Class of 2019: Engineering graduate student Whitney Tatem uses car crash data to improve safety
The first time she entered a university lab, Whitney Tatem knew biomedical engineering was the field for her.
In an introductory course Tatem took as a first-year student as an undergraduate at Bucknell, she participated in lab experiments. One in particular incited her love of biomechanics involving the use of motion sensor cameras to capture motion. With other undergraduates, Tatem used 3D motion capture systems to collect data to assess the gait of others and became intrigued by the gait change for a person depending on the shoes worn.
Tatem’s interest in biomechanics grew during coursework because she was learning about the mechanical aspects of biological systems, rather than focusing on the cells, specifically in understanding the entire organism and how the body mechanics function. Her evolving interest in how the human body reacted to outside forces, reinforced her decision to pursue graduate school to gain specialized skills and knowledge in the field of automotive injury.
“I’m passionate about biomedical engineering because the problems we solve are almost always to improve human health and well-being,” said Tatem. “What drew me in to the field was the human component. This is what motivates me each day, to be part of improving human lives.”
Now a doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the first of her family to become a Hokie, Tatem is using data to analyze how injury outcomes affect victims of car crashes.
Tatem’s introductory research experience at Virginia Tech began as an undergraduate summer participant in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates in the College of Engineering, which drew her to the biomedical engineering doctoral program at Virginia Tech.
“Moving this far south was a big deal for me,” said Tatem. “A few of my professors at Bucknell were Hokies, and they loved it so much that I wanted to check it out. They told me about the undergraduate research program and the graduate program. Conducting research in the Center for Injury Biomechanics lab over the summer solidified my desire to study biomechanics at Virginia Tech for graduate school.”
Currently, Tatem conducts research with H. Clay Gabler, the Samuel Herrick Professor of Engineering, in the Center for Injury Biomechanics lab, where she collaborates with other students and faculty on a variety of topics related to biomechanics and safety, specifically injury outcomes using car crash data.
She recently returned to Blacksburg after a brief internship in Sweden to analyze their car crash data. The internship with Folksam, the largest auto insurer in Sweden, gave Tatem hands-on experience in the field. It was through Gabler’s long-term connection with Folksam that he saw an opportunity for Tatem to gain company experience, in addition to her academic knowledge, by participating in this internship.
“Sweden prioritizes car safety and funds research to better understand and improve traffic safety,” Tatem said. “Dr. Gabler connected me with a company in Sweden to analyze their data and compare to our data in the United States, with the aim of improving car crash safety.”
Tatem has received several accolades during her time at Virginia Tech, including best presentation award at the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine’s annual meeting for student symposium, and was awarded a fellowship by the National Safety Council to collaborate with the government affairs team Road to Zero Coalition, which aims to end all traffic fatalities by 2050. She credits her time there with advancing her skills in applying her knowledge to technical applications in traffic safety.
Tatem, who will start her professional career post-graduation at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Structures and Restraints Research Division as a vehicle crashworthiness engineer, is excited to apply her knowledge and specialized skills in automotive injury biomechanics in her role there.
“I’m excited that in this position with the traffic safety administration I’ll have the chance to make a difference in the field of automotive safety,” she said. “It is one thing to publish papers, but it is even more satisfying to take that knowledge and put it into action.”
- Written by Laura Weatherford