National Engineers Week alumni feature: Nathan Stark, P.E., MBA, '07
Mechanical engineering alumnus, Nathan Stark, P.E., MBA, ‘07.
Nathan Stark, P.E., MBA, ‘07, grew up in Wirt County, West Virginia, and it was among the sawdust and gear grease of a log processing mill that he first discovered his love for engineering and project management.
Stark’s father made his living building log homes, and when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased the mill that produced the materials he used in his business. He spent his time rebuilding the mill and the machinery within it.
It was in this setting that a young Nathan Stark found himself learning how machines work.
“I observed these processes and became interested in machine components: gears, transmissions, bearings, shafts and bolts. Essentially, moving parts – what is important to a mechanical engineer,” he said.
Following his fascination with machinery, Stark enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at WVU Tech and graduated in 2008. Since then, he has served in a variety of engineering roles, holding positions such as Maintenance Engineer, Store Engineer (where he managed procurement activities in a plant), Maintenance Project Manager, Piping Engineer and Project Engineer.
Stark quickly began to demonstrate a talent in project management, and rounded out his education with a Master of Business Administration degree at Marshall University. He now works as a Project Engineer assigned to projects for Dow Chemical at plants that produce everything from chemicals used in the oil and gas industry to the lubricating strips found on razor blades.
“I’m a project manager. I plan and execute engineering design projects from their initiation to completion. This entails managing the scope, schedule and budget of the project, as well as working collectively with design engineers,” he said.
Stark said that he’s able to find success in his field because his engineering education not only taught him the fundamental principles that govern how things works, but how to be a self-learner.
“As a project engineer, I manage the work of all the engineering disciplines on a project. In order to be successful, I must proactively learn new technical materials. One minute I am talking to a chemical engineer about process flow rates and velocities, the next minute I am talking to a civil engineer about the best way to repair a containment area,” he said.
Stark’s position requires him to put these skills to the test on a variety of projects, and he likes to take on projects that offer a challenge. He said that one of his most recent projects – a fire suppression system update at a local plant – is a prime example of the kind of work he enjoys doing.
The system uses water from a nearby river to fight instances of fire, but the system required an operator to manually start up a diesel engine that would have to pump water into the system to pressurize it before it could be used.
Stark and his team were charged with eliminating that lag time in the system by installing a nearby pump that would keep the system pressurized and ready to use at all times.
“This was a neat project,” said Stark. “We installed a pump that stands 45-feet tall and draws water from the bottom of the river. We had to work with divers who would go down and do some excavation where the pump sits. The system leaks, so we installed a control valve and flow meter that monitors leakage. This will throttle different amounts of water into the system to keep it pressurized, returning unused water back to the river.”
Stark said the project required nine months of oversight in planning, design, purchasing and installation. The team had to factor in everything from the lead time associated with ordering the pump to how to keep sediment from going into the system (and how to flush it out when it does).
“We’re excited now because the system is installed and ready. Once some maintenance work is completed, the fire water system will be active at all points in time. If a fire were to happen, the facility will have immediate water to the trouble area, which can save assets and potentially lives,” he said.
For Stark, that feeling of seeing a project through from start to finish is what keeps him so excited about his work.
“When we started that project, it was a few sentences about what the plant wanted. That was our starting point. So to go from that very high-level scope to all the complex details, plans and coordination that went into this project – and to be able to stand on the dock and watch this come together – is an unbelievably rewarding experience.”
Looking at his industry as a whole, Stark said the grand challenge project engineers face is lean project management, which challenges engineers to design projects in ways that generate less waste, are more efficient and produce more value.
“With the state of our economy, everybody is working very hard to do more with less resources. We currently have a goal to execute our project ten percent better than our peers by 2020. To do that, we will have to look very closely at our work processes and only use the tools that add value. Every project is unique, so doing this is not as easy as you would think. I believe this will be one of the big differentiators in project management in the coming years,” he said.
This tendency toward lean project management is something students going into the mechanical engineering or project engineering fields will need to understand, but Stark said that communication skills are just as important for emerging engineers.
“Learn what it takes to work with and motivate others. Whether you plan to be in a very technical career, such as research and development, or on the management side like I am, the ability to work in teams and to convey your thoughts and ideas will be extremely valuable to you,” he said.
Stark also suggested that students seriously consider their professional licensure path, and that they start planning for it while they are still in school.
“It’s something you’ll want to take seriously as you go into your career. If I had it to do again, I’d have taken my FE right out of school and my PE as soon as I could four years after that,” he said. “I think there’s definite value in having your PE working as an engineer in industry. It means something. You never have to take these exams, but they make a big difference in the types of positions you can get and the type of work you can oversee.”
Stark resides in Charleston with his wife, WVU Tech graduate Andrea Ard, ‘08. When he’s not overseeing plant projects, he’s an avid hunter and gunsmith. He’s also a WVU football and basketball fan.
He and Andrea are both active in the WVU Tech community, where Stark is a lifetime member of the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association. Stark also serves on the mechanical engineering department’s advisory board for ABET accreditation and the Phi Kappa Tau Board of Governors.
He says that connection to the school and its alumni have played an important role in his life, and encourages students to stay in touch with those who helped them make it to graduation day.
“Networking is very important. Join the alumni association. There are many opportunities to meet other alumni who may be established in your industry. You’ll be surprised at how meaningful it is to build these relationships. Not only have I received many job opportunities via networking, I have met many friends along the way,” he said.