Hannah Gazdus has always been crafty. She started off simple, making things with cardboard and clay. As a kid growing up in the Red Bank area of New Jersey, she would sell bracelets on the beach to fund her LEGO purchases.
“My favorite part of LEGOs were the extra pieces that you got in the sets that you didn’t actually use,” says Gazdus. “I had a special container of those because they were always Star Wars robot arms or odd shapes, and I would build little robots and other contraptions out of them. Finding those scraps and putting them together became more rewarding than the actual sets.”
She also loved telling stories, and would create videos with her friends featuring LEGO minifigures. Then, everything changed when she realized she could create more permanent stories by writing them down.
Now a senior double-majoring in creative writing and mechanical engineering, Gazdus sees her childhood play as a harbinger of her interests now: “That definitely paved the way.”
Gazdus was drawn to MIT by project classes such as 2.00B (Toy Design) and 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing). “It was so exciting to learn how engineering at MIT is not just technical but so creative,” she says. Initially she planned to focus on product/industrial design, but she shifted to machine design after taking 2.72 (Elements of Mechanical Design), in which teams of students are challenged to build a desktop lathe over the course of a semester.
“It turns out I love the way that parts interact and intricate mechanisms a lot more than aesthetics,” says Gazdus. “Which is funny because I am an artist, but now I like how things work more than what they look like.”
Still, as with everything she does, Gazdus finds ways to integrate her love of art into her engineering work. As a junior, she took 4.140 (How to Make (Almost) Everything), where she designed and built a paint milling machine, which streamlines the most physically intensive step in watercolor paint making. Part of the process involves grinding down pigments to finer and finer grains, a tedious and often non-ergonomic activity. Gazdus started to experiment with paint making in high school, and has since grown the hobby into an Etsy business called Wren In Flight, LLC.
“[The paint mill] became the first big technical project I’ve done at MIT,” says Gazdus. “I never had to take a step back and build something so completely from scratch. That project confirmed to me that this was what I was meant to do and led me on the path to machine design.” She continues to work on the mill when she has the time, though it is difficult with her busy schedule. Beyond her classwork and art business, Gazdus also has two UROP projects.
The first involves 3D printing biodegradable materials in the Media Lab. The material she works with is made from agricultural byproducts and fully biodegradable, and it breaks down much more quickly than traditional FDM filament. A dedicated maker who cares about sustainability, Gazdus is conscious of the waste generated by many rapid prototyping methods.
The second UROP focuses on increasing student agency in makerspaces, particularly for first years and underrepresented groups.
“I personally was a little intimidated my freshman fall and didn’t explore a lot of makerspaces for a while,” says Gazdus. “For me, I would have loved to have more support for that, or at least just to feel more comfortable. The overall goal of the project is to make these spaces more accessible for all students, and my role in that is getting students more excited about making and learning to make.”
Gazdus is working on developing a modular, scalable project for students of all skill levels to design and build a lightsaber within at minimum a single training session. She sees this structure as an alternative to the one-size-fits all approach often offered by makerspaces to introduce students to the available tools. Plus, it’s an aesthetically enticing project, which she hopes will help students over the hurdle of learning new skills in an unfamiliar space. It also scratches a personal itch: Gazdus is fascinated by production design.
This summer, she will work at the University of Auckland through the MISTI-Australia and New Zealand program on a plastic recycling project. Though, she admits, the desire to visit New Zealand was partly fueled by “The Lord of the Rings.”
When she was younger, learning about the set and prop design for these movies was one of the things that inspired her to become an engineer. “I would love, at some point in the future, to work on production design,” says Gazdus. “I’d love to be making lightsabers for Lucasfilm or swords for Weta Workshop.”
Gazdus will continue her work on machine design and makerspace access while she pursues a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Through it all, she continues to work on her fantasy trilogy. She completed the first novel for her undergraduate thesis.
“In everything I do, I’m a creator,” says Gazdus. “I’ll always be writing and making art while being a full-time engineer. I don’t know what specific role I’ll have in the future, but I know that what I’m doing right now, I would love to keep doing.”