President, Phoenix Nuclear Labs
BSNE ’03, MSNEEP ’04, PhDNEEP ’07
Each year, the College of Engineering recognizes outstanding alumni during Engineers’ Day—a celebration of engineers, held on Homecoming weekend. Ross was among 10 engineers to receive awards in 2017 at an Oct. 20 banquet.
We honored him for corporate leadership that has led Phoenix Nuclear Labs to become an internationally recognized manufacturer of neutron sources for medical diagnostics and detecting clandestine materials.
Recently, we chatted with Ross about everything from his memories as a student at UW-Madison to his career and his family. Here are his responses to some of our questions.
Do you have a favorite engineering professor from your time at UW-Madison?
The professor who stands out most for me is Jerry Kulcinski, a nuclear engineering professor. When I was a freshman, Jerry was nice enough to show me around his lab and talk applications of fusion technology. This got me really excited about not just engineering, but nuclear engineering and fusion. I ended up working with him as an undergraduate, so he was mentoring me outside the classroom. And ultimately, when I decided to go to grad school, I joined his group and he became my PhD advisor. For the eight years that I was at UW, he was a huge influence on my life. He helped me walk the straight and narrow path and get a great head start on my chosen career, but he also taught me what matters in the real world and not just what matters in school.
What is your fondest memory of your time on campus?
I was a senior at the UW when I met my wife, Tracy (who is also a nuclear engineer), and we were married when I was in grad school. That time period was a pivotal part in my life that’s pretty intimately tied in with my UW experience. We were married in downtown Madison, just off campus, and lived in student housing in Eagle Heights the first year after we were married. For those first few years of married life, we were both grad students doing research in different areas, and it was a fantastic experience.
How did your experience in the College of Engineering shape your career path?
The College of Engineering provides a diversity of education. The way that the engineering curriculum is set up—whether undergraduates realize it’s good for them or not at the time—forces students to take multidisciplinary courses. It gave me the breadth of background to pivot easily out in the real world, which is important because things change very quickly. For example, it’s been instrumental for me to be able to know enough about mechanical or electrical design principles to communicate with those design teams. I couldn’t design a circuit board, but I can speak the language and have enough understanding to help form designs. Having a diverse background has really, really helped in my career.
Of what professional accomplishment are you most proud?
Working in technology development, my proudest moments are when we bring systems online and they meet the customer’s requirements. When your team is developing technologies that didn’t previously exist, taking them from a piece of paper to meeting customer requirements, it gives you a fantastic sense of accomplishment.
What advice would you give current students in your discipline today?
Experience as many internships as you can. I worked at one internship in my eight years and it was a fantastic learning experience. There’s a ton of value in that diversity of experience when you start looking for your first job. You can also find undergraduate research opportunities. Whether your research involves sitting behind a computer or cutting your knuckles turning wrenches, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Both research and internships can help you figure out what you want to do with your life a lot sooner than you could just by hitting the books for four years.
What hobbies or interests do you have kind of outside of work?
I’ve got two little boys that are six and nine years old, so I’m doing things like playing Minecraft with them or trying to teach them how to ride bikes or going to Marvel movies—stuff like that. I’d probably want to do those things anyway, but the kids are a great excuse. It seems like 99 percent of my life outside of work is trying to turn those two little guys into future engineers.