Georgia Lawlor: making a difference in the classroom, lab and gym

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Georgia Lawlor, a sophomore Honors College student in biomedical engineering, has been making use of physics topics both in and outside of the classroom.  In fact, she has transferred these skills and knowledge to two entirely unrelated sectors of her day-to-day life.  The first may come as less of a surprise.  Lawlor works as a student researcher for Professor Eric Nauman, where she studies the forces involved in the use of a tennis racket.  What’s more surprising, however, is the way in which Lawlor has used physics in her off-campus job. You see, Lawlor also works as a gymnastics coach here in the community.

Georgia Lawlor, Honors College student and biomedical engineering major

“Gymnastics is mostly based on physics,” she explained.  “So the motion and body shapes necessary for performing certain skills make more sense now that I have taken PHYS 172.”

A unique and interesting display of interdisciplinary learning indeed!  But, how did Lawlor become involved in such differing roles?  She says gymnastics has been a part of her life since she was 9 years old, so when she was offered the opportunity to become a coach at the beginning of her first year of college, she jumped at the chance.  She now works three nights a week, coaching for three-hour intervals in each case.  Lawlor became involved with Nauman’s research after working for him over the summer at a Purdue camp called the “Seminar for Top Engineering Prospects.” Having already cultivated a personal relationship with the professor and finding his research focus aligned more closely to her own interests than other options on campus, Lawlor simply asked if there were any projects she could assist with.

“In Dr. Nauman’s lab, I am currently working with a team of three other undergraduates to figure out how to measure the force of hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racket, where the impact occurs and where the person is holding the racket,” Lawlor explained.  “It is very interesting because we are using accelerometers [a device that measures proper acceleration], IMU [an electronic device that measures and reports a body’s specific force, angular rate and sometimes the magnetic field surrounding the body], pressure sensors and membrane potentiometers [an instrument that measures electric potential or voltage, using an ultra-flat conductive membrane that is deformed by a sliding element to contact a resistor voltage divider]. ”

According to Lawlor, the team is interfacing the data with arduinos [digital devices that can sense and control objects in the physical world] to collect the data from the sensors and read them into an excel-based program.

“This racket should be able to help players improve their skills by providing a numerical analysis of their playing,” she added.  “We also hope to use the information and knowledge we are gaining from this project to apply it to the creation of a prosthetic hand where sensors there will be used for similar analysis on the function of the prosthetic.”

These are certainly both incredible experiences for Lawlor, but you may find yourself wondering, how does she find time to balance both in addition to obtaining an engineering degree?  Of course, there are only so many hours in a day, but Lawlor credits her passion for each respective field for enabling her to make time for each.  What’s more, she says each role has taught her incredible lessons, which, in many cases, have been transferable to other aspects of her life as well.  Lawlor specifically credits her coaching job for improvements she has made in the areas of patience, teaching and dealing with conflicts.

“I have gotten better about being able to step back and think of a different way to explain something to someone,” she said.  “This has helped me when studying in groups because I know that, many times, if someone doesn’t understand what you are saying, you have to come up with a different way to explain it.  It is also helpful to draw on people’s understanding of simpler things and connect those to the concept they don’t understand. In [engineering] group work and helping others, I use their understanding of basic concepts and equations to work up to more complex problems.”

Lawlor expressed that she loves the interdisciplinary aspects of her involvements, because they allow her to make connections between things she has learned in one class or aspect of her life, to a different area or aspect.  In addition to tangible life lessons, these experiences have simply been rewarding for Lawlor.

“I have enjoyed watching the girls grow and mature not only in their gymnastics, but also in their personalities and daily life,” she said.  “The discipline and mindset, instilled in them from gymnastics, is turning them all into stronger individuals who strive for success in a world where being perfect is nearly impossible.” 

Lawlor wants to be a biomedical engineer so she can help work to improve the lives of others.  However, as a coach, she has certainly already changed lives for the better in many ways.  Keep up the good work Georgia!