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Engineering Alumna Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor for Early-Career Scientists, Engineers

Lara Thompson ’03 Is the Daughter of ECE Prof. Charles Thompson

Lara Thompson with NSF director Photo by Allison Shelley for NSB
Lara Thompson ’03, left, is shown receiving the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award gold medal from NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan on May 5 in Alexandria, Virginia.

06/02/2022
By Edwin L. Aguirre

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named Lara Thompson ’03 as one of three recipients of this year's Alan T. Waterman Award, the nation's highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers. 

The annual award, which was established by Congress in 1975 and is named after the agency’s first director, recognizes outstanding young U.S. science or engineering researchers who demonstrate exceptional individual achievements in research in NSF-supported fields.

“I am beyond honored and excited to receive the Waterman Award,” Thompson says. “Being the first awardee from a historically Black college and university and the first self-identified woman of color, while being a new mom, means so much to me. This provides proof that hard and steady work, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not, will eventually pay off.”

Thompson is an associate professor of mechanical engineering and the founding director of both the biomedical engineering program and the Center for Biomechanical and Rehabilitation Engineering at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C., a public historically Black university. She is the daughter of UML Prof. Charles Thompson of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Lara Thompson with her family
Thompson poses with, from left, her father, UML Electrical and Computer Engineering Prof. Charles Thompson; her mother, Tita; and her husband, Russell Vitallo.
The NSF recognized Thompson for her efforts to help people with disequilibrium, or loss of balance, by understanding the disorder and mitigating its effects using a vestibular prosthesis, or inner-ear implant. 

Thompson’s award cites her “pioneering innovations in rehabilitation engineering” and her translation of her research on vestibular disorders in primates into “engineering-based models and interventions to improve the lives of people suffering from balance, gait and postural impairments.”

Through her work, she investigates various assistive technologies and robotics to help improve balance in elderly individuals and stroke survivors and reduce their risk of falling.

“It is estimated that vestibular dysfunction will affect 35% of adults over 40,” says Charles Thompson. “Lara’s research seeks to bring to bear new findings in vestibular science to the design of engineered systems that will improve the human condition.”

Lara Thompson earned a bachelor's degree (summa cum laude) in mechanical engineering from UMass Lowell in 2003, a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford University in 2005 and a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology program in 2013.

Aside from Thompson, the other Waterman awardees are Jessica Tierney, a University of Arizona geoscientist, and Daniel Larremore, a computer scientist from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Each received a gold medal, a plaque and $1 million in grant funding over a period of five years to support new research in a field and institution of their choice. The awards were presented during the National Science Board meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 5.

“With this grant, I can take my research a step further and explore various ideas, and perhaps look into rehabilitation robotics and devices for veterans and amputees, which is another group that I am really interested in,” says Thompson.

Thompson says her family, particularly her mom and dad, have been excellent mentors and advisers throughout her life.

“I did not have many academic female mentors while pursuing my three post-high school academic degrees, but I have been so fortunate that the women in my family – for example, my mom, sister and grandmas – were all strong, intelligent women and great role models. I have worked very hard to build my own career, to be an individual and stand on my own two feet,” she says.

What advice would Thompson give to prospective UML students who are planning to pursue careers in STEM? 

“Keep working hard, stay determined, take calculated risks, and you will surprise yourself,” she says. “You can and will achieve your dreams.”