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About the Event

What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Being outdoors hiking, camping, or running. Reading. Playing with my kids.

Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Running—preferably on a mountain trail with my dog!

What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
The Bible, the Economist (magazine), anything by Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, or CS Lewis.

What’s the most frequently played song on your mp3 player?
Favorite bands are Sigur Ros, Bon Iver, David Crowder

Who do you look up to and admire?
My wife Jessica. She’s chosen to stay home and teach our 3 little kids. It’s very challenging, unglamorous, but makes a huge impact! She’s a great example to me of someone giving up a lot personally for the good of others. And she always says she gets a lot out of it too.

Other basic bio info that you’d like to share
I lived in Kenya during middle and high school.

Highest degree attained
BS in Mechanical Engineering

Schools attended
University of Virginia

Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college
History of the Civil War. I got a minor in history and think an appreciation for it can help someone in a scientific/research field. It brings a sense of perspective—our specialized knowledge is always built on the work of others, and will in turn be further developed (or corrected!) by those who come after us. Humility is important. 

Employer
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Official title
Senior Research Engineer

“Layman’s” title
Mechanical engineer

Years in this organization/position
12

What does your organization do?
We are a nonprofit research institute dedicated to reducing the harmful impact of crashes on US roads. One part of this is our crash test program that provides consumers with comparative safety information on passenger vehicles. We also conduct many other research projects with the goal of understanding what can prevent crashes from occurring or reduce the risk of injury and fatality when they do occur.

What is your role in the organization?
My research is mainly focused on understanding real-world performance of vehicle safety technologies (e.g. energy absorbing structures, restraint systems, headlights) to help direct our consumer test programs. We’re continually evaluating our tests to make sure they are promoting design changes that will make a difference in real crashes with real people.

Describe your work environment
I work at the Vehicle Research Center which is a huge space since it contains an indoor “Crash Hall” with two opposing 200m runways. We also have outdoor tracks where we test “active” crash-prevention technologies. And a lot of my time is spent at my desk looking at results from our tests and databases of real-world crashes.

What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
To name a few: there’s a propulsion system for crash testing, a hydraulically controlled steel plate for roof-strength testing, high accuracy GPS (better than 2 cm accuracy) for testing on the track, instrumented dummies for recording the forces in a crash, and software for syncing up that test data with video recorded at 500 frames per second.

Describe a typical day in your job
There’s a lot of variety! Most recently I’ve spent a lot of time looking at satellite images of road sections where nighttime crashes have occurred, taking measurements and trying to understand what the important factors are. This is part of our efforts to develop a rating program for headlights.

How is the work you do important to society?
In the US alone, over 30,000 people still die each year in crashes, with many more seriously injured. Probably everyone has been affected in some way by this issue. The goal of our work is to reduce the terrible impact of car crashes.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
I’m thankful for ways my research contributed to our crash test programs, which in turn have changed the way manufacturers design their vehicles. One example was research that showed a positive relationship between stronger roofs and rollover survival rates.  It sounds obvious, but the only previously published research had not found this and had been used as an excuse by some to keep roofs weak. Based on our research we started a new rating program and now virtually every model has a stronger roof than it had just a few years ago.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
In addition to the headlight rating program that I mentioned earlier, I’ve also been looking at potential changes to our side impact test. Side impact protection has improved a lot recently, but we want to know if our test program can be improved to be more relevant to the remaining problem. A detailed analysis of crashes involving vehicles we currently rate “good” is the first step in this process.

What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
Probably the scariest was standing up at a conference to present the roof strength research (mentioned above) for the first time.  Certain car companies had helped fund the prior studies that found no relationship between the strength of a roof and the likelihood of surviving a rollover crash, and had then used that research to fight lawsuits against them. Needless to say, our new findings weren’t very popular. The person who had conducted the earlier research was invited to come give a rebuttal to our study and there were some heated exchanges during the Q&A time. But I was very confident in our findings and just kept pointing people back to the data. 

What’s the coolest part of your job?
Everyone thinks, “crashing cars!” and that’s true initially. But believe it or not, you eventually get used to seeing crash tests and they all look pretty similar, at least in real time. To me, the coolest part is just having a research question that nobody knows the answer to, and coming up with a strategy to find the answer. Every project is like a big puzzle and it’s exciting to work towards a solution, knowing that it has the potential to save people’s lives. 

What’s something that most people don’t know about your job/work?
The importance of communication. We could do incredible research and perform the most relevant crash tests, but without having a way to get the information to people, it wouldn’t make much difference. IIHS has a great communications team that produces video, written materials, and a website that makes the results of our research accessible to the general public. Only then can it make a difference by changing the way people drive or what vehicle they buy.

What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
I like troubleshooting and thinking “outside the box.” We have some unique data sources and I enjoy coming up with new ways to apply those data to the real-world questions that are being asked. There’s no textbook that tells me how to do my job!

What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
I remember liking MacGyver and the A-Team. The Chronicles of Narnia were favorite books, and it’s fun that we’re now reading them with our daughter.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
At 12, a professional soccer player. At 15, maybe a pilot. At 18 I would have said “engineer,” but had no clue what that meant (see next question).

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
To be honest, I pretty much stumbled into it. Growing up enjoying math and science, people would tell me I should think about engineering. I didn’t have much idea what that would be like and, sadly, my time in engineering school didn’t help much there either. I got the impression that engineering involved memorizing a bunch of formulas and following strict procedures without asking too many questions. Fortunately, research is a lot different from this. While there are certainly formulas and procedures, there’s lots of room for questions and creative thinking. I didn’t have a clue how much I’d enjoy this until I started doing it!

Why did you agree to become a STEM Role Model?
Two reasons. First, it’s always good for drivers, future drivers, or backseat drivers to think more about highway safety. Any student reading this could say or do something that makes a real difference. Because you don’t see a crash that’s avoided, you can’t measure the difference, but it’s real.

Second, as a student I really was clueless about how exciting and rewarding a STEM career could be, and I don’t think that should be the case. Our celebrity-obsessed culture is not really emphasizing this kind of career path!

What advice would you give students in general?
Ask questions! A lot of accepted knowledge probably shouldn’t be, but maybe no one has asked the right questions.  Plus, the best way to learn anything is to interact with it.

Additional resources
www.iihs.org has info on all our research, tests, and a link to our YouTube channel.

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