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Irene LaBarca finds music and engineering to be compatible

One of the first things Irene LaBarca plans to do when she enrolls in the University of Wisconsin’s graduate school of engineering is to audition for the university orchestra.

Music might seem a luxury for someone embarking on advanced study in structural engineering.

But Irene thrived at both pursuits at Lehigh.

As a musician, she took private lessons, played in recitals, played first viola in the Lehigh University Philharmonic, and memorized and performed a concerto by J.C. Bach for the music department’s annual concerto competition.

As a civil engineering student, Irene completed two independent-study courses and did a summer internship at Lehigh’s ATLSS (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) Research Center, helping a Ph.D. student analyze the effects of earthquakes on building-frame connections.

Irene also took part in Lehigh’s Martindale Scholars program, in which students visit a foreign country for two weeks, interview its leaders, and write a journal article about an aspect of the country’s government, economy or social life. Irene traveled to Sweden in May of 2003 and wrote on southern Sweden’s strong ties to Denmark.

The Lehigh Philharmonic also opened the world to Irene. In 2002, the orchestra toured China for 11 days, performing in Beijing and Xian. In January of 2004, the orchestra went on an 11-day tour of Brazil, playing four concerts in three cities. Irene, as president, helped organize the itinerary and logistics.

Irene was only a sophomore when she took her first independent-study class in civil engineering. She analyzed the feasibility of making Lehigh’s lower campus a pedestrian-only campus and limiting vehicular access to non-essential roads. Irene counted cars and pedestrians at intersections, then came up with a tentative plan to close some streets and build a circular road around campus. A company had done a preliminary study a few years earlier; Irene extended it. Lehigh is considering adopting one of her proposals.

“That project made me feel like I was doing something useful,” she says. “It’s great to see the plans you worked on get carried out.”

In her second independent project, Irene studied parking patterns in the small borough of Bangor, Pa., which is revitalizing its downtown.

“I had faculty advisers for each independent project,” Irene says, “but I ended up doing a lot of the work on my own. I was allowed to tailor each project exactly as I wanted. The professors trusted me to do a good job. It’s great to be forced to think on your own. That’s very valuable because it is what you’re going to have to do when you go out to work.”

Irene finds music and engineering to be compatible. “Learning music,” she says, “helps you decipher a new language.

“If I had gone to college somewhere else, I probably would not have had all these extraordinary opportunities. Lehigh has trained me well – not only to be a good engineer and researcher, but also to be a well-rounded person with real-world skills.”

Posted on Tuesday, June 01, 2004

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