Undergraduate researcher Ashley Sanchez is one to watch

Undergraduate research, study-abroad programs and close proximity to her family are why junior Ashley Sanchez says she chose the University of Denver. And since her first day on campus, she has seized every opportunity she could: leading a student organization, designing futuristic robots and supporting other members of the DU community.

She decided to pursue her first major during an AP course in high school. “That class made me fall in love,” she says. “But I never saw that many women in computer science, so I took a leap of faith and applied to DU as a computer science major.”

Then, after a math class during her sophomore year at DU, Sanchez’s newfound love of addition made a second major an easy choice.

“I just realized how much I enjoyed math. Then I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just go ahead and add that major—it’s only a couple more courses,’” she says. “Computer science and math go hand in hand. They complement each other well.”

Sanchez put her majors to work as a 3D modeler in the DU Build-A-Bot lab during the summer after her first year, with the support of the Colorado and Wyoming Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CO-WY AMP). She supplied the lab with 3D and resin printers when she was awarded a Partners in Scholarship (PinS) grant that fall, enabling the lab to pursue new methods of research and design.

The lab, which created gamified robot-building software, researches how humans interpret the shape, arrangement and function of different robotics components. Beyond purely functional design, Sanchez’s work with Build-A-Bot may very well influence how we interact with robots in an increasingly automated future.

“The outcome is seeing robotics incorporated into everybody’s day-to-day life—that’s what we’re trying to see—what a person perceives as a sad robot, a happy robot or an angry robot, to be able to gather those connections and create robots that can be used in our day-to-day lives for whatever role we them to merge into,” she says.

Initially planning to put her computer science degree to use in software engineering, Sanchez says designing novel components ignited her interest in robotics and how automatons of the future will become a part of our daily routines.

But undergraduate research is not the only way Sanchez has been keeping herself busy. After serving as the publicist for the Denver chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) throughout her sophomore year, Sanchez is spending her junior year as president, leading more than 50 student members and organizing for the group to attend the SPHE 2022 National Convention.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to be able to meet so many different people and make connections across campus,” she says. It’s an opportunity that, Sanchez notes, is particularly important for communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields.

“Being Latina, you really don’t see that many people that look like you in the [STEM] workforce. So, trying to find a family—SHPE—finding that, and then being able to go to these conferences and see people who look like you and speak the same language as you do, kind of makes you see, ‘This is a place where I belong,’ and it makes you feel like you belong in the major that you chose,” she says.

Sanchez spent her second year on campus mentoring three first-year students through Equity in STEM (E-STEM), a multidisciplinary effort to create pathways to academic success and an inclusive environment in STEM.   Despite ongoing research, leadership and community engagement that has kept Sanchez busy, she’s also managed to find time as a peer mentor with Volunteers in Partnership (VIP), supporting economically disadvantaged high school students from Denver Public Schools through the college application process and helping them find their home at the University of Denver—just as she has.

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