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A Swanson School of Engineering student not only won a 2007 Goldwater Scholarship—the nation’s highest honor for undergraduates studying science or engineering—but he also beat the odds in figuring out his calling. So, how did Ben Gordon learn to soar?

Flying Lessons


Diane Weathers


 
Ben Gordon (Harry Giglio photo)
 

At age 6, the youngster believes he can fly. In quiet moments, when he’s not playing with friends or reading a book or helping his mom with chores, he spends time thinking about the mechanics of flying—how to make it happen. He tests his ideas in the winter months, when deep snowbanks cushion his falls from the second-story roof of a house in Springfield, Ill. Determined to defy the forces of gravity, he cuts out wings from sheets of poster board, straps them to his arms, and starts flapping like a bird. When that doesn’t work, he tries the Mary Poppins approach and takes flying leaps with an open umbrella. Other times, taking a cue from parachuters, he attempts to float through the air with a sheet. Over the course of several years—a long time in the life of a child—Ben Gordon chases his goal: how to fly.

Even as a 6-year-old he showed signs of what an engineering professor would describe many years later as Gordon’s “relentlessness and dogged determination” to solve problems. He doesn’t give up until he has exhausted all possibilities. If one configuration doesn’t work, he’ll try something else—say, a bigger sheet. Miraculously, he didn’t break any bones or suffer other mishaps during his childhood test flights, even though he concedes “none of the projects worked; they all failed miserably.”

Today, Gordon’s starship is finally taking off, but not in the way he might have imagined. For a good part of his 27 years he has been consumed with rocket science. He has spent hours, for instance, studying those earliest close-up images of the surface of Mars relayed back to earth by NASA’s robot rovers in 2003. He became so determined to be among the first humans to step foot on the red planet that his girlfriend at the time threatened to break up with him.

More recently, though, mechanical engineering has become his jumping-off point. He just earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Pitt in December, and he was selected by the Swanson School of Engineering to give the keynote speech in graduation ceremonies on campus. Already, he’s being hailed as a rising star in his field and one of the school’s “favorite sons,” says Jeffrey Vipperman, a Pitt mechanical engineering and material sciences professor.

During his undergraduate years, Gordon’s grade- point average ranged from 3.86 to 4.0 on a 4-point scale, ranking him in the top one percent of the University’s undergraduate engineering students. Beginning in his freshman year, he gamely handled a grueling year-round schedule of research internships, along with a rigorous honors course load. If that’s not enough, Gordon also managed to find time to tutor students in math and the sciences, something else he kept up since first coming to the University. Perhaps this explains how he snagged office space in Benedum Hall. But the young engineer isn’t all work. He plays basketball in what little free time he has, and just for fun, he composes rap lyrics.

It’s all paying off for him. Last spring, Gordon was one of two University of Pittsburgh students awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, established by the U.S. Congress. Stanley Steers, a sophomore physics and music major, also received the honor. The national award—described by Alec Stewart, dean of the University Honors College, as the “highest national honor for undergraduates studying math, science, or engineering”—is given to outstanding undergrads in these fields who show exceptional potential and plan to pursue advanced degrees.

Also last spring, Gordon had a research article accepted for professional publication, an unusual accomplishment for an undergraduate. The paper details the outcomes of a research project conducted by Gordon and engineering professor Clark. Titled “Morphing Structures by Way of Stiffness Variations,” the article describes Gordon’s experiments with so-called “smart structures,” substances that can be programmed to change from stiff to soft and back to stiff again. This is futuristic stuff straight out of the popular sci-fi flick Terminator 2. Under Clark’s guidance, Gordon developed the theoretical and experimental models and compared the results between the two, and the newly minted engineer is the lead author. Gordon considers this his top achievement so far—having his original research endorsed by the national engineering community. “It’s like having your work etched in stone,” he says proudly.

His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the extraordinary obstacles he faced growing up. To an outsider it might have seemed the gods were conspiring against him. He was born in Chicago, his parents divorced when he was young, and his father disappeared from his life. It was just him, his younger sister, and a financially strapped single mother battling congestive heart disease. The family stayed on the move. When his mother became too ill to live on her own, they moved back and forth between Iowa City, Chicago, and Springfield, Ill., to be near relatives.

Gordon, at 15 years old, was shocked and devastated when his mother died. He remembers her as a “lively, outgoing, and charismatic woman”—adjectives nearly identical to those his Pitt professors use to characterize his personality—and found it difficult to grasp the severity of her condition. “We didn’t understand how serious it was,” he says about the periodic bouts of illness that would leave his mother irritable, weak, and confined to her bed.

After his mother died, Gordon was largely on his own. His sister went to live with their godmother in Illinois; he moved to Des Moines and stayed with an older brother, his mother’s son from a previous marriage. For a while, he floundered; but, no matter what was going on in his turbulent teenage life, he always kept his grades up. Eventually, he enrolled at Iowa State University and declared a major in—what else?—aerospace engineering, but he dropped out after a year and a semester. “I needed to spend time working on my behavior and my character,” he says. “I had to learn to choose better friends.” He started working full time and put his strong social skills to use in sales. He sold vinyl siding and windows, worked in telemarketing, and “dreamed of working my way up the ranks in telemarketing or maybe getting a job in a factory.”

In time, someone who had entered his life years earlier was able to coax him back to school. That person was Peter Simonson, who was once a professor of communication at Pitt. Simonson first met Gordon when the youngster was 12. They were introduced through a local Iowa City chapter of the national Big Brother program, when Simonson was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. Now at the University of Colorado, Simonson remembers Gordon as a super bright kid being raised by a struggling single mother with high ambitions for her children. “She really valued education,” he recalls. “When I first met Ben, they didn’t own a TV set, because she wanted her children to spend their spare time reading.”

The pairing had all the makings of a mismatch. “Ben’s mother was a former Black Panther who wanted her son to have positive male role models, and here I was a white grad student at the university.” But, as it turned out, the racial differences never interfered with what has become a critical lifelong relationship. Even after Simonson moved on to teaching assignments elsewhere and he and his “little brother” no longer lived in the same region, they kept in touch. After Gordon dropped out of Iowa State, Simonson was on his case, urging him to return to school. “He always believed in me,” says Gordon.

When Simonson and his family moved to Pittsburgh, the professor encouraged Gordon to live with them and apply to the University of Pittsburgh. Gordon decided to accept the offer.

The Swanson School’s Vipperman remembers that as soon as Gordon arrived at the school, “he tore it up.” The school’s dean pledged to provide whatever resources Gordon needed to continue his education. Identifying special students and helping them achieve their potential “is what a great university is all about,” says U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Gerald Holder. He adds that engineering attracts some of the best and the brightest, students who have the potential to do work that benefits mankind and changes the world. “He’s one of those guys, and we’re proud to have him.”

Even a high-achieving engineering student sometimes discovers that not every class is a breeze. It’s a drizzly late afternoon a few weeks into Gordon’s final undergraduate semester. He’s attending a class in Room 720 Benedum, sitting at his desk with his notebook open. Next to it sits an assortment of colored pens. He picks up a purple pen, takes a few notes, puts it down, then picks up a red pen and after that, a pen of a different color. This is how he takes notes, selecting various colors to highlight different information. The class is Continuum Mechanics, a graduate-level course; the instructor is Professor Giovanni Paolo Galdi. For more than two hours, Galdi stands at the blackboard describing “small displacement gradient approximation,” a principle Galdi says is “the basis of linear elasticity.” The only other sound you hear is the clack-clack of chalk against blackboard as Galdi writes at a steady clip, row after row of mathematical formulas and matrices—a mix of signs, numbers, and Greek and Roman letters.

After the lecture, Gordon concedes that Galdi’s class has been his most challenging so far at Pitt. He recalls that one of the first principles the professor introduced to students was “Einstein’s summation convention,” pointing to a formulation scribbled on a blackboard. It’s a formula that can be used to simplify different problems. But first you have to get it. “It’s taken me a while to finally understand it,” he says, then pauses. “You know, I’m still trying to figure it out,” he jokes. He aced his first exam—and those that followed, too.

Later that evening, Gordon gives a tour of the laboratories where he spends a good part of his waking hours when he’s not in class or studying or tutoring other students. He has been working in a fabricated wind tunnel in Benedum Hall with Minking Chyu, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. This project of Gordon’s is investigating methods to improve the efficiency in power and propulsion cycles by enhancing the heat transfer in turbine blades. He also is working with Vipperman in Benedum’s Sound, Systems, and Structures Laboratory on a thermoacoustic refrigerator, which involves the conversion of sound energy into heat energy and vice versa. Vipperman describes this as “environmentally friendly refrigeration” that uses helium, which doesn’t damage the ozone layer. “The downside is that it’s not as efficient as standard refrigeration.” That’s where Vipperman and his research team come in. “We’re trying to make a more viable technology,” he says.

Gordon’s diverse lab work also sets him apart. Typically, students choose one area of research and more or less stick with it. But Gordon, who always planned to go on to grad school, wanted to work in different areas that captured his curiosity before permanently settling down. “It’s kind of like dating,” he says. For some students, there are benefits to being academically noncommittal and “researching around,” as Gordon puts it. “For each lab I went to,” he says. “I was able to take something from the previous lab and apply it there.”

His years of serious research led to his current obsession with issues involving energy and sustainability. If Pitt had an aerospace program, that’s where Gordon would be. But he has no regrets about mechanical engineering. He says it’s a discipline with a broad base of knowledge that can be applied to various critical issues now confronting the world. “The energy issue is more pressing than going into space,” Gordon asserts. The looming crisis of a depleting ozone layer and global warming is something Gordon, as an engineer, feels personally responsible for addressing and not just in a laboratory. When he leaves the house he makes certain all the lights are off. If he’s stuck in traffic, he turns off the engine. “If we don’t work out our energy needs,” he says, “we won’t be going anywhere.” Like the little boy who once yearned to fly, he has embraced this new challenge with a nearly religious conviction.

Despite his mechanical aptitude and dreams of flying, Gordon admits he has toyed with other options in his life. He can rap, for instance, and he’s good at it. A cousin who is a fledgling producer has been trying to persuade Gordon to record with him. As a proud member of the hip-hop generation, the engineer doesn’t begrudge those who make entertainment their calling. But he chooses to “go against the grain.” For him that means pressing on to get his PhD and becoming a full professor at a top-ranking university. He has applied to a number of engineering graduate programs, including those at MIT, Stanford, and Pitt, for the fall semester. He wants to be involved in important research that will improve the way all people live, as well as work on outreach programs designed to increase the numbers of scientists and engineers from underrepresented groups.

“There aren’t many African Americans doing what I am doing,” he says. In fact, there aren’t many Americans period doing what he’s doing at his level of accomplishment. You might say that Gordon has indeed learned to fly, even to soar.

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