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After Earning Ph.D. in Modeling and Simulation, Engineering Grad Will Weigh Her Next Career Move - Industry or Academia

When Elaine Blount received her B.S. in computer science 25 years ago, computers were the wave of the future. Many schools didn't yet have computer science or information systems departments.

"Full-screen editors were just becoming popular, color screens were not standard and, yes, I took at least one class that used a card punch and a teletype," said Blount, who earned her undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech in 1986.

On Saturday, Blount will walk in Old Dominion University's 114th commencement exercises, receiving a Ph.D. in modeling, simulation and visualization engineering. She is also the 2011 recipient of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology's Faculty Award in Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Engineering.

During her career, Blount has written computer code for a ballistics laboratory involved in the design of missiles and rockets, engineered simulation software for flight simulators and, while finishing her doctoral dissertation at ODU, taught a class in video game design. None of these fields would typically be considered a career of choice for a female scientist, particularly when she started in 1986.

But Blount, who worked at these jobs while raising two daughters, doesn't think of herself as a trailblazer for women in the field.

"While there are fewer women (than men) in this field as a whole, it was never an issue for me or a reason to go into the field. It was just fun and rewarding," said Blount, who lives in Yorktown.

"Being one of few women in a science-related field did not seem to matter to those around me. I've never been treated differently. It's a great field with lots of opportunities for everyone, as it's always new and changing."

Blount has always been drawn to modeling and simulation as a discipline, calling it the "crystal ball" of solving problems.

"You determine the important features of a system that you need to learn about or are central to a problem, create a model, and then run a simulation to determine the answers," she said. "These simulations can be used for drug discovery, medical simulation, understanding biological systems, understanding how crowds operate, military battle simulations and virtual reality training, just to name a few areas."

Blount looked at military battle simulation research in her dissertation, "Incorporation of Physical Fitness in a Tactical Infantry Simulation."

"My dissertation shows that modeling physical fitness in an infantry simulation can affect the results of a tactical infantry simulation. Currently, infantry are all modeled with the same characteristics. But, as human beings, we are not the same and all perform physical tasks differently."

Blount's dissertation adviser was Stacie Ringleb, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a former research assistant professor at VMASC. Blount's dissertation was a small part of a larger study funded by the Office of Naval Research, examining the effects of physical fitness on performance with and without load. Ringleb is currently doing a study, funded by the Department of Defense through a Small Business Innovation Research Grant, on the continuing development of a virtual reality-based system to determine whether soldiers who have suffered mild traumatic brain injury are fit to return to duty, as well as many other projects in the area of biomechanics.

"The people at VMASC are very positive and encouraging," Blount said. "As I was working on my dissertation, there was a group of students and former graduates at VMASC that would meet, for anyone to practice their presentations, arguments or defense. They would evaluate your work, giving you feedback to help you move forward."

Blount said the VMASC administration also helps nurture an extremely supportive environment for student researchers.

Ultimately, Blount isn't sure what she's going to do with the rest of her career. She's thankful to live in a region where so many opportunities exist in the modeling and simulation field. She said she loved teaching the course in video game design.

"A question I am pondering at the moment is, industry or academia," Blount said. "I have worked so hard finishing my dissertation work the last three months that I've just started to search for the right fit for my next step.

"I know that I hope to continue learning and trying new things. I'm lucky to live in the Hampton Roads area, where there are so many opportunities to explore."

This article was posted on: April 29, 2011

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