As she considered her higher education options, Claire Thomas knew she wanted an academic experience with a strong writing component. But a traditional degree in English, with a career path possibly in teaching or journalism, wasn’t for her.
“I wanted something more abstract and artistic, but which would also lead to a career that would be more hands-on,” the Syracuse native said.
She chose Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute because of the strength of the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences—one of the few gaming programs that offers a concentration in writing.
Through a 3D modeling course, called 3D Bootcamp, she unearthed a love for the craft of 3D animation. She continued taking arts courses until she qualified for a dual major in GSAS and Electronic Arts. Along the way, she also discovered, as she said, “that I’m strictly a 3D artist!”
Her art has led her down a number of unexpected paths.
Over the course of her four-year degree, Thomas took advantage of a variety of opportunities available through both the academic departments and the Institute, including a semester abroad in Singapore at the Nanyang Technological University. While there, she traveled to no less than eight countries, including Malaysia, Australia, and Vietnam.
During the summers, she found opportunities to work with faculty on research projects, including the Mandarin Project, a revolutionary approach to teaching language that combines virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and computer gaming to create immersive environments used for language learning. The only character artist on the team, Thomas created models and animations for the characters in the environments.
In her sophomore year, Thomas began working on a research project called Cure Quest with Professor Ben Chang, in collaboration with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and funded through the National Institutes of Health.
“Cure Quest is a mobile game that helps to teach medical students about translational therapeutics—how to develop a drug,” said Thomas, who over the course of two summers, worked on writing a script and designing concept art, and then creating a character in 3D.
One culmination of her educational path was her senior thesis project: an 11-minute 3D animated short film, Angels, based on the piece “Angels in the Architecture,” composed by Frank Ticheli. She had played the composition in band during high school and it became the inspiration for her project, for which she wrote the storyboard, created the main character, and produced all the animation.
Thomas has received accolades throughout her studies, including being selected to present a game she created, with three other students in the Game Development II course, at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco in March. In the game, called Shikigami: The Paper Spirits, players take the form of a variety of origami creatures with differing abilities.
Attending GDC is a highlight for any game designer and a valuable opportunity for networking in the field. “I was able to connect with some of the industry’s leading professional developers,” Thomas said.
And true to her first love, writing, she is a two-time winner of the campus McKinney Writing Contest awards, with both a third and a first-place win for short story.
After graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees in GSAS and electronic arts, Thomas will join the game development studio 1st Playable Productions, where she looks forward to working as a 3D artist. And for this, she realizes the impact of her Rensselaer education.
“It definitely changed my trajectory, because I didn’t know I would be doing 3D art,” she said. “I can make my own game, which is something I never thought I could do. I didn’t think I would be graduating with the skill set I have now.”