Among the many skills possessed by Justin Dubik, an engineering science and mechanics major and this year’s Outstanding Senior for the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, is ingenuity in applying engineering design to an unusual question: How well-crafted is your homemade pasta dough?

Using recipes passed down from grandmothers or the internet, hobbyists have long been making their own pasta. Homemade pasta can either be a delicious success, or it can result in the declaration of the sarcastic words, “nailed it!” For his senior design project, Dubik has led a team — working with Andrew Fugaro and Jamie Kraft, both engineering and science mechanics majors — in constructing a device that gauges a pasta dough recipe’s quality by testing its mechanical properties. The experience is one of many that have allowed Dubik to explore his creativity while studying at Virginia Tech.

“I love to dive headfirst into new waters and learn new skills while learning more about myself,” said Dubik. “Over the past two years, I went from having zero research experience to having worked on multiple research projects. I started working in a research lab my second year at Virginia Tech, and I quickly fell in love with the mission of the lab.”

Dubik works in the Soft Tissue Research: Experiments, Theory, and Computation by Hokies (STRETCH) lab alongside biomedical engineering and mechanics professor Raffaella De Vita. The lab focuses on characterization of mechanical properties of soft biological tissues with the aim to better understand and treat pelvic floor disorders. One in three women in the United States experience pelvic floor disorders, yet the issue is rarely studied or discussed. These women experience not only physical issues, but emotional ones, in relation to this disorder.

As they pursued a better understanding of pelvic floor disorder, De Vita and her team, Dubik included, were able to characterize stress relaxation properties of the vaginal wall in novel ways and published their research in the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering in 2019.

“Justin is one of the brightest, most enthusiastic and talented undergraduate students I have worked with,” De Vita said. “He has worked with great passion to collect and analyze experimental data. Through his contributions, he has demonstrated that he is an independent thinker and an outstanding problem solver. He is truly exceptional!”

When Dubik and his fourth-year classmates were tasked with completing a senior design project, the students began with brainstorming ideas, getting “out of the building” — a National Science Foundation program term — to find a problem to address. Dubik was a natural leader and communicator as he met with a variety of community members, from amateur chefs to farmer’s market vendors.

Following their conversations within the community, the team embarked on a project to design and develop a prototype for a simple safe-to-use, easy-to-clean device to test the quality of pasta dough recipes.

The team developed novel concepts for affordable mechanical testing and will be presenting it virtually this May.

“Dubik is an outstanding writer and public speaker,” said Chris Arena, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. “In my courses and in senior design, he asks such detailed, open-ended questions that illustrate his mastery of the material. He stands out in his ability to explain complex scientific concepts, no matter the audience.”

Dubik gave a TED Talk alongside other classmates from his engineering science and mechanics courses to discuss biomechanics in prosthetic design. During the talk, they presented a working servo-controlled prosthetic hand that responded to electromyography (EMG) signals through an Arduino microcontroller, which he helped to create.

In addition to his love of learning, he is passionate about service. Dubik volunteered for STEMABILITY, a STEM-focused college preparatory summer camp for high school students with disabilities.

Dubik is also a runner and has participated in Virginia Tech’s Running Club throughout his college years. He volunteered at Harding Avenue Elementary to teach students in their after-school fitness program. His volunteer efforts related to running also include volunteering at local track meets, the annual Hokie Half Marathon, and Virginia Tech’s Relay for Life.

“These experiences have been incredible,” Dubik said. “I have learned how rewarding the challenge of research is. I learned so much from Raffaella De Vita, and really, I owe my future to her and the STRETCH lab.”

Dubik’s dream is to become a professor after pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics.

While at Virginia Tech, he has received several undergraduate fellowships, including the Pratt Engineering Scholarship in 2017 and 2019, the Thomas and Frances Irvin Scholarship in 2017, the Alice and Dan Pletta Scholarship in 2019, and the Dr. Robert A. Heller Scholarship in 2019.

— Written by Laura Weatherford