From climate change to food waste, WMU mechanical engineering student brings her ideas to life

Contact: Lindsey Haehnel
Renee Cilluffo

Mechanical engineering student Renee Cilluffo explores her talents and interests across campus.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.— Whether addressing climate change or the food waste crisis, designing for fashion shows, or pursuing a degree and career in a challenging engineering field, Renee Cilluffo has found opportunities to succeed in all these endeavors right on Western Michigan University's campus. 

“It is difficult to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field as a female, ethnic minority with diverse interests outside of engineering,” explains Cilluffo. 

Yet these difficulties haven’t discouraged Cilluffo from pursuing her goals. Cilluffo enjoys WMU for its robust science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program, the approachable staff and faculty, and opportunities to develop her skills inside and outside the classroom. 

“I chose mechanical engineering because I wanted to develop an intuition for how to make my ideas tangible and feasible,” explains Cilluffo. “Being a part of projects from conception to fruition brings me to life.” 

In collaboration with mentors, Cilluffo is working on a project to help mediate pressing issues in today’s engineering field. She currently works with Dr. Matt Cavalli, associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs, and Dr. Javier Montefort, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, along with leading researchers in biofuel technology including Dr. Mert Atilhan, associate professor of chemical and paper engineering, and Dr. Priyanka Sharma, assistant professor of chemical and paper engineering. In addition to WMU mentors, she also works with Mike Nellenbach, vice president of product innovation at Tekna.  

“Together, we are developing ecoCH4rge, the first small-scale, in-home solution addressing global warming and the food waste crisis by converting various waste into electricity utilizing the methane that is naturally produced from the waste,” says Cilluffo.  

Because of her dedication and passion, it is no wonder Cilluffo also holds multiple leadership positions at Western, including intramural soccer team captain, a peer student success mentor for the Lee Honors College and the vice president of the American Foundry Society (AFS), a registered student organization (RSO) in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  

“Serving as vice president of the AFS, I've gained exposure to leadership and negotiation with industry sponsors,” says Cilluffo. 

Recently, Western’s AFS chapter members attended the Wisconsin Regional Foundry Conference where they competed against other universities and came away with a first place overall win, as well as the Imagination Award. Evaluation of projects was based on the benefits to the end user, use of unique capabilities, overall quality, imagination and presentation. The team also received $3,500 in prize money for WMU’s AFS chapter. 

“Our goal was to develop a process for making cast components smart by integrating circuitry,” explains Cilluffo. “At regionals, we presented a piezometer sensor as our proof of concept where a touch of our part could send a voltage to light an LED.” 

And Cilluffo has found her fit with multiple other RSOs including the Western Aerospace Launch Initiative (WALI) and Formula SAE in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Merchandising Opportunities Design Association (MODA) is an RSO offered by the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Cilluffo participates in through both designing and modeling for MODA fashion shows. Cilluffo also participated in Starting Gate, a business accelerator program for students offered by the Haworth College of Business, in which she earned project funding as a Bronco Innovators recipient. 

“All of these RSOs have given me hands-on experience in manufacturing with different focuses on medium,” says Cilluffo. “I have been exposed not only with designing parts and systems to achieve a goal, but also optimizing a design for gating, assembly, manufacturing and ergonomics while minimizing cost.”  

Using the versatile experience she has gained, Cilluffo plans to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics after graduating from Western. She hopes to investigate ways engineers can utilize matter that is invisible to us to create new technology while integrating theory with design.  

“All I seek in the future is to innovate solutions to pressing issues, with ergonomics and sustainability at the forefront,” says Cilluffo. “I hope to work on ever-changing projects, no matter the medium involved.” 

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