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Teamwork Part of a Winning Formula for Engineering Graduate

May 13, 2011 — Roadblocks have never stopped Jamie Wright. 

Instead, the fourth-year student in the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science sees such obstacles as challenges that can be overcome with the right formula: self-motivation, a passion for learning, and teamwork.

Especially teamwork.

"Teamwork is the most important lesson I've learned as a mechanical engineer major at U.Va.," she said. "Every success I've had here has been the result of a team effort."

And her successes have been many. As a high school senior headed to U.Va., she was chosen for BRIDGE, an intensive six-week summer program for incoming first-year engineering students. She was also awarded the Louis A. de Cazenove Scholarship for incoming engineering students. Last summer, she approached one of her professors, Costin Untaroiu, research assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and asked to join his research at the Center for Applied Biomechanics. He agreed, and became her mentor and the technical adviser for her fourth-year thesis.

She is working with a team of graduate students and senior engineers to reproduce a mechanical experiment through an analysis that examines the material properties of human lower limb bones. The research could potentially facilitate better predictions of lower-extremity injury in automobile crashes.

Wright credits Untaroiu with teaching her about successful problem-solving as part of a team of engineers. "He gave me the freedom to shape my own project while giving me the advice I needed to learn and grow," Wright said. Research took her curriculum "to another level," allowing her to be a part of life-saving applications.

Early on, Untaroiu recognized that Wright's team spirit would make her an asset to their project. She made significant contributions by providing the methodology for the experiment, creating a project schedule and organizing a database that compiled all the necessary data.

Wright was self-motivated in every aspect of her work, Untaroiu said, from working with fellow students to senior scientists, in order to improve upon her research goals. She was always eager to learn new things and take on new responsibility. "Throughout the project, she displayed genuine passion for her research," Untaroiu said.

A passion for learning new things and solving problems has inspired Wright for most of her life.

She grew up in a military family and has lived all over the world, including Japan and Belgium. Frequent moves and constantly having to make new friends sparked in her a fascination with learning about new people, places and cultures. Later, at U.Va., this keen interest played out in Wright's involvement in the Society of Hispanic Engineers and Juntos Podemos, a pre-collegiate initiative program for high school minority students. She also tutored Hispanic/Latino elementary school students through a program at Madison House.

At U.Va., Wright first realized the importance of collaborative efforts in problem-solving.

"From a young age," she said, "being able to fix things and solve problems by myself gave me a thrill."

Thus, while a new first-year, she would often try to struggle through a difficult problem set or challenging project on her own, but soon learned to appreciate the advantages of working with others. "Brainstorming together you're able to reach this ultimate solution that many people contributed to," Wright said. She has also learned that "positive attitudes and determination really influence your success in meeting goals."

Among the biggest challenges in engineering, Wright believes, is being able to stay motivated in the face of adversity. She found that a supportive network can keep you encouraged to overcome setbacks.

"By cheering each other on, we can reinforce the fact that everyone is going to encounter obstacles, but it's what you do to overcome those obstacles that keeps you going," she said.

Wright hopes to become a biomedical researcher and use her engineering know-how to enrich the lives of others. How?

"Maybe work to develop a more ergonomic prosthetic for a disabled child, so he could jump and swing like his friends on the playground," she said. "To help someone reach a better quality of life would be the greatest honor for me."

by Liz Jones

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