Michigan Engineering News

Rachel Zhang stands in the Big House, adjusting her uniform

Built to lead

From the books to the backends to all the things the crowds never see, Rachel Zhang handles it all.

Update February 22, 2023 Rachel Zhang concluded her run as Michigan Marching Band’s 57th drum major with a performance at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. She will graduate this May with a B.S.E. in biomedical engineering and a minor in music.


Rachel Zhang: On game day in the tunnel there are hands reaching over the edge trying to give you high fives, the “Go Blue” starts a cadence that lines up with your pulse. My first game was just the most special experience. I remember jumping at the tip of the end here and as I ran I heard

That was the most special experience and I will be bragging about that for the rest of my life.

My name is Rachel Zhang. I am currently a senior studying biomedical engineering and pre-med and I have the incredible honor of serving the band as the 57th drum major this year.

My mom actually recommended adding Michigan to my list, my incredibly long list of colleges that I was applying to. 

The combination of I wanted to do engineering and I wanted to do pre-med. And the pre-med part is why I didn’t actually stay home and just go to Purdue. I did my little campus visit, I heard about the band too and the the Big 10 environment, the really beautiful relaxed nature of Ann Arbor. Everything kind of convinced me to come here and I have not regretted it since.

A lot of people are actually surprised of how many engineers there are within the band. We’re 40% engineers here, which speaks to just the surprising amount of similarities that there are between performing as part of this ensemble and being an engineer.

If you’re an engineering student or practicing engineering you’re very familiar with the cyclic nature of the design process. Same idea applies in rehearsal. Just the amount of hard work and turnover that there is and trying to perfect any single performance that we do. And then the other aspect is just the teamwork nature. Just like being an engineer you work on a team and at the end of the day it’s not about any single person’s performance, it is about the end product with 400 people collaborating at once.

The engineering curriculum here is no joke, but at least with my experience in the BME department, the faculty and the students are so supportive. I very quickly developed my little community, my study group of people I could ask for homework help for advice on what classes to take. Especially as an out-of-state student, trying to come out of my shell, having the band as a smaller community that I could establish my home first, it’s very fun and supportive.

My favorite engineering class is one I’m actually taking this semester, it’s called human ergonomics and it’s all about people-centric engineering, people-first engineering, where you will learn about some of the physical hard-science concepts, but everything is in the context of why is this important to the user who is using your product at the end of the design cycle.

If we’re thinking about the user from the very first step of the design process, your product is automatically going to be 10-times better because you’re projecting and you’re thinking ahead about all of the problems you may encounter

Thinking through my four years here as a Michigan student, as a member of the Michigan marching band, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is just that I am much more resilient than I ever thought I could be.

We had to live through COVID and deal with the challenges of online school, online like personal interactions, I’ve just learned that I can get through what I need to get through to achieve what I want.

Whether you’re watching this video for interest in Michigan or just general inspiration, my biggest advice would be to stick to your passions and interests and just work hard on whatever you want to work hard on.

Where you end up applying or when you’re talking to interviewers people can very easily see through fake interest in something. Being authentic and genuine is much more important and it doesn’t have to be what you end up pursuing and studying as a career, but hobbies and like your interests, your passions are what make you unique and special.

Finding those niches where you yourself are happy and thrive maintaining those through life is what’s most important.

Original story: Biomedical engineering student Rachel Zhang enters her senior year with a pretty cool side gig—drum major for the 125th Michigan Marching Band. It’s a lot of added time and responsibility for the West Lafayette, Ind. native along with her regular course load.

In addition to daily rehearsals during the week, a typical game day at home with a noon kickoff starts with run-throughs at 7 a.m. and ends after the last of the crowd has gone home 10 hours later.

Photographed in the Big House at the end of June, Rachel Zhang is an honors biomedical engineering student and a new 2022/23 drum major at the UM Marching Band.
Rachel Zhang practicing at the Big House. Photo by Marcin Szczepanski/Lead Multimedia Storyteller

But Zhang, 21, seems prepared to handle it all—from the books to the backbends to all the things crowds never see.

“The only pressure comes when I think about the invisible responsibilities of leading the band,” Zhang said. “From my experience, the drum major was an important role model and, honestly, a friend and support for band members.. The previous majors I had were real mentors through my first three years of college.”

After graduation, Zhang intends to take a gap year working in the medical field before applying to medical school. That year will give her the kind of patient care experience she needs to help her decide what kind of doctor she wants to be.