Class of 2023: BEAM Outstanding Senior Laura Wenger
Research, design, building relationships, and a love for life long learning are just a few of Laura Wenger's favorite things.
Opportunities from change
Originally drawn to the Mechanical Engineering program, Laura quickly realized she enjoyed her biomed courses most, thus deciding to switch to a Biomedical Engineering major for the fall of 2020.
However, changing majors wasn't all that was different in 2020. The country was at the height of a global pandemic and many college campuses shut down with few on-site opportunities available. Knowing she didn't want to sit at home taking classes online, Laura began emailing her professors.
First on the list was Chris Arena, associate professor and director of experiential learning. Drawn to his background in medical device development and, at the time, seeing herself ultimately working in industry for a company such as Stryker or Medtronic, she inquired about research opportunities. And, she found them.
Design projects to developing relationships
Throughout her sophomore year, Laura worked on a variety of projects including an automated medication management system targeted at stage four dementia patients, a female urine collection device, a 'CathCap' medical device; and, as part of the HACD (Hemodialysis Assisted Cannulation Device) team for the JLABS Design Sprint. Throughout each experience, she took the opportunity to learn from her peers and absorb as much as possible. "I really enjoy researching and digging into areas I don't really know about," she explained.
However, it was during the summer between her sophomore and junior year where everything exploded - she found her passions, developed relationships that have continued to this day, and got her first patent. "I'm now Google-able," Laura shared with a laugh.
Working with the newly formed Carilion Innovations team, and through their partnership with Virginia Tech, Laura was one of the first students to participate in a six-week, summer internship, the Biodesign Experience for Undergrads. During the program, Laura worked with fellow BEAM students, Seth Jarvis, Leah Thomas, and Ryan McNeil on the Lymphedema Wearable Device project. "I learned so much from them. Sharing passions, figuring out how things work, and solving problems has been huge in expanding my knowledge by sharing and working together, " she said.
Once the summer ended, she continued to work with the team over the next two years to further develop the device, ultimately attending the Design of Medical Devices (DMD) Conference, hosted by the University of Minnesota. The team took second place in the 2023 DMD Conference Five Minute Pitch Competition for those medical devices showing the greatest commercial potential. Laura's peer-reviewed abstract was also selected to participate in a supplemental pitch competition for potential funding. Her abstract will ultimately be transitioned to a full paper in the ASME Journal of Medical Devices at a later date.
In addition to her coursework, maintaining Dean's List status all semesters, the lymphedema project, and ongoing research, Laura was a study abroad participant for the TEAM Malawi Experience, conducting needs assessments in five diverse healthcare settings. She's a BEAM student ambassador, part of the BME undergraduate curriculum committee, a Teaching Assistant for BMES 4984 - Wearable Bioinstrumentation, founding member of the Virginia Tech chapter of Engineering World Health, and a national member of the Society of Women Engineers. Laura also serves as the VP of Philanthropic Service for her sorority, Sigma Kappa.
The journey continues
Clearly, Laura has a lot going on, but there's no time to slow down. Two days after graduation, she will report for an 8 a.m. orientation and begin pursuing her master's degree in Prosthetics and Orthotics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Inspired by an internship with Virginia Prosthetics and Orthotics, she was drawn to the concept of working with patients, on an individual level, through customized orthotics and actively impacting their lives for the better. She knew she wanted to work with patients, sharing, "I knew I wanted to work individually with patients, to actually see them. It was important to me and I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't been involved with with the Lymphedema Project."
Reflecting on her time at Virginia Tech, and as a part of the Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics department, Laura shared some advice for her younger self, saying, "First, stop worrying about your grades. It may sound counter-intuitative, but when I gave up fighting for As and focused on learning the content, I learned so much more. My grades improved too."
She also stressed the importance of getting to know your professors. "One thing BEAM taught me was to take advantage of learning alongside your professors. Get to know them. They're really cool people with interesting lives outside of grading your papers. And, they all really care about their students."
As her days in Blacksburg come to a close, Laura is open to and ready for what the future holds, saying, "Growing in the program really prepared me for the lifelong journey ahead and for that I'm very thankful."