How do the various parts of the human body coordinate to carry out the motion of swinging a tennis racket? How does your brain signal your body to move your hands? The process of movement in the human body is more complicated than one might think. Caitlin Bowman, a Spring 2021 Virginia Tech graduate with a degree in Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise (HNFE), has always been fascinated by the idea of movement and exercise science.

“Exercise sciences examine human movement, fitness, and metabolism — understanding not only how those processes interact, but the science behind how they work,” Bowman explains.

Bowman also earned a minor in psychology to better understand how the human brain processes mobility. As an aspiring prosthetist, she studied developmental and abnormal psychology for pre-prosthetics. Bowman’s passion for working with prosthetics deepened after joining the Madigan Biomechanics Lab as a transdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Assistant (URA) where she researched low-cost prosthetic knees. Bowman identifies this experience as her greatest academic honor and achievement during her time at Virginia Tech.

Bowman’s hands-on experience at the Madigan Biomechanics Lab and her drive to grow as a citizen of service led her to become this year’s Outstanding Honors College Senior. 

As a student in the Virginia Tech Honors College, Bowman was inspired to pursue research on metabolic testing as a prosthetic design evaluation in the lab group. As a way to earn experiential learning credit toward the completion of her Honors Laureate Diploma, Bowman conducted this research as an Honors Faculty-Student Agreement (FSA) for Nutrition Across the Lifespan with Nicolin Girmes-Grieco, a professor in the HNFE department . 

Bowman’s experience while working on this FSA encouraged her to continue working with the Madigan Biomechanics Lab. “I decided to stay in the lab group after completing the FSA and seeing how much I enjoyed the work I was doing in the lab [and] the impact the work could have in my field,” she said.

The research in the Madigan Biomechanics Lab merges human subjects testing, biomechanics modeling, and computer simulation to improve the fundamental understanding of factors affecting human physical capabilities, including how and why injuries occur. Additionally, the lab is interested in developing strategies and technology to improve human physical capabilities and overall health.

“The lab encompasses all kinds of disciplines,” Bowman says, “which is exciting because I could meet people who are from all kinds of different backgrounds.”

Not only was Bowman able to collaborate with people across disciplines, but she had the opportunity to collect data that no one had really collected before to study slips, trips, and falls on various terrains. This kind of data can have a significant impact on designing prosthetics. As a URA, Bowman also assisted with evaluating low-cost prosthetic knees for amputees with an eye toward making these critical devices more available to those who are poor and uninsured.

Caitlin Bowman is strapped into the walking harness used to analyze her movement.
Caitlin Bowman is strapped into the walking harness used to analyze her movement.

“Low-cost prosthetics are significantly under-researched when compared to some of the higher-end devices in the field,” Bowman says. “I am proud to be serving amputees in need by publishing data so these devices are more accessible. I feel what we are doing in the Mad Bio Group to further the knowledge of low-cost prosthetics truly embodies the phrase, ‘If no one else will do it, the Hokies will.’ As a Hokie, I am proud to embody Ut Prosim and change conversations in my professional field through my research.”

Being a URA has not only allowed Bowman to further her scientific knowledge through collaborative teamwork, but has also shown her how she can use experiential learning to relate her classroom knowledge to benefit society in the real world. The gaps Bowman has observed in her clinical work, in her lectures, and in the lab, have led her to evaluate and suggest changes in her lab group’s research to further benefit amputees.

“For example, many of the amputees I have worked with who live below the poverty line do not have access to a variety of nutrient dense foods,” Bowman says. “This food insecurity is an important factor to consider — and no one in the lab was looking at metabolic performance as a tool of evaluating knee performance. With the support of the HNFE department, the Virginia Tech Honors College, and my Primary Investigator, I created and defended an argument to include metabolic testing as a criterion for prosthetic knee performance and convinced my lab to incorporate it into our study.”

During her time at Virginia Tech, Bowman additionally served as the Honors College Student Council representative for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS); a peer educator for Honors reading seminars for three semesters; and a peer mentor, tutor, and apartment fellow within the Honors Residential Commons. Outside of Honors, Bowman served as a CALS ambassador, worked part-time for Virginia Tech University Advancement, and was a student member of the Southeast Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Additionally, she was an active member of the Alpha Gamma chapter of Delta Epsilon Mu (Pre-Health Professional Fraternity).

Bowman applied to remain at Virginia Tech in her gap year as a Translational Obesity Research Scholar with the National Institutes of Health so she can continue to grow as a researcher. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Bowman plans to go to Prosthetics and Orthotics school and earn a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Sciences/Prosthetics and Orthotics while continuing to incorporate her background in exercise science into clinical practices.

Written by Michelle Fleury