Cailin Casey ’20 awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Grant to study how aerial insects can inform engineering

Cailin Casey exploring Montana in the summer and the winter
Cailin Casey ’20 exploring her new home of Bozeman, Mont., where she is pursuing her PhD at Montana State University

While some individuals know what they want to do at a young age, others enter college as explorers, eager to investigate diverse paths, subjects, and possibilities. Cailin Casey ’20 is the latter, often interested in so many different things that it can feel stifling to choose just one. Fortunately, Gettysburg College’s liberal arts curriculum allowed her to explore multiple interests, discover a love of research and the sciences, and ultimately gain admission to a PhD program in mechanical and industrial engineering that led to a competitive Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Cailin Casey standing outside
Cailin Casey ‘20

“The greatest strength of my Gettysburg education was the flexibility to pursue multiple pathways,” said Casey who majored in Spanish and biology with a minor in mathematics. “I gained so many skills by not focusing on just one subject. For example, my writing is a lot stronger for taking biology courses where I'd write scientific or lab reports and also Spanish classes where I’d write critically about literature. Today, I’m able to write for both a scientific and a broader audience, and I know how to translate and communicate complex things in different ways, which will serve me well in my career.”

While Casey entered Gettysburg with a preexisting interest in Spanish, she stumbled upon her love of biology and research when she signed up for an “Introduction to Biology” class with Prof. Ryan Kerney in her freshman year. “I immediately liked it a lot. Everything we learned about DNA proteins and the interactions happening inside of cells was so interesting. I wanted to know more!” she said. “I learned that I’m a person who really likes understanding the nitty gritty of how stuff works, and also understanding things at the micro-level all the way up to the bigger picture systems.”

Today, as a doctoral student in Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, Casey knows a lot about the micro details of what makes airborne insects such masterful flyers. Her current research focuses specifically on how the thorax (the midsection of insects’ bodies) powers efficient flight in aerial insects and what implications that might have for the future development of technology like flapping micro air vehicles. This may seem like a very specific research topic—and it is—but Casey’s approach to the work is uniquely multi-disciplinary, positioning her as a highly valued member of her research team.

“I have biological knowledge and experience that my professors and my lab mates don't, so I can look at the same problem from a different perspective,” she explained. “I wear two different scientific hats: I do physical experimentation, looking closely at the biology of insects, while I also do computer modeling and statistics. I’m grateful I get to do modeling and physical experimentation because that multi-disciplinary approach captures my curiosity and holds my attention.”

Cailin Casey standing outside near a river
Cailin Casey ’20 on an immersion trip to Alabama

When Casey heard the news about her grant award from the NSF, she posted a message on LinkedIn crediting her unique liberal arts background for preparing her. It read: Today, the National Science Foundation affirmed my belief that my diverse education in Spanish, biology, math, and now mechanical engineering makes me a better scientist.

While Casey intends to use the NSF grant to continue working on aerial insects, she’s grateful that the grant is not tied to any specific project. She says, “If I discover a new pathway that I want to explore, I have the ability to pursue it without being constrained.” The grant comes with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, plus $12,000 to cover educational expenses.

Always energized by new challenges and adventures, it’s no surprise that when Casey was looking for an undergraduate institution, a strong study abroad program was high on her list of requirements. At Gettysburg, nearly 60 percent of students study globally for at least one semester and for the sixth year in a row, Gettysburg ranked as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country for students participating in semester-long study abroad opportunities, based on data collected by the Institute of International Education (IIE). The strength of Gettysburg’s study abroad program, as well as the college’s openness to student participation from all academic majors, was a huge selling point for Casey.

Cailin Casey standing in front of a beach wearing a graduation cap
Cailin Casey ’20 celebrating her graduation in Mexico, where she studied abroad.

“Studying abroad was my biggest dream, and at some institutions, if you’re a STEM major, you can’t study abroad. I’m so grateful that not only did Gettysburg encourage me to pursue all of my academic interests, but it also did so without me having to sacrifice other experiences that were important to me.”

While Casey is only in the first year of her doctoral program, she has a lot of ideas about where her future might lead. Some of those thoughts stem from her previous volunteering experiences with Gettysburg’s Center for Public Service (CPS), which helped her understand how much she likes helping others meet their goals. Through CPS, Casey ran a swim program, served as a mentor with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a social service organization, and taught English as a second language courses.

“I love helping people and I just really like learning, but I’ve never been one of those people who just knew what I wanted to do. I’m definitely a lifelong learner and I have a lot of different ideas about what my next step might be,” she said. “I’d love to do more with my Spanish language background. I’ve thought about doing written translation and editing from Spanish to English to help writers capture the nuances of the language when translating their work. I like helping people reach their goals, so I’ve thought about consulting on grant writing or improving proposals, as well, but who knows?”

Cailin Casey standing in a forest with her cap and gown
Cailin Casey ’20 celebrating her graduation in Vermont after her Commencement ceremony was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic

For explorers like Casey, the journey is the destination, and the sky is the limit.

Learn how studying the liberal arts at Gettysburg College affords lifelong learners, like Casey, opportunities to explore multiple interests and draw interdisciplinary connections.

By Katelyn Silva
Photos courtesy of Cailin Casey ’20
Posted: 07/14/21