No meandering in learning

Nov 11, 2005

Because of his academic diligence and thirst for learning, Kettering University graduate William Sommerville '05 produced what his co-op advisors describe as a Ph.D. level senior thesis project in just a few short years. The result? Possibly the world's smallest radio.

After road trips totaling 17,000 miles, he still drives his father's old GMC pickup.

Over the past few years, the truck has performed its share of hard driving transporting Sommerville from point A to point B with few issues. In his case, point A (Kettering University) is approximately 1,700 miles one-way to point B (Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico), where he is credited with remarkable work as a Kettering engineering co-op student.

He doesn't reveal any melancholy when describing how he came to own the truck. His father, William '64, died of encephalitis during the young Sommerville's junior year of high school, a moment in a young man's life that would leave many spinning and bewildered as their future lingers before them. Instead, he threw himself into his studies, teaching himself calculus and electronics.

While at Lapeer West High School in Michigan, he achieved a 3.9 grade point average, won several awards in Math, Chemistry, Physics and French, and in his senior year began taking courses at Kettering. This kind of dedication is the sort of engagement all fathers would be proud of.

What makes Sommerville's story so unique is that his connection to Kettering/GMI extends back several generations. "My dad met my mom at a GMI dance in the old gym," he explained. "My mom's brother, who also graduated from the school, brought her to the dance and I guess the rest is history."

Sommerville also said that his grandfather on his mother's side taught at Kettering/GMI in the 1940s, and the year before he started at the institution in 2002 his sister, Angela, graduated with a degree in Management.

Thus, by his account, he has known about Kettering since before he was born.

Another distinctive connection for Sommerville to Kettering is the level of success as both a student and professional co-op that he achieved. For example, his first co-op work term took place at a laser development firm in Ann Arbor. While there, he took the initiative and read a book on fiber optics, even though he was not required to do so. Before too long, he was working in the firm's lab, building laser test systems and by his second work term, he was building femotosecond lasers, which are used for high precision machining applications. What is most significant about this particular work term is that he was also charged with training newly minted Ph.D staff members on how to build these lasers.

"Since it was a Japanese-owned company, I also began learning Japanese," he said. "But then I was laid off along with several other students."

This lost opportunity proved to be a good omen. Sommerville had previously taught himself Calculus and electronics in his junior year, then designed and built a guitar amplifier with 19 circuit boards in his senior year. Dr. Douglas Melton of Kettering's Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. (ECE) mentored Sommerville during this project, which caught the eye of Dr. Jim Gover of ECE. Gover was an engineering manager and senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico for more than 25 years, and served as a science and technology policy adviser to Congress and policy offices in the Executive branch of the Federal Government for five years prior to joining Kettering.

The two developed a friendship and Gover made several calls to his contacts at Sandia, arranging for Sommerville to interview with the organization. Sandia, impressed with Sommerville's work at Kettering, soon hired him and once his academic term was over, he drove his father's truck to New Mexico, settled into an apartment and began working. "At work I faced armed guards at the gate and a sign that read, 'No radioactive disposal in this sink' in the men's room," he said.

Within days he began the scientific work of a young engineer at this prominent government facility, which "Aviation Week and Space Technology" magazine ranked no. 1 in their Sept. 5 issue for attracting the most intelligent scientific and engineering minds. Initially, he worked on a carbon nanotube alignment project and cryogenically-cooled quantum cascade laser experimentation automation project. For most people, this stuff sounds like something one might see and hear about in the movie The Incredible Hulk. "I got to basically play with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium," Sommerville said.

The project involved the development of lasers that operate in almost unexplored regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, an area between microwaves and infrared. They have applications in sensing and high-speed communications. At school the next term, he took six classes-a heavy load for any student-then returned to Sandia for his next co-op rotation, at which time he finally received his high level security clearance. He also began work on what many feel is the world's smallest radio, one that processed electrical signals.

"I spent that work term learning about micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) and comparing MEMS resonators to existing filter technologies," he said. But what does all this mean to the general reader?

MEMS are microscopic mechanical devices built on a chip manufacturing line. Gover explained that perhaps the best way to understand how these devices operate is to imagine tiny MEMS rotor-rooters that can travel through arteries pulling a waste tube, removing the plaque from artery walls and depositing this plaque into the waste tube. The automotive and medical industries use these tiny devices extensively to measure such things as the rotational speed of moving parts, accelerometers for triggering air bags and in miniature medical devices. Gover also said that MEMS devices are a major part of Sandia's research portfolio.

Once Sommerville completed another academic term, he returned to Sandia, re-engaged himself in his engineering work, finishing design efforts on his radio project. The device, he said, "is based on MEMS and the special metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors (MOSFETS) developed at Sandia and tested by me and another Kettering co-op, Matt Burns."

MOSFETS are a specific type of semiconductor technology upon which all microprocessors, memories and most power electronics switches are based and manufactured. Originally invented in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1970s that engineers "could figure out how to make a sufficiently pure form of silicon dioxide needed to manufacture MOSFETS," Gover said.

Working with this sort of technology has made it difficult for others not to notice Sommerville's work. His thesis, titled "Integrated MEMS Single Chip AM Receiver," describes the design of the world's smallest radio. It has connections for an antenna, batteries and an ear piece, and uses a micromechanical tuning fork that vibrates at radio frequencies. The device uses less power and has better filter characteristics than other current technologies. Sommerville said that when describing this radio to people, "I have them think first of an actual radio. Then I take a pen and make a tiny black dot on a napkin. Finally I ask them what they would do with a radio that small."

Some, like ECE Professor James C. McLaughlin, Sommerville's thesis advisor, thinks one answer is to send hundreds of thousands of these tiny radios to Iraq or Afghanistan so that people can listen to information sent by the U.S. or international aid agencies.

Dr. Gover said that the young engineer's 250-page thesis, "is Ph.D. level work. I am confident that Will is the brightest and most capable person I have ever met. Very few students or engineering graduates would even attempt the things he has done in his co-op assignments, because most would be intimidated by the magnitude of learning required. But Will has no fear whatsoever." Currently, Sommerville's thesis is undergoing review.

Others agree. Dr. David R. Sandison, manager of MEMS Devices and Reliability Physics at the lab, said of Sommerville that his work "is outstanding as evidenced by his undergraduate thesis, which received only editorial comments and technical consulting. I had a departmental goal to grow this into a technology area and Will helped advance new integrated MEMS/IC technologies by providing a target deliverable against which performance could be measured. I have worked with many undergraduates at Sandia and during my time at Cornell University. Will's overall engineering skills are in the top 10 percent."

Other Sandia engineering executives echoed Sandison's comments. Mark W. Jenkins, a senior member of the technical staff at Sandia, oversaw Sommerville's work and believes his efforts "resulted in one of the few MEMS fabricated devices that worked first time through the fab and was the first MEMS radio on a chip component produced for this project. He proved to be able to battle politics and technology issues to deliver a working product on time."

But all work and no play leads to a hollow life. During his academic career and work rotations at Sandia, Sommerville enrolled in an Egyptian belly dancing class with a former girlfriend in New Mexico, learned to ride a 1,700 pound bull named Valentino, learned rudimentary Arabic and German languages, and participated in Kettering's exchange program at a German university. "I went to 24 countries during that term," he said, adding, "I partied with the Danish ambassador in Serbia, kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and made friends with Romanians in Spain."

Today, he works at DaimlerChrysler in the Audio and Telematics Group on such projects as satellite radio systems and hands-free cell phone modules. Recently, he, Dr. Gover and two Sandia employees presented two papers at the Electrical Insulation Conference/Electrical Manufacturing Expo '05 in Indianapolis. They plan to work together to extend this research for the submission of a paper to the 2006 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Vehicular Power and Propulsion Conference in England.

And although young Sommerville felt "a little creeped out driving my dad's old truck, going to his old school, having his name and being told I look a lot like him," these things have also given him the motivation to succeed.

"My dad had to go through a lot then during his academic career," Sommerville said. "He almost failed until a professor helped him out and all of his belongings were stolen from his car the day before he graduated from school. Things like these make me think twice about complaining."

Through all of these academic and personal activities, after all the meandering miles driven across the country and the engineering work he has encountered at Sandia and DaimlerChrysler, one thing remains the same: "I still drive my dad's old truck," he said.

Written by Gary J. Erwin
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