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Class of 2016: Engineering, medicine, and philanthropy collide to inspire Lauren Cashman’s dreams

May 9, 2016

Lauren Cashman in the HRC lobby
Lauren Cashman will earn a bachelor's degree in biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech's spring 2016 commencement.

After visiting several schools, including a few in the Ivy League, Lauren Cashman knew Virginia Tech – where her family visited her older brother a few years prior – was the school for her. “I think I always felt that attachment and I wanted to come here. I applied early decision – and this was the only school I ever applied to,” the biological systems engineering major said.

The University Honors program and one of its living-learning communities sealed the deal. “Discovering the Honors Residential Community (HRC) existed was also a factor – it gives this small school residential college feeling, almost like an Ivy League company feeling, but within the fun and relaxed Hokie Nation.”

Cashman lived in the HRC from her freshman to now senior year, first as a resident, then as a resident advisor, and now as a senior resident advisor. “The HRC was the first place where I felt comfortable breaking out and meeting new people on my own – a place where I feel really safe that’s also helping me do well and get excited about school.”

Beyond the living-learning community, Cashman found a place and passion through the University Honors program. “In University Honors, there’s so much emphasis put on being comfortable interacting with faculty and finding campus opportunities and taking advantage of them. The reason I continue to love University Honors is it helps you find a path and go very far down that path so that your college experience can be unique,” Cashman said. “One of their mottos is ‘Make yourself interesting.’ I think that means to find out what makes you interesting and invest in it very deeply. It’s almost entirely because of Honors that I got to accomplish so many things.”

University Honors asked Cashman to represent the program in the president’s box at a Virginia Tech home football game. The president had invited students representing athletics teams and other programs on campus. Through that, Cashman made connections with faculty that led her to an undergraduate research project that solidified her career aspirations.

After cultivating mentors and guidance from that game, Cashman eventually joined Andre Muelenaer’s research team. Muelenaer is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Cashman worked with others in the lab to design a device for hospitals in low-income countries. “Low-resource communities experience widespread malnourishment. Particularly in infants, a symptom of malnourishment is that since their bodies are calorie conserving they can’t produce enough body heat so they can become hypothermic.”

On top of that, hospitals in low-resource communities are often understaffed, making it difficult to monitor all of the infants. Cashman helped design a device to overcome that. It includes armbands that go on infants to track their temperatures. Each armband sends the data via Bluetooth to a tablet or smartphone, independent of Wi-Fi or a cellular network. “By design, one nurse can hold the tablet which has temperature data for all of the infants in the ward,” Cashman said.

She will travel with members of the research lab to Malawi after graduation to test the device, including Andre Muelenaer; Penelope Muelenaer, assistant professor of pediatrics in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Ashley Taylor, graduate student in mechanical engineering.

“Dr. Muelenaer’s goal isn’t just to get me to Malawi but to have a project that’s important to me and relevant to me. I’ve spent a lot of this semester going to conferences to present on a device I’ve designed, and talking to other people who are committed to mitigating these health concerns in lower resource communities,” Cashman said.

“Lauren joined TEAM Malawi (Technology-Education-Advocacy-Medicine Malawi) in early fall semester 2015 as we responded to the call to develop a multidisciplinary program to respond to Virginia Tech’s visioning project, Beyond Boundaries, looking at the challenges of student preparedness, the campus of the future, new funding models and costs, and our global land-grant mission,” Andre Muelenaer said. “She will work side-by-side in Malawi with physicians, engineers, public health experts, teachers, and others practicing a model of community wellness to institute change.”

While in Malawi, Cashman will be looking for other potential projects that can assist the community that she can design for her master’s thesis. Cashman will return to Virginia Tech where she is enrolled in a five-year bachelor’s and master’s degree program.

Cashman will also begin applying to medical schools, as her ultimate dream is to practice medicine in low-resource countries like Malawi. She is drawn specifically to areas in sub-Saharan Africa through her work in high school and college with the non-profit Invisible Children, which seeks to mitigate violence in conflict areas of central Africa. “When I thought about my future career, I didn’t want my work with Invisible Children to fade into irrelevance. I wanted what I learned to be applicable.”

Long term, Cashman is interested in pursuing surgery as her specialty. “I think it appeals to the spatial way that I think and the engineering education to do surgery. When I’m in Africa, I hope to be able to observe some surgical theaters and see what needs they have – it’s very different than here, like sanitation concerns.”

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