Engineering Intern Beats Cancer, Uses Technology to Help Propel Missions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a child is sent off to college, all the dreams and aspirations of the parents closely follow behind her. So it was with the parents of Julia Thurber when she packed her belongings and headed to LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. She went with her parents’ blessings, scholarships in hand, and a dream to become a mechanical engineer. But six months after arriving at LeTourneau, Thurber noticed a lump on her neck. She went in for tests and soon learned the devastating results—cancer. She packed up, said goodbye to her classmates, and headed home, wondering if she’d ever return to school.

It would be almost a year before Thurber finished her chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It was during this time that God impressed on her His love for Spanish-speaking people. During her treatments she had plenty of time to think about this and what her future would look like. Still feeling weak, she returned to university, determined to finish her coursework in engineering. While she was redoubling her efforts to graduate with her classmates, new test results revealed more bad news. The cancer had returned with a vengeance. She slowly packed up her things and headed home again, not wavering on what God had impressed on her heart between bouts of cancer.

Fast forward two years to the summer of 2014. Thurber is not only cancer-free, but she’s also a powerful spokeswoman for what God has done in her life and in the lives of her family. Instead of taking more summer classes at school to catch up to her classmates, she chose to enter the summer internship program at SonSet Solutions in Elkhart, Ind. The evening she arrived by train in June, the college senior was whisked off to one of the missionary host families. Not only was she going to work side-by-side with missionary engineers by day, but she was also going to experience living with them after hours.

Early the following morning, mission staff greeted Thurber and welcomed her as their new co-worker for the next 10 weeks. She was assigned to John Wineman, her supervisor and mentor in the ongoing Equipment Power Protection Device program. This technology will help partners in developing countries protect their electronic equipment from damaging voltage fluctuations. Thurber & Wineman Working TogetherShe was soon absorbed in the electrical aspects of engineering, opening up a whole new world to her with a different “language.” The determination and perseverance that had kept her going through her battle with cancer would become her biggest ally in the proceeding weeks.

“I’ve been working with an Arduino microcontroller and oscilloscope to help expand the functionality of the existing program,” Thurber said after completing her first few weeks of training and hands-on experience. “Going into the project, I felt like I had a fair grasp of the Arduino programming language and how the microcontroller works, but as I continued to learn, I was frequently reminded how little I actually knew.” By July she had done considerable research and testing of the programming code that would help the project move forward. She also updated the documentation that will be invaluable for the next programmer who carries on with the project.

Wineman said he was impressed with his intern’s desire to learn new subjects. “Julia was willing to tackle electrical concepts that most mechanical engineers wouldn’t attempt,” he explained. “I also saw God working mightily in her life, not only from the physical standpoint but even more in the spiritual realm.” He went on to say, “When I think of Julia during her time with us, I am reminded of what the apostle Paul said during his times of hardship: ‘We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up. In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again’” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, CEV).

The last few weeks of her internship allowed Thurber to work in the machine shop on a clean water system monitoring project. The system, developed at SonSet Solutions, allows water systems in remote rural villages to be monitored via satellite. The monitoring systems will be used for 25 hand pumps to be installed in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia in November with partner ministry Design Outreach. These data-logging systems record every gallon pumped and every shaft rotation, giving accurate performance data.

Engineers will then be able to use this groundbreaking technology to know how effectively the pumps are operating and make improvements in the future. Of the 300,000 hand pumps in Africa, an estimated 30 percent do not work. Monitoring pumps, and then maintaining them, is expected to reverse this trend and keep clean water flowing. Prior to Thurber’s internship, a team of engineers from the Technology Center (now SonSet Solutions) traveled to Ecuador to install this monitoring technology on water systems in two jungle communities and at Reach Beyond’s guesthouse in the jungle town of Shell. The engineers’ stories of the ministry in Ecuador made her work even more meaningful as she began making parts for use on other water systems.

During the final section of Thurber’s summer internship, she received training on a computer numerical control (CNC) lathe and mill that was used to fabricate parts. She learned how to enter the programming code via a computer and set up the tooling. Then, with the correct coding entered, all she had to do was hit “start,” step back and watch the part being machined without any additional human intervention. Her comment after a few days in the machine shop was, “Using the CNC machines has been a very unique, mechanical engineering way of applying my programming abilities that will be useful to me in the future.”

When asked to comment during the last day of her experience as an intern, she replied, “One thing is certain, God has used my time here at the Technology Center (SonSet Solutions) to let me learn and experience a lot—both personally and professionally. I still don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve greatly enjoyed this adventure as an engineering intern and look forward to future adventures.”

By Jean Muehlfelt