Vice President of Technology, Alcoa Power and Propulsion; MSMetE ’83, PhDMetE ’86 (BSMetE ’82, Michigan Technological University),
Recipient of the 2016 College of Engineering Distinguished Achievement Award, Nov. 11, 2016.
How did you choose to attend college at UW-Madison?
I’m originally from Wisconsin; I was born a Badger. I attended Michigan Technological University in Houghton for my undergrad, and through some of the professors there I became aware of Professor Perepezko. Because of the reputation of the university and John’s reputation, that led me to select UW for my graduate studies.
Why did you choose engineering as your major?
Through my primary education I liked math, science and problem solving. That’s primarily what drove me to select engineering. Coming out of high school, I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer, but the professors at Michigan Tech convinced me to go into materials, and I’m certainly glad I did. I think materials is an exciting field because so many things depend upon materials. While I’m working on aerospace components that go into jet engines, you could just as easily work for an air-framer like Boeing, in the automotive industry, or on electronic materials for the computer industry. Materials engineering is an extremely diverse field, and it touches basically everything we use.
Who was your favorite engineering professor?
Obviously my advisor John Perepezko would clearly be my favorite professor, but I also developed good relationships with other professors in the department, including Professors Chang, Kou, and Loper.
What was your favorite engineering class?
Actually, I have a couple of them. My graduate studies were in the area of solidification, so classes on solidification. Additionally, my research depended upon phase diagrams and phase transformations, so those classes were also very good. Plus, something that turned out to be extremely fortunate, in retrospect, was that I decided to pursue a minor in statistics. UW had a very statistics department, the statistics classes I had were extremely good, and paid off for me throughout my career.
When you were a student, what was your favorite place to eat (or hang out) on campus?
Every time I get back on campus I still go to the Union and get ice cream.
What’s your fondest memory of your time on campus?
It was a special time in my life in that I got married after my first year at UW. My wife and I both enjoyed living in Madison, taking bike rides and walks along the lake. That, and the freedom to conduct research and development in areas that fascinated me are both memories I have of my time at UW.
What lesson did you learn as a student that has benefited you most in your career?
There are a number of things from my graduate studies that had a profound impact. Obviously, my education from UW was critical to attaining my current position, vice president of technology. And something I now realize since I have a number of engineers working for me is the thought process that you learn going through your graduate studies. A critical, discerning thought process is a trait engineers possess, and if you combine a disciplined thought process with creativity, you have a really good researcher. It’s really the thought process that you acquire during your graduate studies; the problem-solving skills, the ability to take theoretical knowledge and apply that to practical problems, to blend science and engineering and apply that to industrial problems that has served me best. This has helped me both as an individual researcher, and also as a leader of other engineers.
What is your current title and company?
I work for a business unit of Alcoa. The name of the company is Alcoa Power and Propulsion; I’m vice president of technology. We are located in a small town called Whitehall, MI, a little bit north of Muskegan. It’s kind of like Madison except you have Lake Michigan instead of Lake Mendota.
Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
I would say there are two. First, in the early to mid part of my career I had the opportunity to work with a number of researchers from different companies, universities, and also national labs on DARPA-funded programs. When I think back to those programs, they laid part of the foundation for things that are still going on today in the integrated computational materials engineering area. We took a number of theoretical models and databases, and integrated those into a software suite that we applied to solidification problems. It really moved us forward in the application of science to industrial engineering problems. These programs pulled together a very diverse group of research including university, national lab and industrial researchers to work together toward a common goal.
The other accomplishment is leading the research group at Alcoa Power and Propulsion to bring new technologies to the market—technologies that are used on the latest, most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft engines for planes such as the Joint Strike Fighter, Airbus A320 NEO, Boeing 737 MAX, aircraft not yet in service such as the Boeing 777X and the Airbus A330 NEO, and also for land-based power-generation turbines. Seeing things that you work on have an impact at on a global scale is very rewarding.
What advice would you give students in your discipline today?
I think it’s pretty simple, and it’s probably something you’ve heard before, but do something you enjoy. I enjoy getting up in the morning and coming to work. There are times where you have a bad day, but I love this field, I enjoy what I do and it just makes everything that much more rewarding. I enjoy problem solving—I always have—and clearly that has evolved to where now I’m helping other people solve problems more than doing it myself. I encourage people to get into a field—and it doesn’t really matter what it is—where you take what you enjoy doing and develop a career out of it. I can’t imagine doing something that you don’t really enjoy.
What are your hobbies/interests?
I enjoy spending time and traveling with my family, fishing and hiking. My daughter lives in Colorado and when we visit we hike the Rockies. We also very much enjoy traveling, especially to Europe—going there for the history and the different cultures.