Bioengineering Sophomore Takes Divergent Path to Speed School

April 18, 2023

By Holly Hinson

Jacob Frank

Jacob Frank didn’t participate in Science Fairs or join robotics clubs or take STEM courses. But the seeds of engineering were nonetheless planted early in his mind.

“Ever since I was very small, I’ve always been driven to learn,” said the Louisville native. “I’ve been analytical, curious, interested in not just why things are the way they are, but how they work.”

A Non-traditional Path

The Bioengineering student lost his mother as a young teen, and after some burgeoning mental health difficulties, he was homeschooled by his father through nearly all middle and high school. “It was mostly just me on my own with the computer, figuring out what I was interested in,” he said. “Engineering cropped up very early on as a potential choice, and it always really appealed to me because it seemed to jive with my personality.”

After high school and a gap year, Frank decided to go to Jefferson Community and Technical College (JCTC) to explore his options. “I thought, Let me look around and make sure I’m not just a gigantic nerd interested in cool science and engineering stuff and make sure it’s really what I want to do.”

Through his general education courses, he tried other professions: anthropology, psychology, accounting, law. “But it came full circle back to wanting to do engineering,” said Frank.

There were a few challenges in his way, including math. “When I started at JCTC and did entrance testing, they discovered I was only at a ninth grade level in math. I knew if I wanted to do engineering, I had to get real good at math real quick,” he said.

He spent several elective courses at JCTC on Algebra 1 and 2 and trigonometry. In addition, he utilized online resources like Khan Academy and Linked in Learning. “I was five or six years behind on what kind of math I needed to know, so in those early days, there were times where it was four hours a day of just doing math outside of everything else I had to do,” said Frank. “But it helped get me back up to par with where I needed to be, and I eventually got to a point where it really just clicked with me, and now I love math.”

What was it that made him want to take this challenge on? “A lot of it was just me,” he said. “I’m extremely disciplined and I also don’t view failure as a negative thing. Failure is just me learning what I need to do differently in order to succeed.”

From Surviving to Thriving at Speed School

Selecting Speed School was a relatively easy decision that felt like fate, said Frank. “Speed School had a prestige, and when I learned more about it and toured campus a little bit, it just felt right,” he said. “It felt like I was where I was supposed to be.”

While Speed School is renowned for its tough freshman calculus sequence, Frank said that wasn’t the hardest part of acclimating to an engineering school. “It’s the development of the analytical guardrails you have to have in order to tackle this in a concerted way because you can just freak out and go all over the place with it,” he said. “But if you don’t have the analytical engineering problem solving process to go through all of these classes, it won’t matter how good you are at math.”

How did he survive those early critical semesters at Speed? Learning to accept support from others was key. Peers, family, external supports and Speed School resources, faculty and staff all played a part.

“I had a lot of other drama going on my first year that made it really hard,” said Frank. “I ended up going back to my psychiatrist and they helped me work with my anxiety and my ADHD to try and get everything hammered out right,” he said.

Speed School itself has a lot built in to help you in the first few semesters, he said. “The entire faculty infrastructure, and during the calculus sequence, for instance, they offer Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) sessions that I would recommend to anybody, and of course, the REACH Center for math lessons,” he said .

Determining how he needed to study most effectively was something he tackled like an engineering design process.  “I tried something and I failed, and I adjusted as needed,” he said. “It’s just been in the last semester or so that I’ve figured out how I need to work to get things done and to get good grades and to feel like this is normal and this is the groove.”

Learning to rely on peers for support was a new experience for the freshman. “During my first semester, I was very anti study group,” said Frank. “I thought I could do it on my own, but as I have gotten to know other people I realized working in a group when it’s really flowing well is a much more efficient and engaging way to learn than just trying to hammer it out on your own,” he said.

“Once you get past freshman year into your sophomore year, it shifts from ‘Here are the resources’ to ‘You should know what you’re doing and you have peers,” he said. “As engineers, we’re expected to be able to go out and get what we need in order to do our job.”

Fostering relationships with faculty and staff on a more personal level of mentorship and development also contributed to academic and personal growth. Frank spent one freshman semester in the Bioengineering lab with Dr. Patricia Soucy, Associate Professor, Bioengineering, working on experiments with pig retinas.

“The lab experience was very rewarding,” said Frank. “Dr. Soucy was a big supporter and she really helped me develop,” he said. “My methods for how I keep track of things in my own life, in my notes, and in my coursework all came from that experience. As stimulating, and as interesting as the topic material was, I very quickly came to realize that lab work was not for me, but I learned what I didn’t want to do for a living, which is also very helpful.”

Dr. Soucy said as an instructor, she was impressed by Frank’s ability to learn so quickly and know that “perfect middle ground” of not just stopping when he doesn’t know something, but also not accelerating without asking questions and working out his plan A, plan B and discussing his logic. “In class, he’s always such a positive kid and I appreciate his excitement to learn each day. I know he will be a star alum for us one day.”

Reaching Out to Inspire

“I am a glass half full person, and since I was a teenager I have done so much self-development I’m at a point where I feel I’m being my best self. I have confidence in myself and my abilities. So even in my day-to-day life, I make it my duty to help other people feel confident, to inspire them, to want to do things, to get them to see that they’re amazing and beautiful and that they can reach their highest potential and do whatever they want to do, and that no one except themselves is holding them back.”

One outreach opportunity Frank had was to visit Moore High School with professors to give a presentation on what bioengineering involved in the industry.

“I didn’t go to high school, but I remember being a high-schooler and I know at least a good portion of those students are kind of like me. It feels like the world is out to get you and there’s bad stuff going on and drama. I felt like it was important to reach out and speak to them, especially me because I got a few minutes to talk about myself, what I wanted to do and where I came from.  I was homeschooled, I had a lot of behavioral problems, and I had substance abuse issues. But here I am a sophomore and I’m doing advanced calculus now for fun. It is not impossible, it is absolutely doable, and they need to hear that there is always a way to rise above.”

From Engineering Student to Engineering Professional – Finding FirstBuild

While exploring the different facets of bioengineering, Frank realized working in a lab was not to be his destiny, but taking a job with FirstBuild became a turning point in his career aspirations and his life. FirstBuild, an innovation hub sponsored by GE Appliances and located next to the Speed School Engineering Garage, was created as a space for engineers and product developers to dream up new products, often for the home. They invent new products and take them from conceptualization to commercialization, while at the same time seeking input from the community on their ideas and inventions. Frank is one of dozens of student workers at FirstBuild.

“FirstBuild has been an absolute blessing and an absolutely transformative experience for me,” said Frank. “It took me from being an engineering student to feeling like I’m actually an engineer.”

Early on, he was given the responsibility for designing an assembly line in the manufacturing process for a new product. Within six months, he was promoted to Assembly Lead, and now co-manages and mentors anywhere from 20 to 30 students.

“I get to mentor so many people and that really jives with my ethic, my philosophy on personal development and reaching out to other people and inspiring them,” said the sophomore. “I get to be in charge of these people and keep track of them and decide what they do for the day, and make sure the business runs,” he said. “But I also get the chance to inspire them and motivate them and just talk to them,” he said. “I know the name of every person I work with, and I know what they want to do, so I get to help them achieve those dreams and those goals.”

Frank also appreciates the trust to learn and stretch his skills in a professional engineering environment. “I get the privilege and the opportunity to work on something new every day and it’s almost always above my pay grade, something that a full time engineer should be doing, but I’m given the opportunity and the chance to tackle that and do it for them.

“Jacob stood out because right from the get-go he had lots of questions and wanted to know the ins and outs of why we do what we do and how we do it,” said Brenden Hoover, Manufacturing Engineer and Frank’s supervisor. “He just wanted to be excellent at his job.” Hoover said that as a regular assembly worker in his first six months, he found out that students gravitated towards Frank, that they liked his positivity.

“But the biggest reason we promoted him to Assembly Lead was because he could answer all their questions,” said Hoover. “If they wanted to know, ‘How does this product go together,’ he would be able to answer that,” said Hoover. “He’s naturally gifted at being able to solve problems and help people, and he would help them in such a way that they can solve it for themselves in the future, not just give them the answer but bring them along. He made every employee we have a better employee.  Engineering school is hard, and I think his story speaks loudly to those students who are struggling.

I think he’s got an opportunity to be in a leadership role and to have a huge impact on whatever company he ends up going to.”

For now, Frank is still working at FirstBuild, but has already received his welcome letter to start his first co-op rotation at GE Appliances beginning in August of this year.

Though he’s only a sophomore, Frank has a robust five-year plan which includes his co-ops with GE, graduation in May 2025, applying for the career development Edison Program at GE and getting his Masters in Mechanical Engineering to go along with his Bachelor’s in Bioengineering. Why Mechanical instead of Bio? “I originally chose Bio because it’s a blending of chemistry and biology and mechanics and physics, and it seemed very Jack of all trades,” said Frank. ”But it was during my time at FirstBuild that I discovered my passion,’ he said. “Working with the team of design and manufacturing engineers to take an idea, build it up, test it, prototype it, see, watch it go out the door and see people enjoying it.”

He’s particularly interested in making appliances more green and climate friendly, more energy efficient. “I can contribute to a higher purpose, even if I’m designing a microwave. I’ve found a way to define higher meaning in pretty much anything that I’m doing.”