Published: Feb. 2, 2016 By

jessica beal

Music and mechanical engineering double major Jessica Beal wants to put her dual interests to use and help people with prosthetic hands and arms.

Two very different worlds collide every day for Jessica Beal, a double bass performance and mechanical engineering major. The junior wakes up early—6 a.m. sometimes—to get started on her engineering homework. She’s in classes all day, squeezes in some time in the practice room in the afternoon, then dives back into the studying until late into the night.

“I plan my day around the times when the left and right sides of my brain are most accessible,” says the junior. “It’s hard, but I figure I might as well get the most out of my available credit hours.”

The life of a double major might sound daunting, but for Beal it’s an opportunity to develop two passions in tandem. And it’s paving the way for the career that she thinks will do the most good. “I want to help people, and I enjoy doing tangible things. So I want to help create prosthetic arms and hands.”

Coming from a military family, Beal knows how artificial limbs can change lives. “If I could help someone who came back from war—or anyone who either lost their arm in an accident or was born with a deformity—and give them the ability to hug their spouse, or find a job and provide for their family, it would be amazing.”

Exactly how to do that wasn’t initially clear when Beal was in high school in South Carolina. “When you said you wanted to be a ‘mechanical engineer’ in my town, it meant ‘mechanic.’ Engineering is such a broad subject, and we didn’t have very many STEM classes in high school. So at first I focused on music,” she says.

Through music, Beal began to see how she could help people. “Usually prosthetic legs are where more resources go, just because they’re vital in helping people walk. But I use my hands and arms every day playing my instrument, so that would be my desired field. As a musician, I have more of an understanding of how those parts of the body work together,” she says.

Music also rounds out Beal’s education in another way: it’s given her a better understanding of how people can work together. “Music teaches you people skills. You can’t just play an instrument by yourself, you play and present with other people. Engineering doesn’t require that of you.”

At the same time, she says being an engineer has made her a better musician. “Engineering teaches you to be analytical and optimize your practice time. You learn to break down your practice session and focus on how to improve it,” she says.

Seeing progress up close is something that Beal says is important to her in her future career. “I would rather make a difference for one person, rather than large groups of people. I want to have that one-on-one interaction with the person I’m helping.”

To that end, she says she wants to work with individual clients, to customize prosthetics to fit their needs. “Artificial limbs are like instruments. Not everybody plays an instrument the same way, and prosthetic hands and arms need to be different for every person,” Beal explains.

After graduation, Beal will pursue a master’s in prosthetics. “It’s very competitive. There are only 12 prosthetics programs in the country, and they accept a small number of people.”

Despite that challenge ahead, she says she’s excited for what’s next. “If prosthetics are done right, they can make such a difference in people’s lives. I don’t think I could ever do a job where I’m not making a difference.”