Player to engineer: Iowa State senior turns computer game passion into career

Jamie Sampson

Graduating senior Jamie Sampson at Coover Hall. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image. All photos and videos were shot following physical distancing guidelines, and with staff wearing face coverings.

AMES, Iowa — Jamie Sampson’s childhood love of computer games like SuperTux, Zoombinis and JumpStart has grown into a career.

Sampson, an Iowa State University senior in software engineering from Springfield, Missouri, graduates this weekend.

“I had a lot of early experiences with gaming, but I didn’t know at the time that it was something I was going to pursue as a career,” she said. “I didn’t know that was even an option until I got older and learned more about the industry.”

She started to get a taste for the behind-the-scenes of gaming in high school engineering and programming classes through Project Lead The Way.

“I found that I really enjoyed the process of trying to solve various problems and actually make something that people could mess around with afterwards,” she said.

As she looked toward college, Sampson started researching careers to figure out where she could put her interests to use, and found the job title “software engineer.”

She visited the Iowa State campus and fell in love with its beauty, and again after talking to the folks in the Women in Science and Engineering office.

Carving a path in programming, engineering

Sampson made the most of her ISU experience. She immediately got involved with Student Union Board, planning and volunteering at more than 30 concerts during her time at Iowa State. She is a member of and was a peer mentor for the Electrical, Computer, and Software Engineers in Leadership (ECSEL) scholars program. She volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club of Story County to encourage their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

She studied abroad her sophomore year, taking engineering and art courses in Singapore. There, she was introduced to animation classes, 3-D modeling and storyboarding.

Sampson also joined SquirrelHacks, Iowa State’s student organization that plans the annual Hackathon, in which 300-plus students create and share projects that range from games to virtual and augmented reality to robotics and software programs during a 36-hour weekend competition. Sampson became sponsorship chair and later served as vice president and president.

“I really enjoyed learning from others, building something new and sharing that,” she said.

She again shared her love of computer science by working as a teaching assistant last spring and fall in an ISU course that teaches the C/C++ programming language. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Iowa State to move to remote learning and Sampson moved back to Missouri.

Thankfully, she was able to work remotely for her summer 2020 internship with Electronic Arts (EA), one of the leading video game companies.

Making the best of a remote senior year

She decided not to return to campus last fall because she is at moderate risk and her family is at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

In the past year, Sampson has been on campus for a total of one hour, when she stopped by to say hello to her roommate on her way to Minnesota. Sampson will not attend commencement to protect her and her family’s health.

“I wanted to walk across the stage because it’s the culmination of four years of hard work,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I spent eight semesters at Iowa State, but I was only physically at Iowa State for two and a half of them.”

The disappointment of being away from campus has not stopped Sampson from pursuing her passions. She landed a job in software development at Maxis, a studio division of EA in Austin, Texas. She was also recently accepted into a master’s program at the University of Washington, which she plans to defer until she gets settled in her job.

Long-term, Sampson wants to pursue software engineering in the animation pipeline for films.

“I kind of wish my last whole year at Iowa State was going to be on campus because I’ve had such great memories,” she said. “I had hoped to try to get involved in more things. At the same time, it’s a lot of what you make of the situation. Even though I learned remotely as a senior, I still tried to stay in contact with my friends and roommate. It was different for sure, but also memorable for the fact that it was different.”

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