Institute's doctoral graduate lands job at General Motors

Women engineers account for only 20 percent of engineering school graduates, with just 11 percent working as practicing engineers, according to a University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee workplace study. Virginia Tech graduate Heather Chemistruck of Windsor, Conn., falls into an even rarer category. She is the first female doctoral graduate in mechanical engineering whose studies took place wholly at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville, Va.
   

During her first months at General Motors, Heather Chemistruck completed several training rotations. During her first months at General Motors, Heather Chemistruck completed several training rotations, including working in the Vehicle Handling Facility with the GM VHF Kinematics and Compliance test rig. Photo courtesy of Chris Guddeck.

What drew her to Danville after she earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg? She had planned to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering but opted instead to take advantage of the performance laboratory that focuses on the interactions between vehicles and terrain and working on her doctorate.

The combination of multiple vehicle research labs that focus on vehicle suspension, tires, and vehicle dynamics under one roof was intriguing, Chemistruck said. “I would be able to work tires or vehicles into my research if I was so inclined,” she said.

Chemistruck proved to be a great fit for General Motors (GM), as well. The automaker snapped her up in February 2011. She’s working with the Deceleration, Traction, and Stability group at GM’s Global Vehicle Dynamic Center in Detroit. That assignment came after a first year that included vehicle handling (about half the tests are human driven while the other half are robot driven to control the vehicle in a precise, repeatable manner), as well as “the areas of tire modeling, tire testing, and tire metric development in support of better vehicle simulations,” she said.

John Ferris, a Virginia Tech associate professor and director of the Vehicle Terrain Performance Laboratory, inspired Chemistruck to change her academic plans with his invitation to Danville. There, she said, she saw the institute’s five mechanical engineering labs that range from motorsports and vehicular performance to robotics and unmanned systems. Ferris also pointed out that Chemistruck could push straight through and earn a direct doctorate, which she did.

Given Chemistruck’s interests, gravitating toward the institute made sense, she said.

General Motors has made a 20-year commitment to tire testing at the National Tire Research Center, which is being established at the Virginia International Raceway. The raceway is close to the institute in Danville. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute manages and operates the center. Later in 2012, the center will install an $11 million dollar device known as a Flat Trac LTRe, giving it unparalleled research and testing capability.

In 2010, Chemistruck earned her doctorate in mechanical engineering with a focus on terrain analysis. Studying U.S. highways, she expanded the scope of terrain measurement from traditionally used 2-D terrain profiles to 3-D terrain surfaces. The benefit of her studies included streamlining 3-D datasets used for terrain topography and measuring surfaces to improve vehicle performance.

   

John Ferris is an associate professor and director of the Vehicle Terrain Performance Laboratory. John Ferris is an associate professor and director of the Vehicle Terrain Performance Laboratory.

In high school, Chemistruck was a member of FIRST, a robotics team. As an undergraduate, she said she appreciated Virginia Tech’s commitment to women in the group Hypatia, which is a residential learning community that brings together female, first-year engineering students. “I did not feel as isolated there,” Chemistruck said.

Also during her undergraduate years, she joined VT Motorsports, Virginia Tech’s Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) team, as well as the American Society of Mechanical Engineering and the Society of Women in Engineering.

Her experience with Formula SAE helped her snag a valuable summer internship with GM. She became part of an all-female team that modified a Chevrolet Cobalt SS for high performance, setting a land-speed record at the 2006 Speed Week at Bonneville Salt Flats.

Another prize-winning piece of undergrad work was her senior design project with Formula SAE. As part of the project, each student had to design one part or sub-system, add it to the vehicle, and test it. “The professors want you to be able to show that you can apply what you have learned in the classroom to a real-world application,” she said.

Chemistruck focused on bell crank and anti-roll bar design in conjunction with suspension tuning. As a testament to her tuning capabilities, VT Motorsports took first place in the skid-pad event at the Virginia International Raceway competition in 2008.

“GM has provided me with an amazing opportunity to continue to push the envelope and leverage my graduate degree in new and exciting ways,” Chemistruck said. “I wouldn’t give this career up for anything. I have always loved cars, and I am ecstatic to say that I can work with them on a daily basis and truly enjoy the group of people I work with.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Chris Horne at 434-766-6717.

Learn more about research opportunities

  • Explore the Vehicle Terrain Performance Laboratory
  • Learn about all the research centers at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research

Engineering organizations for women

Virginia Tech's College of Engineering offers several organizations for women. Among them are the following: 

Team makes history

    Heather Chemistruck at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

While an undergraduate, Heather Chemistruck became part of an all-female team that modified a Chevrolet Cobalt SS for high performance, setting a land-speed record at the 58th annual Speed Week at Bonneville Salt Flats.

What are the Bonneville Salt Flats?

  • Area near Wendover, Utah
  • Remnant of Lake Bonneville
  • Noted as venue for numerous land speed records
  • Includes 10-mile straightway for speed trials
  • Also has oval or circular track for distance runs
  • Speed Week is held here every year in August

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