The Graceful Engineer: U.Va. Student's Diverse Experiences Prepare Her for Challenges Ahead

May 10, 2010 — To review her list of aerospace engineering achievements, one could easily – and incorrectly – assume that Elizabeth Martin had little time during the past four years for anything but left-brain, analytical endeavors.

During her time at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, she interned at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and studied how fuel combusts in a mach-5 wind tunnel. She accumulated a 3.97 grade-point average in an engineering school where brain power is in no short supply, but an A-plus grade often is. She received Sigma Gamma Tau's highest undergraduate award, the Ammon S. Andes National Award, and the Lockheed Martin Distinguished Student Award.  

But she proved to be as elegant a problem-solver as she is a dancer. In high school, she danced 25 hours a week and even tried out for the Rockettes. Martin has been an active member of the Virginia Dance Company for the past four years and served as the group's vice president and treasurer.

"Dancing gave me a nice break from engineering," she said. "It has also given me more confidence to express myself, and that will be helpful in the engineering world."

While engineering and dancing would seem to consume her every waking moment – her scholastic achievements earned her fellowship offers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Cal Tech and Princeton University – she found time to volunteer with local elementary students, teaching them about the wonders of engineering. During her NASA internship, Martin helped teach elementary students through video teleconferences in the organization's Digital Learning Network.

She's also been a volunteer with the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly since 2008, greeting visitors and striking up conversations with kids who might follow in her footsteps. 

"Working with young students has been an eye-opening experience," Martin said. "In school, they hear about lawyers and doctors, but don't hear enough about engineers. I teach them how engineers can use their problem-solving skills in all aspects of life."

As one of the top students in her graduating class at Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology in Alexandria, Martin could have attended college just about anywhere she wanted. But her family connection to the University made the choice simple. Her father, Hugh L. Martin, a 1981 graduate of the McIntire School of Commerce, had been bringing her to football games and other U.Va. events throughout her childhood. She jokes that she was "indoctrinated" early. 

During her time at the Engineering School, Martin has developed problem-solving and leadership skills that will benefit her for the challenges ahead. 

"The U.Va. Engineering School gives you the opportunity to become a leader and learn about your limits and abilities," she said. "I believe I have become an independent thinker and I am happy that my work will benefit society."

In the fall, Martin will begin work on a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Stanford. She fell in love with the beautiful campus; it reminds her of U.Va. More importantly, she's drawn to a field that will allow engineers to better understand how cells work to engineer human tissue.

"I feel a strong connection to mechanobiology," Martin said. "When you consider that this field will show us how to engineer cardiac tissue and to determine mechanically how cells differentiate and function, the applications and benefits to society are very clear."

While the shift from aerospace engineering will be challenging, based on her record, she will likely handle it with grace and poise.

— By Zak Richards