Class of 2020: For Georgia MacKenzie, Art + Engineering = Design


Georgia Mackenzie is a University of Virginia cross country and track runner, a newly graduated biomedical engineer, and a painter and illustrator. She sees a connection in all of her pursuits.

Running is a team sport, but also a solitary activity, the runner largely in competition with herself. The product design work of engineers also is teamwork, but involves individual focus and intent. Likewise, with painting, the artist, working with intent, conveys in two dimensions depths that we all can share.

“I love being in competition with myself, pushing myself to do my best in everything I do,” Mackenzie said. “Long-distance running, and painting and high achievement in the classroom are about working hard and digging really deep; taking ownership and responsibility. Only you can control how you’re doing, only you can control your results. I find that challenge really satisfying.”

As an engineer, Mackenzie is particularly interested in design, the process through which products are born. This fall she will attend the Royal College of Art in London to pursue a Master of Fine Arts and a Master of Science in Innovation Design Engineering.

Born in the United Kingdom, it will be a homecoming of sorts for Mackenzie, who grew up mostly in Northern Virginia, but still has family in England.

With an artistic eye, Mackenzie gravitated toward design work in engineering when she took a third-year course under engineering professor David Chen and “realized the power of using creative design in engineering, rather than just focusing on numbers and computations.”

“I was really inspired by how creative you can be in industrial design for anything from medical devices to hospital layout,” Mackenzie said. “It really fit my mindset.”

Chen had given the class an overview of the engineering field and had shown some design prints by the modernist artist Paul Rand and art director Kenya Hara, who designed the opening and closing ceremonies at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.

“That so piqued Georgia’s interest, she stuck around after class, excited to learn more about how to merge biomedical engineering, art and design,” Chen said. “Industrial design is a bit different then how biomedical engineers typically think about design, but I think Georgie is very well-suited for it.”

Mackenzie went on to teach in Chen’s course this spring, some of which had to be done remotely when classes were moved online because of the pandemic. “It was so great to see her apply her design skills to help her classmates realize their own potential for design,” Chen said. “A fantastic journey!”

“I’ve always liked drawing and illustrating,” Mackenzie said. “I really liked conceptualizing how the medical devices we were making worked in terms of helping someone we were making it for. One of the vital parts of product development is in story-telling, and that is done through illustration and design. You have to be able to convey your ideas to other engineers and to the clinicians who will use the products. I’m really passionate about that.”

Last summer Mackenzie participated in a clinical scholars program that brought her and a few other biomedical engineering students into UVA Health’s emergency and operating rooms to observe surgeries and other treatments and to think about instrument design alongside physicians and medical students.

“Doctors and engineers have different mindsets, but we were able to learn from each other and think about the design of devices for how they’re used and how design effects the patients,” Mackenzie said. “I will definitely use the skills I learned there for designing medical products.”

Regarding her artwork, Mackenzie enjoys doing large-format acrylic paintings that, over a canvas of subtle color, employ a single continuous line of paint to depict hands or faces. She developed the style in studio art classes she took at UVA using some of her elective credits.

“I enjoy the precision of this style of painting; the crisp, clear lines,” she said. “And I found in the studio art classes the same hard-working, intensive mindset of engineers, where you put time and focus and effort into the thing you create.”

Mackenzie’s paintings have twice been exhibited at Milli Joe Coffee in Charlottesville. “It was really cool to see a dozen of my big paintings on display,” she said. “That was really fun.” Her largest was 3 feet-by-4 feet.

“Georgia was a great student to have in my Drawing II class,” art professor Amy Chan said. “Her curiosity for learning showed in every project, and she was always willing to push beyond the parameters of the assignment.”

When Mackenzie completes her graduate training, she intends to be an innovator in the design of women’s health devices. “There hasn’t been enough emphasis on asking about patient needs and comfort in the design of gynecological and obstetric devices and treatments,” she said. “I’m interested in taking an empathetic approach in how we give women the best and most appropriate care possible.”

In the meantime, while waiting out the pandemic and looking forward to graduate school, she is painting and biking from her Northern Virginia home.

“Despite everything that’s happening in the world, I’m still able to create,” she said. “We can’t do much right now but stay safe and heathy. We can control how we spend our time and how we keep our passions. I always know when I’m doing something I love – time just slips away.”

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications