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Nontraditional student finds success in materials science department

| Alison Wagener

After serving for two years in the U.S. Navy working with nuclear reactors, Erik Engness was ready to further his studies as a material sciences major at UW-Eau Claire. From the springs of 2015-2016, Erik conducted research with assistant professor Dr. Elizabeth Glogowski. Together, they worked on a project that required the use of a confocal laser scanning microscope, a new piece of equipment to the department purchased through a federal National Science Foundation grant.

Glogowski said Erik played an integral role in testing the new microscope, developing standard operating procedures and experimenting with new samples he prepared himself. She added that their work required a lot of troubleshooting and experimentation, but when faced with obstacles and unknown situations in their research, Erik wasn’t fazed.

“Rather than be intimidated, Erik would rise to the challenge of figuring out how to address the problem and successfully complete the experiment by combining his materials science knowledge, his experience in the Navy and his overall enthusiasm for research and life. I enjoyed working with Erik in the research lab, and our research group won’t be the same now that he’s graduated,” Glogowski said. “I know he will be successful in all his future endeavors.”

But undergraduate research was just the beginning for Erik. Although he was at first apprehensive about being a nontraditional veteran student, Erik found acceptance, friendship and inspiration in the material sciences department, going on to pursue numerous high-impact experiences throughout campus. Erik shares his journey as a Blugold in the story below.

Achieving nontraditional success

When deciding to go to school after my time of active duty in the U.S. Navy, I picked UW-Eau Claire because it was close to home and the student-instructor ratio was something I knew would benefit me in the long run. It was weird coming to a campus with a bunch of 18-year-old freshly graduated high school students and immediately being called a “nontraditional” student. I was worried about where I would fit in during my time on campus. I quickly found where I fit in academically. After talking with Dr. Marc McEllistrem, I realized the materials science department would be a good fit for me. The interdisciplinary nature of materials science really spoke to me, especially the training involved on the numerous — and expensive — instruments in the Materials Science and Engineering Center.

After a semester as a materials science student, I had talked to many students who were already doing research with staff in the Materials Science and Engineering Center. I had taken a class with Dr. Elizabeth Glogowski, and I really enjoyed her class and was very interested in the research she was overseeing with smart, or thermoresponsive, polymers. I had no idea when I went in to talk to her that I would be starting a new project for her, and I had no idea just how much I would grow not only as a scientist, but all around as a professional.

During my time researching I not only got to use ideas that were already well known, but I was able to be the first student to use the brand new laser scanning confocal microscope. Not only was I the first student to use it, but I was also tasked with the responsibility of writing the operating procedure for future students. It was just an all-around great opportunity for growth and a very good starting point for a career as a scientist/engineer. The hands-on guidance I received from Dr. G extended well past research, but also into my personal success and decisions involved with the future of my career.   

I fit in pretty well with the other students in my major and actually found that my past as a nuclear reactor operator in the U.S. Navy helped me in my studies, bringing me unique ways to look at problems and solve them.  So I quickly forgot what it was like to feel “non-traditional.” I found that my past experience made me a valued classmate and co-researcher. I was voted into an executive position within the local chapter of the Materials Research Society by fellow classmates, and I spent a lot of time working with and getting to know them outside of class. However, when talking with the other veteran students, this was not an experience shared by them. A lot of times once students found out that they were a veteran, students would move away from them or avoid talking to them. This struck home with me. 

During my time in class with Nicole Schultz, we were asked to establish a project or work with a pre-existing one to help a group of people in the Eau Claire area. A group of classmates and I came up with the idea to create an event to raise awareness of mental health issues among veterans and to try to help change the campus climate towards veterans. This idea led to the birth of the Warrior Duathlon, a now annual event happening in October at Lowe’s Creek in Eau Claire. The event is put on by the UW-Eau Claire Veteran’s Club. (Check out the event’s Facebook page!) This event is focused on helping both civilians and veterans understand the different mental health issues faced by veterans returning home.  The hope is to not only to raise money, but to raise awareness about the issues many veterans deal with once their service is complete.

It started off as my classmates and I doing the front-end work, establishing sponsors and a location for the event. We also talked to our class about the stigma toward veterans and the many hurdles faced by previously deployed veterans returning home. Once the semester ended, the event turned into what Miranda Cross-Schindler (Military/CE Program Manager) and I would refer to as “my baby.” As someone who has always been in the technical field, event coordinating was not something I thought I would ever have to do. Everything that needed to get done, which the list always seemed to grow the more we got done rather than get shorter, was mostly handled by Miranda and me. We handled everything, which included presenting at an Eau Claire County Parks and Forest meeting, getting permission for use of Lowe’s Creek trails, establishing event sponsors, securing a talented graphic designer for the t-shirt and setting up registration. By doing all the dirty work ourselves, we were able to donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Trinity Equestrian Center to provide equine assisted services to veterans in the Chippewa Valley at no cost to the veterans.

When I graduated I was still a “non-traditional” student, but not because of simply being a veteran. I graduated as the lead researcher and co-founder of a not-for-profit event, which gave me a sense of pride. If I had to give a word of advice to students coming to UW-Eau Claire, it would be simple: Do not let anyone tell you what you are and are not capable of. Not your parents, friends or even people within UW-Eau Claire. There are plenty of people like Dr. Glogowski and Miranda Cross-Schindler who will help you realize your dreams and who will help you build something that will positively affect those students who will come after you.