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Interview with Dr. Erik Westman

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Erik Westman, the new Interim Associate dean for Academic… [more]

Interview with Dr. Erik Westman Interview with Dr. Erik Westman

Engineering Disciplines: Part 4

Over the past few months, we’ve been briefly describing many different disciplines of engineering,… [more]

Engineering Disciplines: Part 4 Engineering Disciplines: Part 4

Five Unique Ways to Dominate the Engineering Job Interview

The following list of tips should not be used as a checklist for an interview. This list is merely a… [more]

Five Unique Ways to Dominate the Engineering Job Interview Five Unique Ways to Dominate the Engineering Job Interview

Additional Tips from Amy Elliott and Ken Brown

As a follow-up to this aticle posted yesterday, Amy Elliott and Ken Brown offer some additional tips… [more]

Additional Tips from Amy Elliott and Ken Brown Additional Tips from Amy Elliott and Ken Brown

So You’re Considering the Ph.D.?

A light fog settles over the Virginia Tech campus at 7:58 in the morning and the cool air reminds students… [more]

So You’re Considering the Ph.D.? So You're Considering the Ph.D.?

Interview with Dr. Erik Westman


I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Erik Westman, the new Interim Associate dean for Academic Affairs at Virginia Tech. He spoke to me about the events that brought him to where he is today, and about what advice he would like to give current students.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you live and study, and what previous jobs have you held?

I was born in Denver, but moved to Iowa in my childhood. I ended up returning to Colorado, where I lived in Fort Collins. Having an interest in engineering and mining from a young age, I studied geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, where I got my bachelor’s degree. I then worked for the oil and gas industry for one year. Over time, I found I was more interested in geology and seismic behavior, so I went to the University of Colorado and proceeded to get my master’s in civil engineering, with a focus in oil and rock mechanics. There are many design challenges associated with rocks, mining, and geological surveying in general, and I was eager to get involved in research.

After one year in private civil engineering consulting, I found an opening at the Denver Research Center, which was a division of the Federal Bureau of Mines. I greatly enjoyed all the work that I did at the Bureau of Mines; we conducted tests and made major developments in mining technology. Unfortunately, the government decided to shut down the program, which left me out of a job. I now had four children and bills that had to be paid, so I went back into consulting. I then found an opportunity for a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech – I decided to give up my life in Colorado, and move to Blacksburg. I became a faculty member in 1999 and have been here ever since.

Did you ever envision yourself working in education?

Never – the thought didn’t even cross my mind until I was working on my master’s degree. I did a short internship with Shell in Texas, and with my previous work experience, realized I enjoyed research and education far more than industry work. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with great professors and peers. Working with students from so many backgrounds has truly been phenomenal, and the students here at Virginia Tech are exceptionally brilliant and motivated. In addition, I’ve also been able to communicate with researchers at other institutions throughout the world, including ones at universities in China, Australia, and Canada.

What drew you to Blacksburg in the first place; what has kept you here?

There are so many great people here in Blacksburg. I may have been a faculty member, but I’ve always felt like a student, as all of my peers and pupils have taught me so much. The leadership has always been supportive, and the engineering students at Virginia Tech are very inspired and dedicated. The town is a great place to raise a family, and everyone is very friendly. My life in Colorado was always hectic and rushed. Blacksburg in comparison, is very quiet and laid back. I felt the town embodied nature when I was so used to a landscape dominated by nurture. All of these factors, along with the opportunity to get my Ph.D. and continue research, made the move a great choice.

Have there been any “career-defining” moments? What are some of your proudest feats?

One of the Ph.D. candidates I worked with, Dr. Kray Luxbacher, who is now a faculty member here at Virginia Tech, was one of the first to observe changing stress in seismic tomography. Seismic behavior is very similar to the weather; even with the best tools, the Earth behaves in very unpredictable ways. However, unlike in meteorology, there are very few methods to predict and detect future seismic behavior, regardless of reliability. She was one of the first to develop a new way to show changing conditions underground, similar to how Doppler radar works, but for earthquakes. Being able to work with her on such a revolutionary new technology was an amazing experience, and I believe one that opened entirely new areas of seismic  study that will benefit millions around the world.

Have there been any major hurdles for you during your career?

I was not completely prepared for college. I still had a high school work ethic when I came into freshman year, and I actually failed my first test. It was a major wakeup call: college would actually require me to work like I never had before. For the rest of the semester, I studied tremendously and I actually managed to get an A in the class that I had failed the first test in. My advice to all the students here at Virginia Tech is to never give up. Expect challenges and hurdles, but work through them, and you will be rewarded. Later on in my career, while I was working here at Virginia Tech, I was trying to apply for a federal grant for research I was conducting. It was a very prestigious honor to receive this grant, and as such, it was very difficult to secure. The first time I applied for this award, I was denied. I asked the program manager what I did wrong, and how I could improve to raise my odds of getting the grant in the next year. He gave me some valuable feedback, which I incorporated into my work over the course of the next year. The next year, I was actually awarded the grant, which enabled us to do some incredible research. The research, in fact, was the seismic prediction I discussed earlier. I would like to reiterate that sometimes, things will not go the way you want them to the first time around; you will have to persevere, accept your failures, and learn from your mistakes. There will be hurdles, but if you stay motivated and work hard, you will succeed.

Is there anything you would like to tell the students here at Virginia Tech?

I would, again, just like to say how incredible everyone here is. It is such a great honor to work with such brilliant minds. I am always impressed by the people here in the engineering program. It’s always a pleasure to be able to help you all achieve your academic goals. As I mentioned previously, things may be difficult at times with your studies, or with problems that occur outside of school, but I urge you all to keep up the great work ethic and enthusiasm for learning.

Author, Alex Papp, was a freshman in General Engineering when this article published. This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Engineers’ Forum.

Engineering Disciplines: Part 4

Over the past few months, we’ve been briefly describing many different disciplines of engineering, particularly for those who are still wondering which one to pursue. This blog post will introduce a few more. Click one of the following links to read the other posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering is relatively new as an independent discipline of engineering. This field, as its name suggests, is the combination of the medical field and engineering practices. Biomedical engineers often work with monitoring, testing, or researching techniques used to expand medical knowledge or treat patients.

Computer Science

Computer science is often considered by those who love programming, and for good reason: computer science is filled with programming. Computer scientists use and manipulate computers and programs for practical applications, such as data processing or computer graphics.

Materials Science and Engineering

Materials engineers work to practically apply properties of materials to engineering applications. Materials science is the study of these materials to be used to enhance and advance modern technological practices. Nanotechnology is a large, up-and-coming field that is often studied by materials engineers. Materials science is also often studied in failure theories as different materials cause structures and machines to fail under different circumstances.

Construction Engineering

Often considered a combination of civil engineering and management, construction engineering applies concepts of design, construction, and management to infrastructure. This infrastructure includes roads, bridges, dams, etc. Construction engineers often oversee construction projects and have an in-depth understanding of both the design and management of the project.

Five Unique Ways to Dominate the Engineering Job Interview

The following list of tips should not be used as a checklist for an interview. This list is merely a compilation of advice that should be added to any interviewee’s toolbox. Tips such as “research the company” or “send a thank you note afterwards” won’t be on this list because they should already be a part of your interview checklist.

1. Before the interview, describe your resume as if it were a story (it kind of is, really).

You shouldn’t ever have to tell your life story in an interview, but go through it in the days leading up to your interview. Where did you grow up? Where did you graduate high school? How did you end up at the college you’re at? How were you involved with the companies, organizations, etc. listed on your resume? It’s a good idea to look through each point on your resume and think of one or two stories that stick out to you and go over them in your head. Be prepared to describe how each particular situation changed you and made you who you are. Also, think of experiences that are particularly related to the job. For every point on your resume, you should be able to explain why this experience in particular will help you be successful at the job (otherwise, your interviewer could rightfully ask why you even included it). For example, your engineering internship will help you understand the general processes used for solving technical problems and your experience with a club will help you work with others effectively.

2. Prepare several questions for the interviewer beforehand.

This is a common word of advice for anyone going into an interview. However, don’t just make up questions because you feel like you have to. Ask questions that give you information but also show that you are highly interested in succeeding in the position. By researching the company and product, you should be able to craft a few specific questions that will show the interviewer you really know a lot about the company. Here is a list of suggested questions that show you are interested while also providing information for the interview and afterwards:

  • What qualities do you think are necessary for someone to succeed in this position?
  • What current problems do you want fulfilled by this position?
  • How closely would I be working with operators or mechanics? Are there ever communication issues?
  • What do you love about your job and this company?

Find more questions here.

3. Practice posture and confidence before walking into the interview.

supermanImage from skywarp-2 at deviantART.

This one isn’t so conventional but it could have a huge impact on how you feel during the interview and thus, how well it goes. It’s simple: practice the superman or wonder woman pose before walking into your interview (maybe not in the lobby). Also, sit with your back straight in the lobby while you wait and during your interview. Research as shown that simply putting yourself in these “power poses” actually increases your confidence, affecting the way you talk and interact with your potential employer. Employers want people who can confidently perform the tasks of the job and, therefore, confidence is key. This being said, humility is still necessary so do not come off as too overbearing or arrogant. No one likes working with haughty, aggressive people and your interviewer knows that.

Check out this research and this article for more information about this topic.

4. Talk, but be careful.

Interviewers generally don’t want to be the one who talked the most during your interview. With that in mind, give full, complete answers to questions. Never answer a question in just two or three words, or even one sentence (unless it’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of question). Go into detail and make sure every point is relevant. Don’t ramble. While you want to talk more than the interviewer (sometimes this isn’t possible), don’t replace quality with quantity. Be careful with the details because too many could cause an interviewer to lose interest in the point of your discussion. You need to find a good middle ground here. You won’t leave a good impression if you talk too much or too little.

5. Memorize names and thank the interviewer.

You should know the name of the interviewer before you walk in the room but sometimes there are multiple people present or someone you didn’t anticipate. Make sure you know the names of everyone in the room and take time to address them by name, when appropriate. This allows you to better develop a connection with each individual interviewing you. Often, the candidate who gets the job is not picked by a single person. Therefore, it’s important to connect personally with everyone you come across. When you leave, always thank them. The exit is a great opportunity to show the interviewer what you think of the interview and the company. By saying, “It was an honor to be given this opportunity, thank you,” you reaffirm that this job is important and interesting to you. You could also say, “I really enjoyed this opportunity. Thank you, Steve.” (Don’t say “Steve” unless the interviewers name is Steve.) It’s also just plain respectful.

How you perform in interviews can make the difference between getting your dream job and the job you don’t want but had to take because it was your only option. Make sure you’re prepared!

Additional Tips from Amy Elliott and Ken Brown


As a follow-up to this aticle posted yesterday, Amy Elliott and Ken Brown offer some additional tips for those interested in pursuing a doctorate degree in engineering:

Amy Elliott

  • Take as many graduate classes as you can during your undergraduate career. Graduate classes can really take up a lot of time in your Ph.D. so every credit helps!
  • Do undergraduate research with the professors at your university as often as you can (they love free labor!). This will help you get fellowships assistantships (this is the money that pays for grad school).
  • Apply for an NSF (National Science Foundation) graduate fellowship the year before you graduate with a B.S.
  • Finally, pick an adviser and a project that you can enjoy. You will be spending several years with your adviser and your project, so either keep an open mind or choose wisely!

Ken Brown

  • Start with an M.S. degree and see if you like it.
  • Get internships and work so you don’t get so engulfed in the academic world that you ignore what the other side of the engineering world is like. Figure out what you want to do.
  • If you decide to do it, you have to like doing it. If you don’t like it, it’s miserable. Do it because you’re interested in the field, not because you want the degree or the money.
  • Find a good advisor. This can really impact your performance in grad school. Sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are good.
  • Is this a good school to attend for it? Find your advisor no matter what school he is at, as long as you are not downgrading from your undergraduate school.

So You’re Considering the Ph.D.?


A light fog settles over the Virginia Tech campus at 7:58 in the morning and the cool air reminds students that winter is coming but isn’t here quite yet. Vibrating off Hokie Stone buildings, classical music from Burruss Hall attempts to uplift the spirits of the students who haven’t made it to their classes. As you take in this beautiful yet often-overlooked scene, you notice the time on your watch and remember your professor promised a quiz at the beginning of your 8 am class. Happy feelings freshly vanquished, you take off across campus toward McBryde when a thought enters your mind, “Maybe I should get a Ph.D.?”

The thought is gone almost as quickly as it arrived and you fasten your seat belt in preparation for the reckless school day that you’re sure to crash into as an engineering student.

Pause here before next week’s test calls your attention. Today’s the day you think about it.

To an engineering student, the doctor of philosophy degree typically doesn’t seem like something that is practical, manageable, or worthwhile. “Engineers get doctorates when they want to spend the rest of their life at a University,” some students may think. Others cite time spent in school or money spent on tuition as reasons to avoid the ominous Ph.D. However, a doctorate in engineering is something that will drastically impact a person’s life although, admittedly, is not for everyone. Amy Elliott, just a few months from completing her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, spent about 2 months this past year as a contestant on Discovery Channel’s “The Big Brain Theory” and ended up being the grand prize runner-up. “A Ph.D. is for people who really, really want to do research,” she said.

Elliott has spent her time at Virginia Tech doing research in the field of Additive Manufacturing (3D printing) and working with DreamVendor. After she graduates, she expects to be a researcher in the field. Ken Brown, a Master’s student expecting to continue his research as a Ph.D. candidate in the spring, is currently working with the Center for Renewable Energy and Aerodynamic Testing (CREATe) at Virginia Tech under Dr. William J. Davenport of the Aerospace and Ocean Engineering department. Brown conducts his research on wind turbines at the Stability Wind Tunnel (on the side of Randolph Hall), specifically focusing on increasing wind turbine efficiency by lengthening turbine blades. Brown hopes to graduate and become a researcher in the field of renewable energy. Both Elliott and Brown hope to conduct research in the same field that they will graduate in, a common trend among doctoral candidates of any discipline.

Yet the question looms, “is it for me?”

Elliott said she wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until her second year in graduate school. “My advisor must have seen some potential in me,” she said, citing encouragement from her advisor as a reason she chose to pursue the doctorate degree. “In any organization,” Elliott continued, “the people with Ph.D.’s are usually the ones who get to make big decisions about what projects to pursue and what direction to take the company as a whole.” Elliott believes that a doctorate in engineering allows her to have more say in what project she works on, which is usually not the case for engineers that stop at the Bachelor’s or even Master’s degree.

Brown just recently decided to pursue a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering after spending a year in his Master’s program. “You’re putting yourself into a spot to get a different kind of job,” Brown said of pursuing a doctorate in engineering. “As long as you don’t take a huge career turn,” he continued, “you will likely work in research and development for the rest of your life.” Brown explained that, oftentimes, with a Bachelor’s degree, engineers end up working in design under a project manager and, with a Master’s degree, engineers could end up working in either design or research. Ken wanted to work with “ground-breaking research” which usually isn’t possible with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree alone.

When considering the doctorate degree, engineers must look at the good a degree can bring along with the bad that may result. “If you’re not careful,” Elliot explained, “you can get so specialized in your Ph.D. work that you won’t be able to find a job.” The economy and job market are huge factors effecting the viability of a doctorate degree. “You’re old when you graduate,” Brown said, only half joking. Even if you pursue a Ph.D. right after your undergraduate education, you’re easily 4 or 5 years older entering the job market than you would be if you had stopped at a Bachelor’s. Brown explained that, overall, there are much less research and development jobs than design jobs. “You can’t get a Ph.D. in aerodynamics and then work in design later,” he said. In this sense, the Ph.D. is much more limiting than other degrees. “You have fewer options for where you want to live,” Brown continued, “you have to go where your research is being conducted.” Brown also discussed his disappointment over the likelihood that, as an engineer with a doctorate degree, he will not be working with mechanics or other blue-collar workers who often provide practical knowledge and experience.

Elliot explained, “In undergrad, you are taught basic facts and theories that already exist, and you basically just have to memorize and understand. In your doctorate, you learn to think on your own, develop your own theories, and perform the science or research that needs to be done to prove your theories.” She continued by saying that engineering doctorates have “been trained to do research. Getting a Ph.D. is a 4-5 year long guided exercise in the scientific process… So, when companies are looking to develop new and innovative technology, they look to Ph.D.’s because they are ‘certified’ in navigating uncharted territory.”

Now, resume your life. While you’re studying for next week’s test, consider the possibilities of pursuing a doctorate in engineering.

Author, Joseph Davis, is a senior in Mechanical Engineering. This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Engineers’ Forum.

VT Human Powered Submarine: A Glimpse of Phantom 7


Set apart from the everyday foottraffic on Stanger Street is a large gray metal door that reads “Virginia Tech: Human Powered Submarine.” Push it ajar, step over the basement threshold, and you’ve now entered the Sub Lab, inhabited by the last remnants of a coalition of super-villain engineers working tirelessly to create a submarine of diabolical capabilities. In reality, it’s a friendly, easy-going family that meets to dream up underwater vehicles. But it’s easy to let your imagination wander when it comes to submarine design, especially with the project goals that the team has in the works for Phantom 7.

Virginia Tech’s Human Powered Submarine team (VT HPS) has its eyes on the prize again. This time, the team hopes to double down on a single-pilot submarine design and take both the Fastest Submarine award and the Innovation prize home to mom. For those who have never heard of the Human Powered Submarine team before, the team designs, constructs, and tests a new submarine for competition in the International Submarine Competition Races (ISR) which occurs biennially at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland. What makes the competition unique is that each team must design its submarine to use power supplied by its pilot(s) to propel the submarine.

The VT HPS team already has a proven track record, having won third place in Innovation in 2009 and first place in Innovation this past June. They accomplished this feat with the novel two-man side-by-side design of Phantom 6, an interior layout that, up until then, had never been attempted. Phantom 6 implemented a linear drive train (LDT) consisting of two sets of two pedals (a pair of pedals for each pilot) arranged side-by-side. The pilots input power into this system much like one would on a stair climber machine at a gym. The difference is that the pilots lie horizontally on their stomachs in the submarine. These two different power inputs are combined via a differential, or a gearbox assembly, allowing the combination of two collinear shafts which permit one shaft to turn faster than the other while still delivering a unified power output to the propellers. To get a sense of the differential’s importance to the design of the propulsion system, without it, the propellers would turn at different rates because the two pilots are not capable of inputting the same power for a given length of time. This makes a straight-line trajectory nearly impossible.

Another innovation employed in Phantom 6 is its electronic system consisting of a data acquisition system and an LCD heads-up display. Because of the addition of various sensors to the body of the submarine, its roll, pitch, yaw, speed, RPM, and depth can all be measured and displayed to the pilots in real time on an LCD screen within the submarine. Not only is this an invaluable tool for the pilots during competition, but it also served the team well during pilot selection. By recording this data on an SD card during the testing of Phantom 6, the performance of different combinations of pilots could be compared afterward to determine the optimal crew for competition, as well as recording data for future submarine design.

When asked to discuss the major design innovation goals for Phantom 7, Brian Cain, president of VT HPS, replied, “Phantom Six was obviously successful in the innovation category, but not so much with speed, and that’s to be expected from a submarine her size. But what we’re trying to do with Phantom 7 is, now that we’ve proven that we can waterproof the electronics and that the system actually reads accurately, we want to try and put an electronic control system on it. [This would consist of] an electronic joystick that the pilot can manually operate, but could also have an auto pilot mode to make us go straight during competition. That way all we would need to focus on is pedaling; we wouldn’t have to focus on steering the sub, which would be really important to the psychology of the [pilot]. Eliminating one of the biggest thought processes you have to do underwater would be huge for speed.”

From this response, it’s apparent that innovation is not the only item on HPS’s laundry list of design considerations. The ISR competition is a race after all. Brian went on to say, “The other thing we are trying to do is go back to a single-person design and volume optimize Phantom 7 so we can go really fast. We saw that (human-powered) subs can reach up to seven knots, so we want to try and make that.”

However, the team is not shying away from its tradition of innovative solutions either. As Brian mentioned, one huge design aspiration for Phantom 7 is to equip it with an electronic control system, perhaps even an auto pilot mode. The propulsion sub-team is also investigating the implementation of a propeller, the pitch angle of which could be varied with increasing speed by the proposed electronic control system. This would allow the submarine to generate the maximum power and thrust at a given speed, allowing faster acceleration and reduced performance deficiencies resulting from off-design operating conditions. While the LDT will likely reappear in Phantom 7 for the simple fact that “we know how to build it and we know it works,” according to Brian, it may be augmented with a continuous variable transmission (CVT). This allows the change of gear ratios without the discrete jumps from gear-to-gear exhibited in a car or bike transmission. It “continuously varies” these ratios, which would produce benefits similar to those of the variable pitch propeller concept.

Clearly, ambitions are high. With lessons learned from the design of Phantom 6, HPS is taking a “systems approach to design,” as Brian put it. In so doing, the hope is to create more communication and collaboration between sub-system teams within HPS resulting in a better overall submarine. With this approach, if HPS successfully implements a fraction of these design concepts in Phantom 7, the 2015 ISR competition should not be overlooked.

Phantom 6 at 12 ISR Competition

Author, Ben Gingras, is a freshman in General Engineering. This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of Engineers’ Forum.

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Engineers’ Forum is Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary student-staffed engineering magazine. Since 1981, we have continuously engaged students, faculty, and engineering professionals in Blacksburg and throughout Virginia. Readers anticipate our issues for the latest updates and articles regarding the achievements and initiatives of the Virginia Tech community and the engineering world beyond. Issues are published four times per year.

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