Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Sparking An Interest in Child Passenger Safety Research

July 9, 2020
Penn Engineering Outstanding Research Award
In May 2020, Madeline Griffith was honored
with the Penn Master's Outstanding
Research Award in Mechanical Engineering.

While completing my Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), I was excited to join the Center for Injury Research and Prevention’s (CIRP) Biomechanical Engineering Training Program.

Upon joining the team in 2018, I primarily worked on the “Can the Startle Reflex be Manipulated to Reduce Take-over Time in Pre-crash Scenarios for Autonomous Driving?” project funded by the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies (CChIPS). This project examined drivers’ take-over reaction time with and without a startling warning sound preceding vehicle swerving. This was my first experience working in research and entering during the data collection phase allowed me to get acclimated to the research process. 

During Year 2 of the project, I was able to take on more responsibility and build on many of the technical skills I was learning at Penn. I worked on creating modifications to prepare for further data collection and fixing electronics on the sled device – the structure designed to safely provide acceleration to the human volunteers. This project continued to fuel my passion for my master’s degree because many of the topics I was learning in school – such as programming, electronics, and controls – directly applied to my work in fixing the sled and creating new loading conditions.

The amount of hands-on opportunities I had as a student at CIRP opened a new career window for me. When applying, I thought CIRP’s Biomechanical Engineering training program seemed like an interesting way to complement my education; but, I didn’t think of it as my future career. While I was interested in biomechanics, I wasn’t very familiar with the field of vehicle safety research. However, as I worked on various projects, I realized how this type of engineering integrated many of my research interests, and I began to consider a career in child passenger safety research.

Deciding on a Career Path

One element of my training experience that equally complemented my education and fueled my passion for the field was the opportunity I had to present on the startle reflex research at The Ohio State University’s Injury Biomechanics Symposium in 2019. Preparing for my first research symposium enabled me to take more ownership of my work and it served as a stepping stone in my decision to do a master’s thesis. After writing my paper and presenting my work at the symposium, writing a thesis for my degree seemed a lot less daunting. I also saw the benefits of working on my technical writing and communication skills.

Another aspect of my training experience that I found to be helpful in shaping my career was the level of inclusivity and mentorship that’s built into CIRP’s culture. From the very beginning, I felt so welcomed and I enjoyed being involved in CIRP’s bi-weekly engineering meetings where I was included in conversations about project development. These meetings also gave me the chance to get to know the entire engineering team, who were all so open in answering both my project-related and career path questions. Conversations with my mentor, Valentina Graci, PhD, as well as with Thomas Seacrist, MBE and Jalaj Maheshwari, MS, were so beneficial in determining the next step in my career.

Flash forward to today: I’m proud to announce that I successfully defended my master’s thesis, "Understanding the Effect of Acoustic-Startling Pre-Stimulus, Sex, Age, and Secondary Task on Driver Kinematics During Take-Over on a Low-Acceleration Sled Simulating a Pre-Crash Scenario in an Autonomous Vehicle,” graduated from Penn with a Master of Science in Engineering, and accepted a full-time position at CIRP as a Research Project Engineer.

In my new role, I’m working on a few projects aimed at understanding how vehicle warning systems affect the biomechanics of drivers, how passenger biomechanics are influenced by automated and manual pre-crash maneuvers, and how child passenger kinematics vary in different seating arrangements. I’m so thrilled to continue to work in the research areas for which I've developed such a passion alongside a fantastic team.