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VCU’s Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Program Collaborates with VMI to Build Virginia’s Ph.D. Pipeline

Pictured Above: VMI cadets and alumni working with VCU’s MNE faculty (from left): Connor Robertson, Zander Royston, Al-Jhon Barrogo, Brandon Campbell, John Wilkins, Brandon Dodd, Logan Waters, Austin Roe

A partnership between the VCU School of Engineering and the Virginia Military Institute brings some of the Institute’s most talented rising seniors to VCU to work alongside research faculty in VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering (MNE). The program gives students from VMI, which is located in Lexington and offers engineering only through the undergraduate level, an opportunity to participate in graduate-level research. It also exposes these students to VCU’s graduate MNE programs, including its hybrid doctorate in mechanical and nuclear engineering, the only Ph.D. of its kind in the nation.

"We value our long-standing partnership with VMI and believe it has been enormously successful and mutually beneficial to both institutions,” said Gary C. Tepper, Ph.D., chair and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. “VMI cadets get to participate in cutting-edge research and consider the possibility of pursuing an advanced degree, and we are recruiting some outstanding students into our PhD program."

The program’s competitive application process is open to VMI undergraduates who are not slated to enter the military after graduation. This summer, three VMI students are conducting research with MNE faculty. Rising senior Al-Jhon Barrogo is working with Wei-Ning Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering and a specialist in aerosol science and technology. Connor Robertson, also a rising senior, is working with materials science and surface engineering specialist Reza Mohammadi, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Rising junior Zander Royston, is working with John Speich Ph.D., associate chair and associate professor in MNE and a specialist in bladder mechanics and robotics.

“I’m helping Dr. Speich with measurements of bladder pressure and urgency, and the work has been a great experience. I had never used a materials lab before,” Royston said. “I’ll definitely apply to participate again next year, and the program has me thinking about a Ph.D.”

Karla Mossi, Ph.D., associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, said one of the goals of the program is to inspire students like Royston to consider advanced studies in engineering. “This has been a great pipeline for VCU’s Ph.D. program,” Mossi said. “The students spend a summer here and get a taste of what research is all about.”

Five of VCU’s current graduate students in MNE are alumni of the VCU-VMI partnership, which started in 2013. Ph.D. student Brandon Campbell is doing his doctoral research with Mossi, a research collaboration that had its genesis when he worked in her lab as a VMI undergrad. Logan Waters, also a Ph.D. student, accompanied his adviser Ibrahim Guven, Ph.D., assistant professor in MNE, to Wright Patterson Air Force Base over the summer as part of the researchers’ ongoing investigations into particle impact and materials failure. Ph.D. student John Wilkins and M.S. student Austin Roe also came to VCU by way of the VMI partnership.

Ph.D. student Brandon Dodd is interested in returning to VMI as a faculty member after completing his doctoral research in uranium detection under Tepper. Dodd credits his undergraduate experience as a summer researcher in Tepper’s lab four years ago with setting the course for his future. “I’ve already been a big player in talking to undergrads [at VMI] about this opportunity,” Dodd said. “I’ll definitely be sending people to this program.”