The Engineering Pipeline
It's not only Dartmouth students who receive a Thayer-inspired education. Alumni who teach at universities throughout the country bring their Thayer experiences into their own classrooms and labs. We asked eight alumni in academe about their research, Thayer influences, and how to encourage more people to become engineers.
Interviews by Anna Fiorentino
TIMOTHY WEIHS ’83 TH’85 (A.B., B.E., M.E.)
Professor of Materials Science and Engineering,
Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University
Research: My research group investigates exothermic reactions that self-propagate and produce rapid bursts of heat and light in a variety of composite systems. These reactive materials are fabricated using vapor deposition or cold forging. We have developed these materials to act as local heat sources for joining temperature-sensitive materials and for igniting other reactions. I cofounded Reactive NanoTechnologies in 2002 to pursue commercial applications and then sold the company to Indium Corp. in 2009. The technology is now being used to join LEDs and sputtering targets, and many other applications are being pursued.
Thayer Influences: I went to Dartmouth to major in history. I took a thermo course from Horst Richter, really liked it, and decided to major in engineering sciences. Then I took a course from Harold Frost that convinced me I wanted to study materials. I stayed an extra two years to complete a master’s degree while working with Erland Schulson. Seeing Erland’s passion for his teaching and research, I said, this is what I want to do. I want to earn a Ph.D. and become a professor.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: Thayer gave me a broad education that has served me well, especially as I’ve entered areas beyond my current research. The breadth of education that I received at Thayer has been especially useful as engineering research becomes more interdisciplinary. Through a role I play here at Johns Hopkins, as director of the Center for Leadership Education, I’ve been in contact with Professor Robert Graves about our new program similar to Thayer’s M.E.M. program. I also serve on the Bachelor of Engineering External Advisory Committee at Thayer, and it’s been inspirational.
How to Produce More Engineers: We need to make sure we have great teachers in the high school system to encourage students to think about engineering at an early stage. I had a wonderful history teacher in high school, so went to college to major in history. Getting better stimulation early on is critical.
KATHRYN MILLER-JENSEN ’97 TH’98 (A.B., B.E.)
Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering,
Research: My lab studies biological engineering and systems biology of virus-host molecular interactions. We make quantitative experimental measurements and computational models of how viruses perturb host cell networks, especially networks of chemical reactions involved in cellular communication, referred to in biology as signal transduction networks. As an engineer, I think of a human cell as a very complex machine that takes in environmental cues, processes the information via networks of chemical reactions, and outputs a behavior, such as growth, death, or differentiation. Pathogenic viral infection fundamentally changes how a cell processes information by hijacking the cell’s communication networks for its own purposes. What is especially impressive is that a virus is able to do this with a much less complex genome than our own. If we can measure and model how the cell’s information processing networks change before and after infection, we might better understand how to treat the infection and how the cell machine itself works. We are currently applying our methods to understanding HIV pathogenesis. We study how HIV manipulates its host cell using HIV model viruses, which we can genetically alter to study particular aspects of the viral life cycle. We do a lot of wet lab and cell culture experiments to gather quantitative measurements of changes in gene expression, transcript, and protein levels inside the cell caused by HIV infection. Then we use various computational methods to simulate our data and develop hypotheses about how the the virus is affecting the cell, which we can test experimentally.
Thayer Influences: Working in Professor Lee Lynd’s lab was my first introduction to biotechnology and the remarkable power of a microorganism. I was testing genetically engineered bacterial strains for their capacity to convert cellulose into ethanol.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: Engineering is more than a field; it is a way of approaching problems that transcends disciplines. I think Thayer captured this especially well because the curriculum did not break engineering down into sub-disciplines. Rather, we were taught to see analogies across many applications. In both my teaching and my work, I hope to demonstrate how an engineering approach can help us truly understand and manipulate biological processes at the cellular and subcellular level.
How to Produce More Engineers: In general, the way we teach science and engineering does not reflect what it’s like to work in these fields. We tend to teach facts and methods and evaluate students based on an exact answer worked out in isolation. But innovative research and design requires creativity, collaboration, and communication skills. If we incorporated these aspects of science and engineering into early educational experiences, I think we would retain a more diverse set of young people and tap into new talent.
DAVID FREYBERG ’72 TH’72 (A.B., B.E.)
Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering,
Research: I research old dams and reservoirs, particularly sediment-impacted reservoirs. My students and I investigate summer low flows and streambed drying in coastal California streams and surface-subsurface water interactions in reservoir wetlands. We also work on estimating rainfall and stream flow prediction uncertainty in data-poor regions of southern Africa, optimal scaling of urban water reuse systems, and hydrologic ecosystem services. On one level these issues matter to me because they matter to students, as individuals and as a generation facing a future requiring increasingly challenging decision-making about water resources. On another level they matter to me because all the systems I work on are at the intersection of science, technology, and policy. On a third level, I am intrigued by puzzles that require integrating field investigation and mathematical modeling and that involve water flows that follow complex paths through very different environments, from atmosphere to land surface to subsurface to plants.
Thayer Influences: It’s not easy to single any individual out, since I view the impact of my time at Thayer and Dartmouth as deriving from the incremental impacts of many. Professor Alvin Converse somehow found the right buttons to push to lead me to recognize that I could learn on my own, think on my own. That was a turning point in my education.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: I am zealously committed to liberal arts education, and that certainly got its start at Dartmouth and Thayer. I also don’t have much use for disciplinary and departmental boundaries in either teaching or research, and that probably has some roots in my Thayer education.
How to Produce More Engineers: The issues are complex. They involve our social values as expressed in our political economy, the nature and quality of K-12 education and undergraduate engineering education, as well as the behavior of professional engineering societies.
JOHN McNEILL ’83 (A.B.)
Associate Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering,
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Research: I work on “mixed signal” analog and digital integrated circuit design, unlike most integrated circuits, which are digital, like microprocessors. My research is sponsored mainly by Analog Devices and Allegro MicroSystems, semiconductor companies with a strong presence in Massachusetts.
Thayer Influences: Friends at WDCR, the radio station at Dartmouth, told me I had to take a course with former Professor David Stratton in electronics. Both Stratton’s material and his style of teaching caught my interest, and I decided to get a job in that area after I graduated. He guided students through the learning process by recalling how he understood and learned things. He could do theory as well as practical real-world thinking. He didn’t just push equations around. About a year and a half ago a group of alumni from the class of 1982, who I kept in touch with, had a dinner for him, and I was honored to go.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: I won WPI’s Board of Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1999, and the 2007 Chairman’s Exemplary Faculty Prize for combining teaching, research, and scholarship. I learned most of the techniques that make me an effective educator from this brilliant professor at Thayer.
How to Produce More Engineers: We’re losing talent to big-money finance companies because society is skewed that way right now. Students have to pay back thousands in loans, so how can I encourage them to take low-paying jobs? I love engineering—the problem solving and the aspect of it that you’re helping people, improving drug development to save lives, for example. But we have a real problem of retention. To encourage more people to become engineers—and we do need more engineers in all areas of society—we need to make engineering a more rewarding profession.
SARAH ATWOOD ’03 TH’04 ’05 (A.B., B.E., M.S.)
Assistant Professor of Physics and Engineering,
Research: My research consists mostly of engineering education scholarship, as Elizabethtown is primarily a teaching-focused college, and working with undergraduates to continue some of my master’s and doctoral research on the material properties of the polyethylene used in hip and knee replacements. My most recent undergraduate researcher created computational models from scanning electron microscope images of the microstructure of various formulations of polyethylene and performed a parameter study to assess the effects of microstructural changes on the bulk material properties. I enjoy working on an aspect of engineering that directly helps people and one that creates more young engineers to work on solving the world’s problems.
Thayer Influences: Professor Francis Kennedy was the first to suggest early on that I consider becoming a professor. His statics course first got me really interested in mechanics, and as my senior thesis and master’s thesis advisor, he inspired my interest in biomaterials. Professors Erland Schulson and Horst Richter mentored me when I was a teaching assistant and showed me how wonderful a course can be when taught well. I think of them often when teaching my courses. Doug Van Citters was an important mentor to me as well when he was a Ph.D. candidate.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: Elizabethtown College reminds me a lot of Thayer in that we emphasize a broad-based general engineering curriculum, where mechanical engineers must take electrical courses and so on. We also are housed in a liberal arts setting, and I try to tie the students’ core liberal arts distributives to the engineering curriculum, as well as emphasize skills, such as communication and teamwork.
How to Produce More Engineers: I am starting a Society of Women Engineers chapter at the college and am passionate about getting more women into engineering. I think that part of it is a marketing issue. Instead of the message “Engineering is for you if you like math and science,” I want to see the message “Engineering is for you if you want to make the world a better place.” I do K-12 engineering outreach. One of my undergraduate classes just visited a local middle school where they showed cool engineering demonstrations to students. The men in the class enjoyed it as much as the women. I think it is key to engage men as well in our effort to diversify engineering.
STEVEN BEYERLEIN TH’81 (M.S.)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering,
University of Idaho
My Research: I research catalytic engine testing, engine tuning with alternative fuels, engineering graphics, design pedagogy, and scholarship of teaching and learning. I approach research collaboratively, with reflective practice and engagement of all stakeholders. It gives me the opportunity to join ranks with undergraduates, graduate students, professional staff, and faculty and colleagues in contemporary engineering problems recognized by the National Academy of Engineering, in Society of Automotive Engineers competitions, and in Thayer’s Formula Hybrid International Competition.
Thayer Influences: I was especially impacted by Thayer’s community-focused approach to teaching, learning, and research—an enterprise that respected and fully embraced undergraduate students, graduate students, professional staff, and faculty as significant contributors.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: Authentic problems, collaborative approaches, process documentation, and entrepreneurial spirit are in all aspects of engineering life. I believe that teaching and learning is a two-way process that should change what one knows, how one learns, and how this is internalized in daily life.
How to Produce More Engineers: Addressing general literacy about engineering and its role in society involves impacting general student populations at the K-12 level and as part of collegiate core curricula through design activities and group processing of compelling case studies. We need to remediate risk factors and learning liabilities that cause students to drop out, without compromising academic rigor or professional preparation. It’s important to fix the leaks in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) pipeline before we try to push more people in the front end of the existing pipeline. Faculty development is also an important, non-trivial piece in the puzzle. The goal isn’t to have everyone doing exactly the same things in the same way, but to have a broader population of faculty who are reflective practitioners about teaching and learning and dedicated to continuous improvement.
DAN O. POPA ’93 ADV ’94 TH’94 (A.B., M.S.)
Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering,
Automation & Robotics Research Institute,
The University of Texas at Arlington
Research: I work primarily in micro- and nanorobotics and human robotic interaction. I’ve worked with robots that are a millimeter in size, with nanometer resolution. The robots I make are so small that we can place them inside a microscope. The field of nanorobotics is just getting started. Though it has yet to really create a significant industry, we are undergoing a major evolution away from expensive, bulky, and difficult-to-use machines, toward inexpensive, small, user-friendly, safe systems. We take system-level approaches from the macroscale and combine them with the microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology to provide a new way to set up machines. If large robots were scaled down, a person couldn’t make grippers or gears with their hands for them. MEMS technology and micro-assembly give you the ability to put these systems together.
Thayer Influences: Former Assistant Professor Sunil Singh got me started with robotics. I worked on two research projects with him. One, with the MIT Media Lab, involved a virtual reality simulation training project for the Navy called Virtual Sailor. The other was with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center anesthesiologist Chris Wiley creating a training device for simulating spinal tap surgery—a common process now.
Incorporating Thayer’s Education Approach: The Navy project was one of my first exposures to engineering research. It convinced me to do a Ph.D. in robotics. I credit Sunil for that and for the experience I had at Thayer. Sunil went on to try his fortunes in starting companies and became a successful entrepreneur. He was kind enough to give a talk about starting companies to my students a few years ago.
How to Produce More Engineers: First, we need to relate their professions to solving grand challenges of humanity, such as extending human lifespan, improving the social and family lives of people, or exploring unknown environments, including space, oceans, and the nanoscale. Science can help, but without engineers major steps forward in these professions won’t be possible. The other way to get students involved in engineering is to improve the image problems engineers seem to have. Engineers are not geeks but multifaceted individuals with a larger horizon and entrepreneurial potential. The efforts at Thayer to connect engineering to the arts, social sciences, and medicine are very valuable.
THIERRY BLANCHET TH’88 ’92 (M.S., Ph.D.)
Professor of Mechanical Engineering,
Department of Mechanical, Aerospace & Nuclear Engineering,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Research: I’m interested in solid lubrication, particularly self-lubricating materials—an approach whereby low levels of friction can still be achieved even in the absence of fluid lubricants by having contacting materials whose surfaces are covered with low shear strength surface films. Maybe I’m still trying to master my own Thayer doctoral thesis on self-lubricating polymers and the wear resistance that hard filler particles provided them. The wear-resistance mechanism put forth for such composites described the wear resistance mechanism of filler particles, which at that time were generally micro-scale. A journal paper we published on it in 1992 while I was still a student at Thayer remains my most frequently cited work. However, extrapolation of that model predicts this wear-reduction mechanism should become ineffective as filler particle size is decreased. To the contrary, as we subsequently began to study nanoscale fillers here at Rensselaer, we found them to not only remain effective, but even more so than traditional micro-scale fillers previously studied. Fortunately, it appears that the wear-reduction mechanism of my thesis still stands, but is limited to micro-scale fillers. The challenge for us now is to understand additional wear reduction mechanisms that emerge and become predominant as particle size is drastically reduced.
Thayer Influences: Thayer provided me with the good fortune of small classes and close interaction with a collection of faculty members in the area of solid mechanics. My research advisor, Professor Francis Kennedy, and Professors Erland Schulson, Harold Frost, and Ian Baker were not only unusually strong technically, but also shared a materials science-based approach to this topic. If I had the foresight to know that my own research later at Rensselaer would get into hip joint materials for a period of a few years, I would have absolutely taken Professor John Collier’s biomaterials course, but nonetheless it was great to have him on my doctoral committee with his own work on polymer wear, even if on a different polymer system than the one I was studying at the time. Finally, it would be too inexcusable an oversight if I didn’t credit heavily Victor Suprenant for his experience and the personable manner in which he shared it with his students as we conducted experiments and for his subsequent role as a resource to tap in our research efforts.
Incorporating Thayer’s Educational Approach: Professor Francis Kennedy is recognized for approaching tribology from a standpoint of frictional heating and thermal aspects of contacts—an approach I learned from his tribology and surface mechanics courses and now base my own tribology course upon at Rensselaer. It has been a pleasure to see this basis for viewing tribology propagate on from this course to subsequent generations of courses elsewhere, with students in my course continuing on as faculty members, and their students doing the same. To be a link in that dissemination is remarkably gratifying.
How to Produce More Engineers: As a cycling enthusiast, I would encourage aspiring engineers, particularly those mechanically focused, to understand how a bicycle—or some similarly basic mechanical system—works and how to maintain and perform simple repairs upon it. I think simple experiences such as this help provide a solid foundation upon which an engineering education can be built, while also providing one form of occasional yet necessary distraction that is not only healthy but also clears the mind for some wandering thoughts that sometimes prove creative or even revelatory.
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