U.Va. Aerospace Engineering Student Draws Influence From Family, Art

June 2, 2008 — "I was really caught in a whirlwind during the past month."

That's how James Thompson describes his recent run of achievement and life-changing events. The recent University of Virginia aerospace engineering graduate recently added the Ammon S. Andes award, the highest given to an undergraduate by the Sigma Gamma Tau national aerospace engineering honor society, to his prolific academic resume. In the previous month, he had also been accepted into the Stanford University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics' master's-degree program, supported by a National Science Foundation Fellowship.

As he put the finishing touches on his undergraduate education, there was only one thing missing — being able to call his father, Jim, and share his recent achievements. James' father, and his biggest fan, died in January after suffering a heart attack.

James' connection to his father, and entire family, drove his accomplishments. With an upbringing defined by exposure to both aviation and art, he often credits them as his inspiration.

Growing up, he admired two grandfathers who were pilots. Additionally, his father worked as a cargo operations planner for United Airlines, and his mother, Donna, as a manager for American Airlines.

This strong flight background gained a creative dimension as James witnessed his older sister Linsey's artistic talent and aspired to be like her. Even as a toddler, he would sketch airplanes, sometimes going through hundreds of sheets of paper a day. His artistic abilities continued to develop over the years. While in high school, his portrait of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking earned him second place in a statewide competition in West Virginia.

"I remember Linsey drew very organically," James said. "Just as with my own work, she was more interested in form than conforming to some geometric constraint. Her work was fluid, abstract and always exhibited terrific aesthetic appeal. I think this sort of unconventionality offers good, or at least unique, training for engineers."

Buoyed by a childhood that offered a balance of right- and left-brain experiences, James set a course to become a prodigious engineering student. While maintaining stellar grades throughout college, first as a student at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. and then at U.Va., Thompson didn't shy from taking on additional activities to enhance his education.

The recent Ammon S. Andes award comes from Sigma Gamma Tau, of which he served as local chapter president for the past year. As a president and member of U.Va.'s Solar Car Team, James helped design and build a solar car that will compete nationally. Working with the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering's Hy-V Program, James contributed to the field of hypersonics by researching several challenges associated with a scramjet — or supersonic combustion ramjet — flight test. Outside of the classroom, James operated the 16-foot remote-controlled blimp that hovered through John Paul Jones Arena dropping free calling cards to sports crowds below.

This enthusiasm for all things engineering quickly gained the attention of his professors.

"James is thoroughly devoted to, and passionate about, the field of aerospace engineering," said Hossein Haj-Hariri, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the adviser to U.Va.'s Sigma Gamma Tau chapter. "My first impression of James was that he is someone slightly more mature than his peers, and completely focused on being the best aerospace student possible. And it was the right impression. I am glad the national honor society concurs."

Throughout James' college years, his father was always there to offer words of encouragement. He says his dad always had a certain "giddy excitement" for his life as a student at U.Va.

"I spoke to my dad for the last time on Jan. 19 at one o'clock in the afternoon," James said. "He asked about the normal things — how my solar car project and research was coming along, and how school was going. We talked about the asteroid that was possibly headed for Mars.

"During that same conversation, our last conversation, I confirmed the date of my graduation this spring. He asked me to make reservations to my favorite restaurant in the area and jokingly asked whether he could wear shorts and one of his old T-shirts to the ceremony. He was really excited about seeing me walk across that stage, and I really wish he could have been there."

— By Zak Richards

About the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science

Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society. At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,200 undergraduates and 700 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology.