When Laura Thackray was a senior at the University of Idaho, she started a project to make cars safer for pregnant women.
Four years later, she's continuing her work in Sweden as an engineer for Volvo Car Corp. Her computer model of a 36-week pregnant woman, whom she named Linda, is one of very few examinations of how to reduce injuries to expectant mothers and their fetuses.
For that work and for Volvo's commitment to research on the subject, Thackray has earned international attention. Recently the Volvo project was featured in the Wall Street Journal.
The 28-year-old woman from Athol, Idaho, said once she came up with the idea, she knew it was the right one. "I was inspired by my long interest in women's medicine and perhaps my younger sister's pregnancy at the time," she said. "I realized that I wanted to combine my engineering and medical interests in this project fairly early on."
So as a mechanical engineering student, she sought the chance to work with UI Professor Don Blackketter and form an independent study of the subject.
"She came to me with this idea of some sort of occupant restraint system that would help women who were pregnant," said Blackketter. He liked the idea, which hadn't been seriously researched in a while. In fact, the most detailed study had been performed in the 1960s with pregnant orangutans, a type of experiment that is no longer done due to animal welfare concerns, said Blackketter.
According to research cited by Volvo, car crashes are the leading cause of hospital visits and fatalities during pregnancy. "And seat belts haven't really changed in a long time," said the UI professor. "Even with air bags, these systems still are not very adaptable to different body sizes and shapes. And they're not worried about a fetus inside a woman."
Though he liked Thackray's project, Blackketter was struck with the complexity of the issue. With air bags, you can stop a body with minimal damage to the outside of the person, but internal organs can slam forward to the front of the chest cavity, he said. "The same thing is true of a fetus, it's not really connected inside." The baby could suffer brain damage or be disconnected from the placenta, its source of nourishment.
Then there was the large number of variables to consider – whether the mother wore a seat belt, if she wore it correctly, if the car had air bags, how far the seat was from the steering wheel. Fully studying the issue would take much longer than Thackray's senior year.
So Blackketter and Thackray focused on whether there was a problem with the current restraint systems or not, using simple models. Thackray also surveyed pregnant women in Moscow to learn if and how they used their seat belts.
The professor and student found that three-point seat belts are better than air bags for protecting expectant mothers and their unborn babies and that many women didn't use their seatbelts or wore them incorrectly in the latter stages of pregnancy. The best way, say experts, is to wear the shoulder strap across the chest and the belt below the tummy, low and tight across the hips.
That Thackray followed her senior study into a career is no surprise to her UI professors.
"She was a good student," said Blackketter. "She wasn't top of the class, but was obviously one of our top students in terms of initiative."
That initiative led her to look for a job where she could continue to work on safety restraints for pregnant women. She approached several car companies, but was turned away. Volvo encouraged her to go to graduate school, so she enrolled at the Chalmers University of Technology near Volvo's headquarters in Goteborg, Sweden, and worked as a research assistant there on a side impact investigation.
It wasn't easy. In her first year, Thackray ran out of money and had problems with the room she was renting. "I ended up homeless for some weeks," she said. Ultimately, some of her classmates took her in. Still, "I was very sad about missing my family as I had to spend my first Christmas away from home."
She was warmed, though, by an invitation to study in Hawaii on a full-ride scholarship. "How tempting that sounded when I was broke and without a proper place to live during the dark, cold Swedish winter."
But she stuck with Sweden, hoping at some point to land her dream job at Volvo. She finished her master's of science in automotive engineering in 2002. That year she started working for the car company.
Maybe it was growing up in Athol, the daughter of a saleswoman and a construction worker, where she developed her drive. Thackray is grateful to her teachers and especially her family for supporting her plans.
"Linda is my mother's name," said Thackray. "She's a mother of four and has done a great job encouraging me with my work on pregnancy and car crashes. . . . I thought it would be a nice gesture to use her name for the model of the mother."
She named the baby Kira, for the daughter of a family she knows. The real Kira suffered complications from a car crash before birth.
Thackray is now working toward her medical Ph.D. in obstetrics and gynecology. "Not many crash engineers get such a degree," she said. But her studies have helped her better understand the human body, particularly the abdomen during pregnancy.
She has designed Linda's lower torso, abdomen and upper thighs with humanlike tissue instead of the synthetic and steel construction of modern crash test dummies. Linda's parts include ribs, tissue, placenta, pelvic bones and a 36-week old fetus.
Thackray's findings may lead to the designs of new seat belts and safety systems for expectant mothers.
Though the Idaho native gets homesick for her family, she is happy to have finally landed with Volvo, where many of the engineers she works with are in their 20s and 30s and many are women.
"The environment here is very inspiring," she said. "And it's a great incentive to work knowing that you have an opportunity to make driving safer and perhaps even save lives."