“As a freshman, I sat through a class on electricity and magnetism and thought, ‘Why am I learning this? I’m never going to use it.’ Now I use it all the time,” says Elizabeth Leshen, adding that the material is more relevant now that she is doing work outside the classroom.

Leshen participates in UROP, MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which matches students and faculty in research partnerships, and where students have a chance to participate in cutting-edge research that actually can change the world.

Leshen, who majors in biological engineering, is now working on a microfluidic technology project. The goal is to develop a device and to test prototypes for a coulter counter, an invention that can lead to improvements in monitoring blood cell counts in patients who are HIV positive.

“The long-term benefit is that this device is a way to make blood cell counts faster, cheaper, and portable,” Leshen says. “It will help patients and is useful for doctors. Because physicians could do the test faster, patients could get the results and be treated more quickly.”

Leshen, who works on the project with a team of six, says she has learned not only how to work well as a team, but also has learned how rewarding it is to work with experimental data that repeatedly doesn’t work, and then suddenly it does. “It gives you this amazing sense of accomplishment,” she says.

Leshen adds that class work and hands-on learning complement each other. “It’s hard to understand in class why you’re learning a mathematical theorem, but when you apply it in a lab, you realize how important it is.

“Hands-on work also makes you realize how interconnected all the disciplines are. In this project, we use biological engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, and math. I’ve learned to mesh together every discipline and come up with something new,” says Leshen, adding that she also learned how to frame an experiment, how to set realistic research goals, and how to plan a calendar to continually see progress.

Leshen’s long-term dream for the future is that all governments become stable and help their citizens gain access to quality medical care and education. When she leaves MIT, she says, “I’ll do whatever I can to have international impact — whether it’s research or public policy work. But I don’t want to just target a small group. I want to work on something that will help people worldwide.”