Caitlin Bowman tightens a safety harness onto a study participant, telling them reassuringly that they won’t trip or stumble, that they’re just there to see how they walk.

After a few steps, the safety harness kicks in as the participant takes a simulated spill in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab in Industrial and Systems Engineering.

“If they know that they’re going to be tripped or going to fall, they’re going to walk differently and negatively impact their data,” said Bowman, a research assistant in the lab.

In the lab, research combines human subjects testing, biomechanics modeling, and computer simulation to improve our fundamental understanding of factors affecting human capabilities, as well as how and why injuries occur.

That hands-on experience is how Bowman defines her time at Virginia Tech and in the Department Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. It also helped in the drive that led her to become this year’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Outstanding Senior.

“The experiential learning was a very different education than I had previously had,” she said. “All the work in labs and clinics made me want to continue my education beyond my undergraduate degree.”

With the help of the P. Howard Massey International Scholarship, Bowman focused on prosthetics, an area of study that combines all of the disciplines within human foods, nutrition, and exercise.

For users, prosthetics can get expensive quickly, and Bowman, a Leesburg, Virginia, native, wants to bring equity to access of the vital health care devices.

“It’s important to understand that we have a privilege that not many people in the world get,” Bowman said. “We get to come to Virginia Tech and surround ourselves with people who have big ideas and the knowledge to implement them. We’re meant to share it to benefit people and the community around us.”

The goal, Bowman said, was to have one of the devices cost around $30, which could open a new set of doors to people around the world.

“It's a realistic solution for somebody who may not otherwise be able to afford this,” Bowman said. "Virginia Tech is a place that's willing to serve that segment of the population and partnered with a nonprofit to do this work. A lot of the other higher education institutions wouldn’t do this.”

As an aspiring prosthetist, the experiences Bowman had in the program at Virginia Tech changed the possibilities of her career. Bowman wants to work as a clinical researcher in the field as someone who conducts research but is also a practitioner.

“That concept didn’t occur to me until my senior year here at Virginia Tech,” Bowman said. “The idea of disseminating what we know in academics to the real world appeals to me because is so important.”

As a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Student ambassador, Bowman found additional ways to serve while a student.

“Since I transferred into the college, I’ve been really interested in helping other students make the choice that’s best for them because a CALS ambassador helped me do that,” Bowman said. “I want to be a resource for other students so they can find what inspires them to excel here at Virginia Tech.”

Caitlin Bowman simulates a trip in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.

Caitlin Bowman simulates a trip in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.
Caitlin Bowman simulates a trip in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.

The service and academic excellence led Bowman to her biggest award yet: being named the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Outstanding Senior.

“I was in disbelief at first because of everyone who was named the departmental outstanding seniors. I read through everyone’s biographies and they are all amazing,” Bowman said. “I’m just honored to be among them. To be honored by and recognized by a college and department that means so much to me and has given me so much is really special.”

What Bowman is really excited about, she said, is bringing light onto the field of prosthetics.

As a member of the Honors College at Virginia Tech, Bowman had the opportunity to create meaningful academic experiences that cross traditional academic boundaries through an extra project.

Bowman applied that freedom to consider potential gaps in nutrition guidelines for people with physical disabilities.

“With my focus on prosthetics, the thought came to me that I hadn’t seen guidelines on nutrition for people who have a disability – should they be taking specific supplements or eat differently?” Bowman said.

Bowman pitched the idea of turning her nutrition across the lifespan course into an honors class to begin finding the answer to this question.

Caitlin Bowman analyzes data gathered from walking - or tripping - in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.

Caitlin Bowman analyzes data gathered from walking - or tripping - in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.
Caitlin Bowman analyzes data gathered from walking - or tripping - in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab.

In spring 2021, Bowman had a close family member die of COVID-19.

“Going through all those experiences has definitely been things I've worked through while balancing academics, but they've also shown me that not everything about college that you learn is about being a good student or getting good grades,” Bowman said. “You have to reach out to your support network. You have to develop relationships with people. I think that's really what college is about beyond anything like you can get your degree.”

Bowman decided that she could take action for others to avoid this tragedy.

In true service-oriented fashion, Bowman has helped with COVID-19 vaccination clinics, particularly with intake screening, to help slow the spread of the virus.

“With my background and personal experiences, I wanted to find a way to make it easier for others to get their vaccine so we can get to our new normal,” Bowman said. “I want others – and future Hokies – to have the same transformational experiences I had at Virginia Tech. Getting shots into arms gets us much closer to that day and makes it safer for everyone.”

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