This week, five members of WVU Tech’s first-ever Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Aero Design team will travel from Montgomery to Forth Worth, Texas, to compete in SAE Aero Design East, March 11-13.
The competition challenges engineering students to design, construct and fly a remote-controlled, fixed-wing cargo plane.
The project marks another major entry for WVU Tech SAE, which is known for its work in the Society’s Baja buggy competitions. Dr. Winnie Fu, WVU Tech professor of Engineering Technology and advisor to the student chapter of SAE, said that putting together an aero design team was the next logical step for the organization.
“I’ve been looking to start an SAE Aero Design team for a while,” she said. “It is a competition that is almost purely design at heart. It provides all the benefits: engineering learning, team building and camaraderie without being costly or equipment-intensive. Team sizes also tend to be smaller, which fits in nicely with our student population.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Aero Design competition. In Texas, WVU Tech’s team dubbed “Golden Wings” will be facing off against 75 teams from around the world.
LS Wang, team leader and senior mechanical engineering student, said he hopes it will mark the first in a long line of successful seasons for Tech’s new team.
“It’s an international event, so it’s going to be very exciting. We’re a little nervous, but we’re confident. It’s our first time going out. We’re excited to see what we can do,” he said.
The team has been working on their #19 plane since last August. The design phase ran from then until the end of January. Now the team is wrapping up the build phase and testing their design before they make the 16-hour trip to Forth Worth on Wednesday.
The competition is divided into three components: the design portion, an oral presentation and a flight competition. In the latter, the plane is loaded with cargo and must take off from a 200-foot runway, complete a midair turn and successfully land.
The #19 plane is no handheld toy. It boasts a wingspan of eight feet and from tip to tail, the plane is over four feet long. It’s made of materials like balsa wood, pine and spruce each material chosen for its specific properties in relation to where it would be included in the plane.
The team has quite a bit of room to design, but is required by competition rules to use a power limiter on the plane’s motor. This part prevents the motor from drawing more than 1000 watts from the battery and serves to even the playing field for each team. With standardized power limits, teams must focus on elements such as weight and flight design to make their projects stand out.
“We had to factor in the weights and structural properties of the different kinds of wood. The whole thing will weigh around 12.5 pounds with no payload, including electronics. We’re hoping it will be able to realistically move a payload of around 25-30 pounds, depending on weather and wind,” said Wang.
Wang said he’s excited to put #19 to the test because it represents the culmination of an educational journey for the entire team.
He and his teammates were able to rely on help from professors and friends from varying disciplines throughout the state. The team partnered with BridgeValley Community and Technical College to use the college’s laser-cutting machine in South Charleston. They consulted with mechanical engineering professors at Tech and at WVU in Morgantown. The group bought books on flight design, bounced ideas off of aerospace engineering students and even worked with civil engineering professors to learn about structural integrity.
“We didn’t know much about aerospace going into this, so we had to learn a lot of material. We have a lot of resources. We were fortunate enough to have that help through the manufacturing process and to have someone to let us know what kinds of problems we would be facing,” he said.
For Wang, the project has been a powerful way to connect what the team is learning in their coursework with real-world applications.
“We know how to calculate stress. We know how to make something lighter or thinner or more efficient on paper, but many times we don’t get to put those designs to the test. We learn about stuff in 100 percent perfect conditions, but in real life, we’re learning that it might not be the case. You can’t have perfect conditions, so we have to compensate and compromise to make our designs work” he said.
In all, the team has spent around $2,500 for registration, parts and material. The project is supported by SAE’s general sponsors and WVU Tech mechanical engineering alumnus Cory Igo, ‘13, is covering the team’s hotel expenditures to offset costs.
For Fu, the team’s work and upcoming competition is a sign that the student chapter of SAE is flourishing.
“I believe it shows that students, the university and our sponsors are recognizing the value of what students learn through participating in the SAE organization,” she said.
Wang agrees, and said that the team’s experience is already paying off.
“Being a member of SAE lets students work on real-world problems so they can prepare for the workforce. There are manufacturers and engineers that are looking for people like us. They need people like us because we can set up and start getting to work on the first day,” he said.
Find out more about SAE Aero Design East and get competition results on the SAE International website.
February 21-27 is National Engineers Week, and WVU Tech is celebrating by sharing the stories of students who are preparing to launch their careers and alumni who are doing great things in theirs.
Check out this story for more: WVU Tech students and faculty showcase STEM fields, celebrate National Engineers Week
A little over 40 years ago, a boy sat at a desk in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, with a simple task: write about what he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn’t hesitate. Putting pencil to paper, he wrote “a civil engineer.”
That boy from Cross Lanes was John Jarrett, P.E., ‘84, president of Jarrett Construction Services, Inc. Since then, he’s built a career spanning thirty years, earned his professional engineering licensure in two states and launched a successful construction company that has been renovating and building structures in West Virginia and the surrounding states for nearly two decades.
“My dad was a survey party chief, and a pretty good one from what I’ve been told. He had an eighth-grade education. When I was 11 or 12, I would go with him on weekends to small side jobs he was doing, like sewer and water lines throughout the Kanawha Valley,” he said.
When he began his college career, Jarrett thought he would go into architecture, and started out in architectural drafting at West Virginia State University. The pull to engineering was too strong, so Jarrett switched gears and enrolled in the civil engineering program at WVU Tech.
During his time in Montgomery, Jarrett was involved in intramural sports and Greek life on campus. He was also a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and competed with the organization’s concrete canoe team at ASCE’s regional competitions. He said his college experience was a mix of excitement and challenge.
“All of that rolled into one is the foundation of my career and my business. I wouldn’t trade my Tech education for anything,” he said.
Shortly after graduation, Jarrett took a job as a civil engineer working at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington, D.C. He worked there for four years, then moved into a position with a private contractor working on government projects in the D.C. area. As the Cold War wound down in the late eighties, so too did spending on military and government construction projects. Jarrett left the Beltway area and headed home to West Virginia in 1990.
For the last 17 years, he’s been running Jarrett Construction. The business started out with a heavy emphasis on the restoration of older buildings, but has since expanded to include the design and construction of commercial and light industrial facilities, office buildings, churches, schools and auto dealerships. The company maintains offices in Charleston and Morgantown, West Virginia, and services the state and the Mid-Atlantic region.
“The rush that gets me going is seeing the delight in our clients’ eyes when we turn their new building over to them. It was a thrill 17 years ago and it remains the same today. Helping our clients determine what they need, how they can afford it and then bringing it all together is still what charges me up the most,” he said.
Jarrett said his years at the helm has allowed him to oversee some fascinating projects.
One of Jarrett’s largest builds was the Charleston headquarters of Energy Corporation of America (ECA). Completed in 2014, the 60,000-square-foot facility cost more than $10 million to construct and is located in Charleston’s NorthGate Business Park. The building houses more than 100 ECA employees and features a modern glass exterior, motion-sensor lighting designed to conserve energy, wellness facilities and an interior quarter-mile walking track.
Jarrett said some projects have offered him experiences he never thought he’d have in the business, like when the company built a gathering space addition onto the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral in Charleston. The cathedral was built in elaborate Romanesque style architecture in 1897. Its addition called for specially prepared building materials.
“That project required 300 tons of sandstone quarried from the side of a mountain in Pennsylvania. We went there and saw the boulders quarried and cut into huge slabs. Those slabs were sent to Cleveland to be cut into stones, then on to Rock Branch, West Virginia, to be sandblasted to give them an aged appearance. We brought them to Charleston to be used in the addition. That has always stood out in my mind as a wonderful, very memorable project,” he said.
For Jarrett, projects like the ECA building and the cathedral addition highlight the versatility of an engineering education. He said engineering students have a wide range of paths open to them outside of research and design that they may not consider when they’re in school.
“A typical workday for me includes meeting with clients, coordinating manpower and other resources for all our jobsites, planning for current and future projects, reviewing the firm’s financial performance and charting its course. It’s different than the typical day for most engineers,” he said.
“The fact that I have an engineering degree and professional engineering licensure allows me to communicate on the level of the many engineers I encounter in my business. I negotiate engineering contracts regularly, and since I understand their work, I can work with them closely to get into the finer details that make a project successful,” he said.
Jarrett said that, in addition to the technical understanding that comes with an engineering background, solid communications skills and flexibility are a must in the industry.
“Engineering teaches that there is a logical black and white solution to problems. However, field experience, on-the-job training and real life situations have taught me that there are intangibles that don’t always fit neatly into a mathematical equation. This is especially true when dealing with people, whether that may be mentoring a fresh new intern, reviewing a seasoned employee or describing project details to a client,” he said.
For new grads breaking into the civil engineering and construction industries, Jarrett said he sees a future packed with technological innovation and the ability to work from anywhere in the world.
“Technology is leading a revolution in the construction industry,” he said. “Our project managers and superintendents all use computers and construction-specific software. We have smart phones, lap tops and video conferencing. Our superintendents are taking iPads onto the job site, snapping pictures of problem areas. Our site contractors are using GPS to layout and grade roads and building pads. We can even estimate site work, building restoration and a variety of other items on a project anywhere in the country without having to leave our desk with the use of Google Earth.”
When he’s not on the job site, Jarrett is active in the business and philanthropic community. He’s still a member of ASCE. He’s also active with the West Virginia Society for Professional Engineers and the World Presidents’ Organization (WPO), which connects business leaders from throughout the world to share their experience and exchange ideas.
He serves as a board member of Mid Atlantic Technical and Engineering, the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association and Poca Valley Bank, and as a volunteer director for the Capitol Market in Charleston. Jarrett is also active with AMBUCS, a charitable organization that helps people with mobility disabilities by offering therapeutic tricycles and scholarships for physical therapy students in the state.
In his free time, Jarrett is a family man. He married his high school sweetheart, Susan. The two are WVU football and basketball fans, and frequently travel to Morgantown to attend games. They have three children together; a daughter and two sons. Jarrett also stays busy doting on his granddaughter, who turns two this spring.
Jarrett’s oldest son is currently studying civil engineering at WVU. For students going into the field, he offers the same advice he gave to his own son.
“The future is bright, however, success will require hard work, dedication and perseverance. My advice would be to study hard and make good grades. All things being equal, when I’m interviewing recent graduates, the one with the best GPA will be selected,” he said.
“No matter what, don’t forget to have fun along the way. Whatever career it is you choose, make sure you enjoy it. I love what I do and can’t imagine what a bummer it would be getting out of bed dreading going to work every day,” he said.
For Cody Webb, there’s no greater feeling than being out on the job site.
Growing up in Pinch, West Virginia, Webb was exposed to construction at an early age. He remembers being around the field as a kid, tagging along with his father and grandfather to various jobsites and setting up his own construction projects in the back yard.
“I have always had an interest in construction and building things. I’ve been around it all my life. My grandfather was a homebuilder and painter. My father worked in the oilfields. All of that got me fascinated with heavy equipment and watching how a construction project comes together,” he said.
The senior civil engineering major plans to go directly into the construction industry after graduation, where he can spend his days making those kinds of projects happen on a much grander scale.
“Civil engineering will allow me to have a lifelong career in a field that is related with construction. I enjoy being out on a job site, not stuck doing the same thing every day. There are different challenges you see when you’re out there and you have to come up with solutions. It’s not the same every day and it keeps you on your toes,” he said.
Webb said he chose to study at WVU Tech because he was attracted to the small class sizes and the fact that he knew he would get to work directly with his professors. In his time at Tech, Webb became a member of the WVU Tech student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). He also works for the civil engineering department chair as a student grader.
“I grade the homework assignments for different classes throughout the year. To grade assignments, you have to have had the class previously, so I’m always going over materials I have already learned. It’s like a constant refresher course. It helps you stay sharp,” he said.
Webb’s primary career goal is to become a professionally licensed civil engineer. He’ll have to take a series of exams after graduation and work in the field for some time before he can earn that title. Ultimately, he wants to find himself in a position where he can design simple, practical projects that enhance the wellbeing of those around him.
“Civil engineering is important in today’s world because everything is changing constantly. With those changes, roads, bridges and buildings are always needing to be updated and built to accommodate these changes. To me, that makes it our responsibility to be as safe and efficient as possible and to improve the quality of infrastructure for everyone,” he said.
Outside of the classroom, Webb is gaining experience where he can. Last summer, he worked for a local construction company. He said his time in the field taught him a lot about the way design and practice work together.
“I was out there doing simple stuff like material calculations. At the same time, I was able to help the workers on-site and was able to see the problems you run into in a construction project,” he said.
“I learned that a design on paper and what you’re actually building can be two different things. You can’t always make the perfect design on the first try. Without being there in the field to see the problems and challenges that come up, you don’t always know what to account for,” he said. “But you also can’t solve all those problems without an understanding of design to come up with a solution.”
In his study of the discipline and his work in the field, Webb found that he has an interest in the mechanical behavior of soil and how to design structures in problematic terrain. He said he’s also interested in building materials and was surprised by the amount and variety of materials used in the industry. He’s particularly fascinated with recyclables.
“In the near future I see the field of civil engineering using more recycled materials and using advancing technology to develop superior structures more affordably and efficiently. Right now, engineers overseas are using a lot of geosynthetic materials, which are mostly made up of plastic,” he said.
“They’re using up these old plastics so they’re not sitting in a landfill somewhere. They’re being put to good use as geogrids or geotextiles that reinforce soil. These materials are very durable and, if you use them right, you can do almost anything with them. They’re also cheaper than the steel I-beams and other structural materials we tend to use, which are much more expensive to purchase and install,” he said.
Webb said he’s happy with his college career choice and that he’s excited to start putting his training and education to use. His advice for students considering a career in the industry? Go for it, and don’t look back.
“Civil engineering is a great career choice. There are endless possibilities in civil engineering due to its different disciplines,” he said. “You can be a project manager or a design engineer. You can work collecting safety data for roads. You can do wastewater and drinking water systems. There are endless opportunities. It’s not just roads and bridges. It’s everything.”
WVU Tech students joined student researchers from throughout the state today for Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.
WVU Tech students showcased 14 research projects ranging from the role of religion in coping with stress among college students to smart window technology and the use of algae to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.
Daniel Noel, a senior electrical engineering student from Clay County, was part of a team that tackled electricity production in automobiles.
“Our project attempts to solve the issue of electricity production in vehicles. Right now, the typical alternator in your car is only 21 percent efficient, which means that for every dollar you spend in electrical power production to run things like your air conditioner or radio, you lose 79 cents. Not very many people know that,” he said.
“We’ve taken the wasted power from vibrations in the shocks and heat from the exhaust and converted it into electrical energy. It will increase the fuel efficiency of your car by 5 percent. Over the life of a vehicle, that’s a savings of about $2,500. The technology can also be used in a much larger scale to capture and convert wasted vibration energy on trains and bridges,” he said.
Robert A. Gresham, a senior in WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program, visited the capitol with his team to share their work on ocean thermal energy conversion.
“This type of conversion uses temperature difference between low and high points in the ocean to create power. This process typically relies on steam to produce power, but our design works with ammonia, which allows us to operate within a much smaller temperature difference. We used modeling software to model what the real system would look like and to see how changes in surface temperature would impact power output and efficiency,” he said.
He said that modeling projects in this way is an important step in working out problems and ensuring that multi-million-dollar energy projects have solutions in place before they are built.
For Gresham, Undergraduate Research Day is an important opportunity to showcase the work of West Virginia’s students.
“It lets people know that we have very, very smart kids right here in West Virginia. If we provide them opportunities to show the kind of work they can do and how smart they can be, it reminds people of the importance and value of what college students are doing,” he said.
Mark Magallanes, a junior psychology major who came to WVU Tech from Arizona, said the day is also about professional practice. He discussed his research on narcissism among college athletes, and found that he was gaining valuable experience in pitching his work to professionals.
“It’s important to put yourself out there as you prepare for graduate school and finding a job,” he said. “It’s nice to meet with people and recruiters to get your name out there. To learn to talk about your work with confidence and open your mind to other research that’s going on.”
Visit WVU Tech on Flickr to see photos from Undergraduate Research Day.
When Lori Shaffer, P.E., ‘94, had to decide on the college program that would shape the course of her career, she knew it had to be chemical engineering.
“I love mathematics and chemistry. My dad was a civil engineer. So I chose chemical engineering. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I did a couple of internships and fell in love with it,” she said.
A few years later, she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, a degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics.
Now Shaffer puts her WVU Tech education to use at Columbia Pipeline Group as Lead Gas Quality Engineer. She’s responsible for monitoring gas quality in the company’s more than 15,000 miles of pipeline stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to New York and from Virginia to Indiana.
“I’m responsible for monitoring the quality of the gas coming into our pipelines to ensure it meets the limits set by our tariff. As part of that, I do a lot of electronic monitoring of receipt points into the gas pipeline. The general idea is that I keep the bad gas out and make sure that gas is flowing in a way that ensures our pipeline is safe and reliable,” she said.
Shaffer has held a number of titles in her engineering career. She started out at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) as a production engineer, where she worked in a chemical plant making sure the facility produced products in a safe and efficient way. She was also given the reins over some major plant projects.
“I was the field engineer over the installation of a large enclosed filtration system for one of the chemicals we produced. It was a large-capital project. I was the field contact, so I had to commission it. It was a new piece of equipment that no one else in the company had worked with before. It was a little daunting, but we made it work,” she said.
In 2001 Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide. Shaffer moved into a supply chain role within the company, working as a production planner and scheduler. She monitored product orders and inventory. In that role, she coordinated the activity of reactors, drumming stations and tank car racks to make sure the facility was effectively meeting client demand.
Shaffer became a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, which gave her specialized training in using data to find and eliminate weaknesses and defects in processes. She put those skills to work in project management where her mission was to save the company money and remove inefficiencies in different plant processes.
This love for logistics led to one of Shaffer’s favorite projects. At Dow, she was charged with examining logistics for the company’s chemicals business across the entire country.
“We had drums of materials stored in several facilities across the country because that was the previous company’s model. They kept a little bit of inventory close to each customer base. They would ship ten drums to a location and monitor when the customer had used that up. That turned out to be a very costly way of doing things,” she said.
“Dow wanted me to optimize that network, and to look at how we could still offer great service to our customers who needed product quickly. The project took a lot of data analysis and looking at logistics networks to come up with a solution. We settled on a centralized storage facility. We could ship full truckloads of material from there to our customers or to a satellite area, and I was able to save the company over a million dollars in logistics costs in that project. It was pretty awesome,” she said.
Shaffer worked in logistics for a few companies after Dow, and left the chemical business in 2009. She decided to try her hand at teaching and became an instructor in WVU Tech’s engineering technology department. She taught industrial and mechanical engineering technology classes at her alma mater for three years.
After her time at Tech, Shaffer joined Columbia as an operations analyst. That position required her to analyze data from natural gas compressors, or the massive, motor-driven devices that compress natural gas so that pipelines stay pressurized and gas keeps moving. Her analysis allowed the company to predict potential failures in these compressors and get ahead of the game on their maintenance.
Soon after, Shaffer moved into her new position in gas quality, where she said her education and training has come full circle.
“I have to apply my chemistry and chemical engineering education because I have to understand the chemistry of all of the impurities that come up from the ground in natural gas and how those constituents interact with each other. I also have to understand fluid dynamics, so this job is calling on everything I learned at Tech,” she said.
In order to monitor gas quality in the pipeline system, the company uses a network of gas chromatographs. These devices are used to determine the chemical makeup of natural gas flowing through various receipt points where natural gas enters the system.
To operate properly, these gas chromatographs require the use of a calibration gas. When the company recently needed to find a new vendor for that gas, they relied on Shaffer’s expertise to make it happen.
“I’ve been interviewing vendors, doing site visits and auditing businesses to see if they’re capable of handling our needs. So now that we’ve settled on a new vendor, I’m taking new information and a new ordering process and rolling it out to our field employees because they’re the ones who work with the calibration gas. There’s a lot of coordination that goes into even the simplest changes when you’re working on a system of this scale,” she said.
For Shaffer, this kind of problem solving is just part of the day-to-day in chemical engineering. It’s a field she said works behind the scenes to make products people use every day.
“Chemical engineers make just about anything you touch, from the plastics in sandwich bags to the gum you’re chewing. Wrigley’s bubblegum base is made right here at a chemical plant in Charleston. The de-icer that allows airplanes to take off safely and the brake fluid used in GM cars are made here, too. Car dashboards are manufactured using the same polyvinyl resin as the bubblegum base,” she said.
“That’s the thing about chemical engineers. If we don’t have them, then there’s no one out there to make all this stuff we use on a daily basis,” she said.
Shaffer lives in Charleston, West Virginia with her husband Paul, a 2008 graduate of WVU Tech’s mechanical engineering program who also works at Columbia. The couple has two young children. Their son plays hockey for a traveling team and their daughter plays volleyball, so the family spends much of their free time traveling.
Shaffer is a member of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association. She also holds a master’s degree in engineering management from Marshall University. While at Tech, she was a founding sister of the University’s Alpha Sigma Tau (AST) sorority and remains active in the organization.
She’s built an impressive career on her love of chemistry and mathematics, and said that one of her greatest rewards is being able to give back through mentorships. Through programming at Columbia, she’s been able to work with an intern each summer to show these young students what a STEM career could mean for them.
“I have the opportunity to help shape and guide their working lives and help them get through school. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity. Two of the students that have worked for me are now with the company full time. That’s so rewarding,” she said.
For new grads heading out into the field, she said the oil and gas industry is going to be an area of opportunity for chemical engineers in the coming decades, particularly in distribution, transmission and drilling. Regardless of which field newcomers choose, she said that chemical engineers can be confident in that they’ll always have a place to work.
“STEM degrees are powerful. You know there’s always going to be innovation. You always need someone to keep processes moving along. You will always have a job. It’s not always going to be your dream job, but you’ll be able to find work somewhere because STEM and engineering degrees are so versatile,” she said.
“My background proves it. I’ve done everything from true production engineering to supply chain, logistics and higher education. An engineering background doesn’t just teach you how to engineer. It teaches you how to think logically and apply problem-solving to the world around you, no matter where that is or what you’re doing,” she said.
As a kid growing up in Ronceverte, West Virginia, WVU Tech chemical engineering student Harrison Martin remembers taking trips to the state capital of Charleston. He recalls driving past the chemical production facilities that operate just outside of the city and marveling at the labyrinths of tanks, pipes and stacks.
“To me they looked like a big maze. I always loved solving puzzles as a child and they are definitely a puzzle to be solved,” he said.
As he moved into high school, he started uncovering his aptitude in mathematics. Then he took a chemistry course, and that combination of interests made his career goals clear.
“To be able to know why things happen rather than just accepting the fact that they do intrigues me. What is it in toothpaste that cleans your teeth? What is put into the medicine at the stores? So when I had my first chemistry course in high school, I knew I wanted chemistry to be a part of my life,” he said.
Martin chased his love for chemistry to Montgomery, where he enrolled in WVU Tech’s chemical engineering program. Now a junior, he said he’s in the most intense part of the chemical engineer’s undergraduate education.
“Right now, I’m in the stage where we’re doing a lot of coursework. Taking a lot of courses. We’re learning a lot of information about equipment and the practical uses for that equipment. Learning how it works, how to design it and what works better in certain situations,” he said.
In addition to his academic responsibilities, Martin is an active member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honors society and WVU Tech’s American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) student chapter. He’s also part of the AIChE’s first-ever ChemE Car Team. The group is working on a small-scale car powered by a chemical reaction, and they hope to enter their creation into the spring 2017 competition.
In his down time, Martin is an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting, fishing, target shooting, hiking and skiing. He’s also a regular on the University’s intramural Frisbee team and plays with the crew twice a week.
Martin said that his experience at Tech has been one centered on putting theory to work in real-world situations. His professors have encouraged him to gain experience wherever he can, and have helped him line up internship opportunities.
Last summer, for instance, Martin worked as an intern at chemical manufacturer Cytec (now Solvay) on Willow Island in Pleasants County, West Virginia. At Cytec, Martin created visual workplace items, or images and flowcharts posted around the plant to ensure workers know how to respond to certain situations. He also worked on preventative maintenance projects and helped the company determine how a new reactor upgrade would impact capacity.
“I developed a scale-up model for the plant. They were replacing a 3000-gallon reactor with a 4000-gallon reactor. They needed to know what kind of capacity hit they were going to take because, in this process, they were going from two reactors down to just one. So I did a capacity analysis to see how much they would lose,” he said.
“I learned so much this past summer, and it’s nice to be able to relate my experience to the classes I’m in now. When professors start talking about a centrifuge or some other piece of equipment, I know exactly what they’re talking about and I’ve actually worked with it,” he said.
He’ll be continuing his hands-on education this summer in an internship with Dow Chemical in Charleston, where he hopes to gain invaluable experience assisting the chemical engineers working in one the company’s three regional plants.
“After my internship experience, I discovered a lot more pathways that I can take with my degree. I didn’t know how big the scope of employment was for chemical engineering. There are consulting firms that come in. In the plant itself, you have engineers that work with one procedure which is what I want to do and then you have technical managers and design engineers that handle the bigger projects,” he said.
Martin said he’s excited to start his career in the industry. He’s confident that his training will help him land a job.
“The thing I find most exciting about my field of study is the fact that I will always have something to do. There will always be projects that I can work on. Another key piece is that I will always be learning new processes and techniques. There will always be new technology, and new experiences,” he said.
“Chemical engineering is so important because chemical engineers make the materials that are put into everyday items. All plastics are made up of polymers that are synthesized in a chemical plant. Almost all drugs are synthesized in a chemical plant. The chemical industry is very important in today’s world. It offers a better, more efficient, more profitable society,” he said.
WVU Tech’s Gabbi Kelley can tell you exactly when she knew computer engineering was the career for her.
“Since I got my first laptop in 2006, I’ve had an interest in computers and how they work. I’ve always thought it was fun to understand ‘under the hood’ of a computer a little more than the typical user would,” she said.
A decade later, the Beckley, West Virginia native is wrapping up her undergraduate degree in computer engineering with a minor in mathematics at WVU Tech. She said she chose the University for its reputation and small campus environment.
During her time at WVU Tech, Kelley stayed involved on campus, holding leadership positions and active membership status in a number of student-run organizations. She’s a member of the Student Government Association and is active in WVU Tech’s faith-based student organizations, including Campus Light, Illuminate and the Christian Student Union.
Last year, Kelley was also instrumental in the founding of Golden Bear Outdoor Expeditions, a student group established in the fall 2015 semester. She’s vice president of the organization, which organizes outdoor adventure trips such as hiking, zip-lining, ice skating, caving, rappelling and fishing.
Outside of the classroom, Kelley said she likes to spend her free time in artistic pursuits. She’s a painter, and enjoys working in watercolor and acrylics. She’s also a jewelry maker She sells her creations at craft fairs and online. Over the last three years, she has established a successful shop on Etsy where she sells her handmade bracelets and necklaces.
Kelley also enjoys helping others. She has worked as a peer tutor in the University’s Student Success Center for the last three years, offering advice and assistance to students in math and computer engineering courses. She even spends her summer breaks giving tours to new students and helping out during open house recruitment events.
With graduation day on the horizon, Kelley said she’s excited about launching her new career. She hopes to find herself working for companies like Apple or Google, who are known for pushing the boundaries of innovation.
“My dream job as a computer engineer has always been to help design the next great product. In my day-to-day life, I naturally think of ways to improve the efficiency or ease of use of common, household items. For instance, when I’m using my iPhone I consider what Apple should add in their next software update,” she said.
“I also hope to work with exciting new technologies such as virtual reality,” she said. “Recently, Tesla Studios has developed a full body haptic virtual reality suit that allows video gamers to feel what their character would feel.”
Kelley is looking forward to working in computer engineering because she sees it as an opportunity to stay sharp and to work on the cutting-edge.
“My field is exciting because it’s always changing and technology is always improving. New programming languages, software tools and new processes are constantly in development. For example, the programming languages I have learned so far might be obsolete within ten years,” she said.
In addition to keeping up with constantly evolving processes, Kelley said one of the great challenges in her field if fitting more tech in less space. It’s a challenge she and other emerging computer engineers are ready to face.
“Since the invention of computers, our devices have become smaller and smaller. An issue the computer engineering industry is facing right now is that transistors are limited in how small and how close together they can be,” she said.
“In the next few years, I see computer engineers creating devices on a smaller and smaller scale. I’m excited to see how new technologies can be applied to the medical field, the aerospace industry, and in our day-to-day lives,” she said.
Kelley said that another challenge in computer engineering is recruiting females into the field.
“The most surprising thing I’ve learned about my field is the extreme lack of female representation. When I chose my major, I never imagined I was making a decision that was unusual for women. However, my classmates and professors have never made me feel out of place for being part of the minority. I would encourage any woman interested in engineering to pursue it,” she said.
She spent two summers working as a counselor in WVU Tech’s popular Camp STEM program, where she was able to provide some of that encouragement. She worked with middle and high school students to explore engineering fields.
She said that sparking an interest in engineering at a young age helps young students see opportunities they may not have otherwise discovered.
“Children want to be doctors, musicians and princesses when they grow up because their favorite cartoon characters represent those fields. If engineering was introduced to students at a younger age, I think there would be a greater interest in it, resulting in greater diversity in the field,” she said.
Tom Thompson, Ph.D., ‘92, is a WVU Tech computer science grad and a software engineer with a storied career in the film and video game industries. Based in Irvine, California, Thompson spends his days developing film software for Blizzard Entertainment, the studio behind popular video game franchises “Warcraft,” “Diablo” and “StarCraft.”
More importantly, he spends his days doing the work he loves.
Before landing in California, Thompson travelled the world. His father served in the Air Force, so Thompson spent his youth living in places like Maryland, Germany, Utah and Texas. During his freshman year of high school, the family moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia. It was there where he fell hard for all things computer science.
“They had a computer science lab and my sister took a class there. She was a senior at the time, so she would stay after school to work on the homework because we didn’t have a computer at home,” Thompson said.
“I would sit in the computer lab with her and play with the old TRS-80s that they had. That was eye-opening. I was amazed at what these things could do. Of course, those things were terrible compared to just about anything we have now,” he said.
Thompson found that he had a knack for punching in a few lines and making the machines do what he wanted them to do. He started reading Computer Science Magazine, which included sample programs. Thompson would study the samples and spend hours writing out his own programs. He’d bring his creations to the lab on his next visits to see what worked and what didn’t.
“It was exciting. I was very into it,” he said. “Because of that, my dad ended up buying us the Coleco Adam computer. It came out around the same time as the Commodore 64. It had dual tape drives and dual motherboards. I thought it was really nice, but it didn’t take off, so I was the only one I knew that had one.”
He still has it in his garage.
In the years since the computer lab in Martinsburg, Thompson has traveled the nation, furthering his education and building a prolific career as a software engineer.
Thompson attended Tech in the early 90s. He worked with professors like WVU Tech’s Don Smith, who taught Thompson and his peers to think like logicians and approach their careers as lifelong learners.
After Tech, Thompson attended Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He completed a master’s degree in computer science with a minor in radiology, then went on to earn his Ph.D. in computer science with a specialty in film at the University of Utah. Out of grad school, he headed west to California, where he took a job with Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.
He said he still remembers his first big task at Disney. The studio was working on “Kangaroo Jack,” and the artists ran into an odd problem.
“They came in and said ‘when the kangaroo jumps, the jacket goes up and down and the fur goes through the jacket.’ They asked me to fix it,” he said. “I knew then that things were going to be interesting from then on.”
Thompson spent more than ten years at Disney, where he held a number of positions. He started out as a software engineer, developing tools for the studio’s artists. For a time, he led a group that did hair development. He supervised teams that created things like painting tools, hair system tools and shaders. After that, his love for the work brought him back to the design desk.
“I went back to being a developer after that,” he said. “For me, it’s a lot more fun to actually do the work than to direct it.”
While at Disney, Thompson was the lead architect on the XGen instancing engine that determined the behavior of different animation elements, such as feathers, grass, fur and even the candy sprinkles in “Wreck-It Ralph.” The program was first employed in “Chicken Little” to govern the behavior of the feathers on the title character. The engine has been used in every Disney movie since, including major titles like “Meet the Robinsons,” “Bolt,” “Tangled,” Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen.”
Thompson said his work on the engine is one of the most memorable projects of his career, and that it gave him a chance to take on some unique challenges, like Rapunzel’s fantastically long hair in “Tangled.”
“Most of the time, you’re just trying to use something that already exists, but in a way that makes it your own. The hair on Rapunzel? Nobody had done that before. Nobody had 70-foot-long hair that had so many controls in it that you had to create more tools just to let the artist control it,” he said.
“That kind of project presents all kinds of challenges. How do you make it drag along the ground? How do you make it avoid rocks and the people walking alongside her? How do you braid it and put flowers in it and have that all stick and work right? It becomes its own kind of research project at that point. You start testing limits and exploring capabilities,” he said.
The XGen software was eventually picked up by Pixar and used on films like “Toy Story 3,” “Cars 2,” and “Up.” Disney now licenses the software. It’s being used in small studios, at Blizzard Entertainment and at DreamWorks Studios.
“They have a forum online where people can ask questions and talk about things they’ve done with the software. Since I wrote the program over ten years, I can go on and I get to be the expert for that package. That feeling is very rewarding, having contributed to the greater community as opposed to just one studio,” he said.
A few years ago, Thompson decided to try his hand in the video game industry. He moved to Irvine, California to take a position as a software engineer in Blizzard’s film group. It’s similar work, but instead of feature films, the group creates cinematics that run during games. He’s working on things like crowd systems and lighting tools that help the artists make the films.
For Thompson, it’s this collaboration that makes his job so interesting.
“Of course, there’s a lot of time in front of the computer, but for my job in particular, you’re doing your best work when you’re collaborating with the artists and finding what they want or need. My customers are the artists, so there’s a good bit of back and forth and multiple iterations for one client,” he said.
Working with Blizzard has given Thompson new boundaries to test, and he said it’s one of the most exciting aspects about what he does for a living.
“Every now and again, they’ll come in and tell me they’re setting up something like a shot of 10,000 orcs marching along. They need them all to be marching side-by-side, at different steps, wearing different clothing, some carrying torches and others carrying banners. They can’t do it because they can’t even load all of that onto one computer,” he said.
“You have to figure out what you can do to make this work and still let the artists have some control over it. Those moments when production can’t just brute force something, you get a chance to tackle a real challenge,” he said.
For young computer science and computer engineering professionals heading into the field, Thompson said pushing boundaries is going to be part of the day-to-day as concepts like hardware rendering and multi-processing are finding their way into the industry.
“For a long time, Moore’s Law ruled, where computers just got faster and faster at certain intervals. That’s kind of tapping out. You can’t just keep making processors with smaller and smaller wires on them. Eventually, you’ll not be able to physically do it. So now it’s about multi-core computers and computers with accelerators in them,” he said.
Thompson said that this emerging tech is both an opportunity and a challenge. Advanced processing can perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously, and will enable programmers to do more. However, there’s little in the way of established programming languages or troubleshooting resources for those working with multithreaded programs.
Even so, he sees a future full of potential for software engineers just breaking into the field.
“When I started, computers were like toys. They weren’t that powerful. Now they’re everywhere. It’s hard to do anything without touching upon a computer at some point. Desktops, laptops, tablets, phones. Most of us have one on us right now. There’s no shortage of ways to get involved in that field and contribute to that,” he said.
Throughout his career, Thompson has been an active member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the association’s SIGGRAPH community. He also played tennis and said he’s a big fan of professional sports.
He has two young children, and working at a video game studio has understandably elevated him to rock star status among their friends. He’s also been coaching a youth soccer team for the last few years, and said that parents of students considering a college career in computer science often ask him for advice.
“I tell them to stick with it. People don’t realize how much work it takes. Ask for help when you need it. Rely on your professors and your peers. It’s definitely worth it when you can get into a field that you enjoy,” he said. “I worked a long time to be able to choose my job. It makes a big difference when you make the choice that is right for you.”
For as long as he can remember, WVU Tech student Jeremy Ruth has been pulling things apart and putting them back together to see how they work. He’s a tinkerer with a passion for computers and electronics, and he’s working to turn those interests into a full-time career.
A double major in computer science and electrical engineering, Ruth grew up in Beckley, West Virginia. He spent a number of years in Florida, then a few more in California where he pursued a career as a professional musician before returning to his home state. Back home, he decided to take his interest in electronics a step further and enrolled in WVU Tech’s electrical engineering program.
“I like to build and modify things. I started with the electrical engineering degree originally since the type of work electrical engineers do sounded interesting,” he said. “As I got more into the degree, I realized that, in order to do the things I really wanted to do, I would need to have an understanding of electrical components as well as how to program or control them.”
His inquisitive nature is a powerful motivator, so he added a major in computer science to his career plan.
“I have always had some interest in computer science. I had done some programming in a very basic sense in previous jobs, and that was self-taught. Being exposed to programming in that setting made me realize that I wanted to know more about it. I find it amazing how much we can accomplish with ones and zeros. With ever-increasing options for making programs that can do more, it’s a pretty exciting field to explore,” he said.
He said studying the two disciplines has opened his eyes to the interconnectedness of many STEM fields, and that he’s uncovered a surprising amount of overlap between the programs.
“Electrical engineering provides the physical frameworks that are used to allow all of this programming magic to happen. The process of translating a concept in someone’s mind into a set of instructions, which is then interpreted by hardware that is essentially reading high and low voltages at incredibly fast speeds is pretty amazing to me. Much of our modern society is dependent on that chain,” he said.
Ruth said he’s excited about the opportunities his major choices will open up. He plans to start the job hunt soon, and is searching for opportunities in the region.
“Ideally, I would like to be in a situation where the goal is to solve problems by developing new devices or hardware. Something where I can mix research and design and really put what I’ve learned in both fields to work,” he said.
Regardless of where he winds up, Ruth said that he and his fellow computer science and electrical engineering up-and-comers could be working with some revolutionary new technologies in the coming years.
“Society will definitely need many computer scientists and electrical engineers to create the technologies that we envision as ‘the future.’ There are so many things that you can end up doing in either field,” he said.
He said the future he looks forward to seeing includes developments in areas like artificial intelligence and 3D printing, which have powerful and widespread applications in everything from manufacturing to medicine.
He’s also interested in advancements in how computers think, including fuzzy logic (a type of computing logic that assigns values to the degrees in between binary’s ones and zeros), ternary computing (which uses three values instead of binary’s two) and quantum computing.
“Just those few topics have the potential to have a huge impact on where the industry goes in the future. Not just in developing new technology, but also how we interact with it. I think both fields will only continue to expand as modern life becomes more and more dependent on the things that these two fields together create.”
While he finds the notion of working with emerging technologies exciting, Ruth’s interest in computer science and electrical engineering comes down to improving the world around him.
“The demand for these fields comes directly from a need to overcome challenges to ultimately improve life for people,” he said. “As the problems we want to solve have become more and more complex and detailed, many times the accuracy and capabilities required to solve these problems can only be achieved through computers or automated systems. Computer scientists and electrical engineers will play a critical role in meeting those needs.”
He said the biggest challenge in his field will be creating these systems while keeping up with shrinking technology and finding cleaner, more efficient ways to power all this tech.
Now in his junior year, Ruth said he’s working hard to stay on schedule.
He commutes to campus from his home in Beckley, where he lives with his wife, Gina. When he’s not mastering the principles of circuitry or testing the waters in a new programming language, he spends his time reading and gaming.
Ruth is a multi-talented musician who sings and plays guitar, bass and piano. He likes to spend time building and repairing things, and more often than not, those interests collide. Right now, for instance, he’s building a guitar from scratch.
It’s a lot of work, balancing life and two rigorous majors, but Ruth said he’s excited about everything he’s learning. His advice for students studying computer science or electrical engineering is to do the same dig into it wherever they can.
“So far, my experience has been that the best way to learn is to spend time working with the tools of the field. Write programs in several languages, and try to solve problems that you have in your life, even if a program already exists for it. Get your hands dirty with electrical components and devices. Learn about them, build them and take them apart,” he said.
“These things provide a great context for what is learned in the classroom and really help the concepts stick and relate to each other. It also helps you realize the challenges that you might face in your career and where your personal weaknesses may be so that you can strengthen them,” he said.