School and work combine to bring future into focus

| October 24, 2011

Engineering science major Sarah Lightbody made the most of the summer before her senior year. It began with a mission to help people in Ilheus, Brazil, and finished with a coveted internship at AREVA Inc., a nuclear engineering firm and contractor in Lynchburg.

Lightbody went to Brazil with faculty and other students in last spring’s Technology and Society course to test assistive devices they had designed during the semester for clients in an occupational therapy clinic. They worked directly with their clients to refine designs on everything from prosthetic limbs, which Lightbody’s group worked on, to an eye-blink communication device.

Lightbody returned from Brazil in mid-June to work as a process, methods and engineering tools intern in AREVA’s PME-A group, which supports its nuclear business groups. She says her involvement in projects like Brazil, which was a team effort with students at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, helped her land the paid position.

“AREVA was very impressed with the number of projects I had worked on in and out of the classroom,” she said, noting she learned from them the sorts of things you cannot glean from a textbook: “Collaborating with co-students in a different time zone, collaborating with an organization in another language and working toward a deliverable.”

At AREVA, Lightbody’s responsibilities included verifying software errors via an Engineering Application Software Index, developing a user manual for the index, and developing data management procedures and software configuration management processes.

The experience helped her understand what engineers in the nuclear industry actually do, she said. “That may sound obvious, but it is hard to imagine what your future job might be like while you are still in undergraduate school.”

Lightbody says observing her co-workers’ day-to-day tasks solidified her interest in project management, but at the moment, her heart isn’t steering her toward the nuclear industry. Instead, she is applying to graduate programs in biomedical engineering and hopes to specialize in prosthetics.

The Brazil project wasn’t her first experience working with the devices. Last year she was part of a team designing a low-cost but fully functional and cosmetically lifelike hand for her Summer Honors Research Project. It’s a complex challenge, however, and making a state-of-the-art hand accessible to amputees in developing countries is a long-term goal that won’t be accomplished before she graduates.

So she and fellow engineering students Kellner Pruett and Caroline Sorensen found another way to help people who can’t afford the latest technology. They are working with prosthesis manufacturers to develop and deliver a custom arm and hand device to their client in Ilheus by next summer.

“He is such an inspiring individual — he is just grateful to be alive,” Lightbody said of the recipient. “He and others like him deserve to live a more normal life, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Our hope is that this project will be continued for others like him after we graduate.

“I just can’t wait to see him put on a prosthetic for the first time; he’s been waiting for this for over nine years.”

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Engineering Science, Uncategorized