's easy going, but she does a bang-up job with everything she does."
That's no small feat for an engineering student. "Many engineering students find it hard to be active in outside activities. You don't make a 4.0 as an engineering student and do so many other things without being outstanding," Aldridge said.
Drury said she's enjoyed being active in activities outside of the classroom, particularly playing in the Flute Choir. "I love playing the flute. It's just fun. That's my stress relief," she said. "If I could've been involved more I would've."
Drury also managed to eek out some time to help her fellow students with their coursework. She served as a supplemental instructor for chemistry and calculus students. This means on top of her regular coursework, Drury met with younger students three times a week to review what they were working on in their classes—classes she had already taken.
She enjoyed the challenge of explaining a concept in a variety of ways to students and then seeing the "light bulb" go on when they understood the concept. "It's great when you know you've helped someone out," she said.
Helping people out is exactly why she has decided to become a biomedical engineer. In particular, Drury wants to go into tissue engineering. She hopes to learn how to basically grow a tissue that will replicate a specific tissue of the human body.
Drury decided this was the direction she wanted to take with her career as a result of what a close friend endured. He had to have an artificial heart valve implanted as a child. Because the valve was made of artificial material, he outgrew it every few years. This meant a lot of expensive and dangerous surgery at a very young age. By the time her friend was 23, he'd had three open-heart surgeries.
If biomedical engineers were able to engineer tissues that could be shaped into a heart valve, then the tissue would just grow with the rest of the organs, she said, meaning no more surgery. Drury said on top of the problems associated with growth, some artificial valves only last a certain number of years before they begin to break down, so people have to have the artificial valves replaced even after they're finished growing.
Drury got a taste of this fascinating field during an internship she had at Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues last summer. In the fall, she will use the Whitaker fellowship to attend Georgia Tech to earn her doctorate in biomedical engineering.
In addition to the Whitaker Fellowship, Drury was awarded a fellowship from the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi. But, she will not be using the $10,000 fellowship money because the Whitaker Foundation does not allow its Fellowship recipients to accept money from another source. "But I get to keep the title," she said with a smile.
Her commitment to excellence has also been recognized by the University. Drury received the Dean's Choice Award in her final semester at Mercer. At commencement, she was awarded one of the highest honors given by Mercer University—the Louie D. Newton General Excellence Medal. It is one of the two highest awards given to undergraduate students at the University each year that are based on a combination of academic scholarship and outstanding personal qualities.
Drury said this makes those "all-nighters" all worthwhile, quickly adding that she couldn't have gotten this far without the support of the biomedical engineering faculty. She chose Mercer because she liked the small class sizes, but the professors' helpfulness has surpassed her expectations.
"The professors here are incredibly supportive," she said. "They always have time to talk with me, even if it's not office hours. I think my mom feels like she knows them because I talk about them so much. And every time I get an award, I go into the BME [biomedical engineering] suite and tell everybody. They always seem just as excited as I do."