FPE Undergraduate Student Profile: Cara Hamel

Catherine "Cara" Hamel. Cara has what she calls "a long and diverse list of interests," and is very active in the department and on campus. She has served as the President of Salamander, the FPE Honors Society, and as Vice President of UMD's branch of Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership society. She is a member of the University Honors Program, and spent her first two years in the Flexus Women in Engineering Living and Learning Program. Outside of class, she plays a variety of intramural sports and is a member of the Rainbow Terrapin Network. Cara has won numerous scholarships that support her continued academic achievements at the University of Maryland.

"I have developed a passion for working with students, whether they are prospective or current," she says of her work as an Orientation Advisor and  Clark School Ambassador representing FPE." I receive so much satisfaction from easing a student's or parent's worries about coming to UMD. I particularly love being a representative for the population of women engineering students."

Internships Abroad: Designing a Personal "International Summer Experience"

When Cara Hamel realized she couldn’t participate in a formal study abroad program, she didn’t let that stop her from going to England and France to study fire behavior. Instead, she tapped into the Department of Fire Protection Engineering’s (FPE) worldwide network of professional and academic colleagues to arrange her own “international summer experience.”

Hamel’s interest in heat and mass transfer led her to a seven-week undergraduate research fellowship in Imperial College London’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. There, she joined Senior Lecturer Guillermo Rein’s team in the further development of its pioneering simulations of how fires move through large buildings. The behavior of these traveling fires varies considerably based on the size of the area they occupy, ventilation, and fuel. Rein’s efforts to create more realistic predictive fire scenarios have had a direct impact on structural design and safety.

Hamel worked in MATLAB, a programming environment used for modeling, data analysis, visualization, and application development. Like many engineering students, learning the software had been part of her coursework. “This was an amazing experience because I was using MATLAB in a practical scenario for the first time,” she says. “I finally understand the value of it.”

"I came to appreciate UMD's undergraduate degree much more than I already did,” she adds, “because it became obvious that our program offers its B.S. students almost equivalent coursework to many other schools’ graduate degrees in fire safety or protection."

Fire Protection Engineering undergraduate student Cara Hamel

Rein’s connections with the Centre d'Etudes et des Recherches de l'Industrie de Beton (CERIB) helped Hamel secure a five-week internship in Epernon, France, where she used the techniques she learned in his lab to analyze the thermal responses of concrete and steel structures to various traveling fire scenarios.

Hamel says that in addition to practical skills, her internships taught her the importance of staying up-to-date with developments in the field, because many areas of study are still emerging or not completely explored. She discovered the power of networking with other fire science professionals, and confirmed her desire to pursue a career in academia.

Because the University of Maryland offers the only accredited undergraduate program in FPE in the U.S., Hamel had the relatively rare opportunity to compare her learning experience to those of the students she met, and discovered how diverse the field could be at both the academic and professional levels.

“I noticed a large difference in fire protection programs,” she says. “At Imperial College, the focus varies between traveling fires in structures, smoldering combustion in wildfires, and modeling techniques. At the University of Edinburgh, there is a large focus on structural fire safety, which was different than both UMD and Imperial.” The U.K. programs, she notes, are strongly invested in computational methods, while UMD's program emphasizes the practical applications of fire protection in addition to a scientific and theoretical background.

“I came to appreciate UMD's undergraduate degree much more than I already did,” she adds, “because it became obvious that our program offers its B.S. students almost equivalent coursework to many other schools’ graduate degrees in fire safety or protection.”

Hamel looks back on her summer as a period of not just academic and professional growth, but of personal growth too. She arrived in London alone and unsure where she was going to live, which forced her to reach out to others and make connections in ways she hadn’t needed to before. She also found herself learning French, and about French culture and cuisine, with the help of the nine other “extremely friendly and fun” CERIB interns she lived with.

“I quickly learned that I thrive off of that initial discomfort,” she says. “I learned that taking risks reaps tremendous benefits.”