Fellowship enables recent grad to pursue newfound passion
Prosthetics and orthotics is a field blending engineering and artistry. For recent bioengineering graduate Allison Cerutti, her undergraduate research in the field propelled her to pursue graduate school. A fellowship from Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society, cemented that decision and took her to a two-year program at Northwestern University.
“It’s a weird combination, loving math, science and art,” she said. “But it’s the perfect trifecta of what I want to do.”
Cerutti is one of 40 engineering students across the country to receive a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship, which has been awarded since the late 1920s. Current fellowships provide $10,000 for full-time graduate study the following year.
She first learned of the fellowship after seeing a list of the fellows in the Tau Beta Pi magazine, The Bent, during her junior year.
“At the time, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation, but I noticed a lot of the bios featured students who were similar to me — they were Tau Beta Pi officers, had high GPAs, and they came from a variety of engineering backgrounds,” she said.
The path into orthotics — specialized mechanical devices to support joints or limbs — wasn’t without a few turns. As a freshman entering bioengineering, Cerutti thought she might research tissue engineering or artificial hearts, and by her junior year, was researching in the MU Orthopedic Laboratory with Ferris Pfeiffer.
As she learned more about orthopedic surgery, she became “bound and determined” to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), and was accepted into the SURE program at the Georgia Institute of Technology the summer before her senior year.
“I performed research on prostheses for cats — it made a great opening line on my grad school application essays,” Cerutti said.
While at Georgia Tech, Cerutti shadowed a graduate student in its prosthetics and orthotics master’s program who was making clinical rounds and, thanks to her background in bioengineering, noticed several ways in which the technology could be improved. Later, when researching career opportunities, she found that many in the field had technical backgrounds as well as a knack for craftsmanship.
“There’s not a standard prosthesis for every amputee,” Cerutti said. “You really have to get creative sometimes.”
She returned to MU for her senior year, determined to find a way to make grad school a reality. Remembering the list of Tau Beta Pi fellows from the year before, she applied for the award, describing how important engineering was to the future of prosthetics and orthotics.
She received notification that she’d earned a fellowship near graduation, calling it, “the best day, ever.”
Cerutti received the Tau Beta Pi Fife fellowship, which was named for James Fife, father of the award’s sponsor, William Fife, California Alpha ’21. Awards are made based on scholarship, faculty recommendations, extra curricular activity and the promise of academic achievement. Her master’s program at Northwestern University is a blended course that begins with six months of online courses, after which, Cerutti will relocate to complete the degree at the university’s Chicago campus.
“After the master’s program, you complete two residencies,” she said. “Two years out of the program, in an ideal world after passing all the board exams, you become a certified prosthetist and orthotist, a CPO.”
Once she has practiced in the field for several years, Cerutti said she would like to explore the option to teach future CPOs as a master’s program instructor, hoping future students may have the same experience learning from her as she did her teachers.
“Already in my grad school courses, I find myself referencing what I’ve learned from my Mizzou professors,” she said.