Interview with Dr. Erik Westman

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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.