Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Thomas Shay

ShayName: Thomas Shay ’06

Education (UR and additional): BS (Geomechanics), University of Rochester, 2006; MBA (Strategic Management), Pace University, 2011

Current city/state of residence: Norwalk, CT

Job Title: Civil Engineer/Project Technical Specialist

Employer: Woodard & Curran

Family: Krista (wife) and Finley (dog)


Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?  

I originally learned about the University of Rochester when I was being recruited to play football. I had attended a couple other college visits but when I got to the University of Rochester it just felt like the right place for me. The Campus was beautiful, just the right size, exceptional academics, and the opportunity to play football…a recipe for success.

When and how did you choose your major?  

I decided sometime later on in high school that being a doctor was way too much school. I was always competent and interested in math and science so I ultimately decided on engineering. I narrowed that down to mechanical engineering prior to arriving at the University of Rochester and then stumbled upon the geomechanics major once I decided that I was most interested in civil, geotechnical, and environmental engineering (all programs that were not actually offered by the University of Rochester). I had no interest in transferring so I was hopeful that the geomechanics degree program would lead me to a job in civil, geotechnical, or environmental engineering, which it ultimately did.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I was involved with the football program over the course of my four years at Rochester. This was a very enlightening and rewarding experience for me. A few things that my college football experience taught me were how to manage my time effectively, that I had to have confidence in myself, the importance of sacrifice, and that what you get out of something depends on what you put in.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I decided that I was ready to take the next step in my life and get a job after graduating. I figured that this is what I had gone to college for and now it was time to get a return on my investment. In January or February of my senior year, I successfully interviewed for and was offered a position as an engineer with an engineering consulting firm in White Plains, NY. I started working in June as an entry level civil/environmental engineer and later specialized in site/civil engineering which is what I currently do today. I am currently involved with the planning, permitting, design, and construction oversight of various private and municipal site development projects.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

Balancing work and my personal life is certainly a challenge, especially when you begin to develop a family, in my case a wife and a dog. I like to think of engineering consulting, or any profession for that matter, as a lifestyle decision. It is important to understand as best as possible the different demands that your profession will put on your life. In my case, I may have to attend public meeting in the evenings, work over the weekend to finish a project to meet a deadline, or travel long distance for projects for an extended period of time. At times this makes it a challenge to keep a routine for things such as recreational activities or to simply get home in time for dinner. It is important to maintain a flexible schedule and to take advantage of free time when it becomes available.

What advice do you have for current students?

Take the decision of choosing a major very seriously. Think about the types of jobs that are available for that specific major, whether those jobs will be around in the future, and if you can see yourself doing that job for the next thirty or fourty years of your life.

Research Trip to Tanzania an ‘Outrageous Opportunity’

By Blake Silberberg ’13
Univ. Communications

Eli Witkin ’13, a geology major at the University of Rochester, recently returned from a research trip to Africa where he worked with a group led by Earth and Environmental Sciences Professor Cynthia Ebinger to install seismic monitoring devices in a variety of locations across rural Tanzania.

Witkin became interested in geology after taking an introductory course on a whim his freshman year. After enrolling in more advanced courses, he began to take part in research, working in Professor Ebinger’s lab this past summer. This is where Witkin was given the opportunity to accompany Professor Ebinger on her research trip to Africa.

The seismometers Ebinger and Witkin installed record data about the variations in time, amplitude, and wavelength of sound waves generated by local and global earthquakes and volcanic gas emissions, which is extraordinarily useful in probing Earth structures. The goal of this project was to use the data gathered by these devices to better understand the mechanisms of continental breakup and the effect of magma intrusions, help monitor potential hazards caused by volcanoes and earthquakes, and advise the Tanzanian government on the potential for geothermal energy.

The group would wake up before sunrise every day to pack the car and begin the trek on rural, unpaved roads to the remote locations where they wanted to place the sensors. “When we would get to a location we would locate either the headmaster of the school or the leader of the village,” Witkin says. “Then we would discuss with them (through our driver who would translate) what we were doing and if it would be ok to install a station.  They were almost always very helpful and willing.”

The group would begin tEli1he process of installing the sensor by digging a hole, pouring cement in the bottom, and placing a tile over it so that there was a hard, level surface to place the sensor. The group then assembled the solar panel support and the GPS, hooked up the equipment and tested the battery to ensure everything was connected. The device was programmed using an iPod Touch, as the sensors were controlled through an iOS application. Once it was confirmed the sensor was working properly, the group worked to fill in the hole and cover it with a tarp to deter rain, and place the rest of the equipment (battery, power box, extra cables, and Data Acquisition System) in a covered plastic tub on the surface.

“When the site was completed, we would negotiate a price to pay the residents of the school or village to guard the site by building a thorn fence around it to ensure that kids or animals would not bother it,” Witkin explained. “We would then deliver books and posters on earthquakes and volcanoes to help support science education. Then we would get in the car, travel to another site and repeat the entire process. We averaged about two sites per day. ”

This schedule turned out to be very demanding, with the team working 16-hour days for a week and a half straight. On top of the exhausting schedule, the team also had to deal with 100 degree heat, frequent dust storms, and swarms of flies. Despite this, Witkin describes the trip as overwhelmingly positive. “Driving from site to site was basically a safari,” Witkin says. “We would frequently see antelope, zebras, giraffes, wildebeests, baboons, ostriches and all sorts of other birds and animals everywhere.”

The backdrop to the area was a basin that rose to the East so gradually it seemed flat, but on the western side had a 1000 meter sheer cliff that was almost vertical and ran farther than the eye could see in either direction. For a geologist, Witkin says, the natural environments were absolutely amazing. “There were numerous volcanoes and the normal rocks lying Eli4around are better samples than the ones we have in the teaching labs.”

Traveling to remote areas of Tanzania, the team had the opportunity to meet the villagers who lived in these extremely rural areas. “I was the first white person a lot of the children had seen.  Some were very curious and would run towards me while others were straight up scared out of their minds and when I smiled at them, they would run in the other direction,” Witkin recalls.

Usually at a station the team would cut off the bottom of the equipment buckets so the water can drain out.  At one station, Witkin picked up the bottom of the bucket and taught the kids how to play Frisbee with it.  “It was a really fun and novel experience playing Frisbee with the children of these rural villages.”

“Being able to do undergraduate research is an outrageous opportunity.  Not only did I get to go to Africa for a month, but I got to be there doing work that I love,” Witkin says. “Beyond that, it is invaluable to have real experience working in the field.  It’s one thing to know how to use a sensor, but a completely different thing to be comfortable using them in the field and to know how to go through a complete installation.”

On this trip, Witkin also learned how to improvise when something goes wrong. “How do you adjust when you encounter a problem and are already behind schedule and can’t afford to come back? That experience and knowledge is something you just can’t get in the classroom or lab and it will really put me ahead.”

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The Elusive Geomechanics Major

By Dan Wang ’14
Univ. Communications

Out of the more than 4,500 full-time undergrads at the University of Rochester, exactly three are pursuing a major in geomechanics. Just who are these brave few?

The trio is made up of very different students: a freshman from Kingston, Jamaica who emphasizes her environmentalism; a junior who went to high school in Rochester and would like to work on an oil platform or for an oilfield services company; and a Take 5 scholar from outside of New York City who would like to do fieldwork to study seismology and geothermal energy.

But first, what kind of degree are they pursuing? The bachelor of science degree in geomechanics is a program run jointly between the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department. An interdisciplinary major, completing geomechanics also means taking classes in math, physics, and chemistry.  Lisa Norwood ’86, ’95, assistant dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and a former geomechenics major, describes the program this way, “The curriculum emphasizes the application of the principles of mechanics to problems associated with the atmosphere, the oceans, and the solid earth.”

Kayon Ellis ’16 has not yet declared her geomechanics (geomech) major, but she’s quite set on pursuing it. Ellis comes by way of Jamaica, and this is her first year living in the United States. A commitment to environmentalism and an analysis of basin sediments in streams prior to coming to Rochester propelled her to study geomechanics. “I find the study of the earth fascinating,” says Ellis. “You just can’t study anything in isolation; you have to analyze the whole system.”

Two years ahead, Michael Grotke ’14 has different goals in mind. Grotke grew up in Tucson, Arizona and attended high school in Rochester. On campus, he works part-time for the Earth and Environmental Science Lab, and is a member of the SA Appropriations Committee. What does he see himself doing? “I hope to use this degree towards a career in the oil and natural gas industry, most likely shale-gas and crude oil exploration.” The companies he’d like to apply his geomech training to include Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Shell, and Halliburton.

Skipping two more years ahead, the final geomech major is Brian Castro ’12 (T5). Though he had a hard time deciding between studying physics and mechanical engineering, he has embraced the geomech major with vigor. Castro also has extensive experience in fieldwork. Research on geothermal energy took him to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and, as part of an NSF-sponsored program, to work at a geosciences research company in New Zealand. He also conducted seismic research at the University, in Professor Cynthia Ebinger’s lab. Castro’s interests are more academic, and he’d like to further study seismology, geothermal energy, and planetary science.

The major is robust enough to accommodate all of these interests. Dean Norwood sees no shortage of ways to use the geomech major. “Career opportunities include work with the U.S. Geological Survey and with departments of natural resources or environmental protection at the federal, state, and county levels; with the oil and mineral resources industries; and in multidisciplinary private consulting firms engaged in geological engineering.”

Spend Summer on Campus with Sustainability Research Internships

Philosophy Department – Have an interest in learning about wildlife habitats in the Northeastern U.S.? Looking to put your background in biological sciences to use on a biofuel research project? Think the opportunity to explore the University’s South Campus forest might be cool?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, than you’re in luck! You could be one of the half-dozen students selected participate in one of the sustainability-related internships opportunities during summer 2012.

Sponsored by the College, the internships provide a $1,000 stipend and free campus housing for the months of June and July to selected students. (Please note that the offer of free campus housing cannot be converted into funds for off campus housing.) Interested students may apply by sending a resume and letter of interest indicating the specific internship(s) sought to Prof. Randall Curren via email at randall.curren@rochester.edu.

Applications are due March 7, 2012 and assignments will be announced by March 28. The following opportunities are available:

Biofuel Research

Professor David Wu (Chemical Engineering) will sponsor 1 to 2 interns to participate in his biofuel research. He uses a molecular biology approach to study the microbial enzyme system that breaks down recalcitrant cellulosic materials into fermentable sugars, which are in turn converted to ethanol or other biofuels through a fermentation process.  The molecular biology approach will be used for engineering the microorganism for a more efficient cellulose-ethanol conversion process. The intern would need background and interest in biological science.

Creative Research Project: Animals & the Relationship between Rural & Urban Environments

Professors Leila Nadir (Sustainability) and Cary Peppermint (Art and Art History) are seeking a summer 2012 student intern to assist with a creative research project on animals and the relationship between rural and urban environments. They will be designing an installation that gathers real-time dynamic data of animals in a wilderness feed plot and projects these images into urban galleries. They are looking for assistance in the following areas: (1) knowledge and research skills in wildlife habitat in the Northeastern United States toward the creation of a feed plot on forested land in central Maine and/or (2) computer programming skills in Java, Processing, and free/open-source software for experimenting in visualization techniques. Competitive applicants will have experience in working in a studio art environment.

Sustainability & Study Abroad

Jackie Levine (Study Abroad Office) and Karen Berger (Earth and Environmental Sciences) will jointly supervise an intern who will work to enhance sustainability and study abroad opportunities for UR students. The intern will organize information on overseas sustainability-related courses and programs according to topical areas.  This will then be used to identify those locations that best supplement existing courses offered in Rochester.  The result will be the creation of a resource for students interested both in studying abroad and enhancing their sustainability coursework. Key qualifications are strong organizational skills and the ability to work independently.  An academic interest in sustainability and international study is a plus.

Sustainability Tracking and Assessment and Rating System: Academic & Research

Professor Karen Berger (Earth and Environmental Science; Coordinator, College Sustainability Studies) will sponsor an intern to work primarily on the collection and evaluation of data pertaining to UR sustainability-related teaching and research, to complete the “Academic and Research” component of STARS, the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment and Rating System.  More information about this program can be found at stars.aashe.org.  Other tasks may include researching case studies for incorporation into EES courses, and developing a campus-based database for environmental volunteer opportunities and events. Qualifications for this position include (1) an ability to work independently, and (2) an ability to think creatively when encountering obstacles in data collection.

Sustainability Tracking and Assessment and Rating System: Operations and Planning, Administration, and Engagement

Pat Beaumont (Director Support Operations) will sponsor a sustainability research intern to assist in gathering and organizing data for the Operations and Planning, Administration, and Engagement components of STARS, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System™ program. STARS® is a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance. STARS® was developed by AASHE with broad participation from the higher education community.  The intern will be part of the STARS working group of the University Council on Sustainability.  The intern will need strong verbal and written communication skills, knowledge of sustainability initiatives and programs, ability to research sustainability measurements, strong organizational skills, and an ability to work independently and in teams.

Forest Preservation

Justin and Tara Ramsey (Biology) will sponsor an intern in forest preservation. With help from summer interns in 2010 and 2011, the Ramsey field crew has worked to improve access of the South Campus forest to U of R undergraduate courses, the university community, and the public. As part of the Ramsey field crew, the 2012 intern will: (1) Work with U of R facilities to place platform structures on seasonally-wet areas throughout the south campus trail system; (2) Repair trail linings damaged over the past year; (3)  Develop a new section of trail (~100 m) in the “north woods”  parcel behind the Alumni & Development Center; (4)  Eradicate garlic mustard and other invasive species in the forest and forest edge; (5)  Organize photographs, species lists, and trail maps into an online “interpretive package.” The intern should be comfortable and experienced in working outdoors, be able to work independently and in small groups, and have a basic knowledge of the flora/fauna. Further information about South Campus preservation efforts can be found at the Ramsey lab website, at the following links:

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/Rochester_Forests.html

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/History_%28URW%29.html

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/Trails_%28URW%29.html

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/Plant_communities_%28URW%29.html

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/Wildlife_%28URW%29.html

http://web.mac.com/justin_ramsey/Ramsey_lab/Invasive_organisms_%28URW%29.html

Article compliments of Randall Curren, professor and chair of philosophy and professor of education. Photo courtesy of University Communications.