Undergraduate Joe Podbielski Juggles Class, Lab Duties and Working on Blackhawks

Joseph Podbielski next to a mechanical tester in Dr. Volkan Ortalan’s lab, which is used for pressure and stress testing of materials

Joseph Podbielski next to a mechanical tester in Dr. Volkan Ortalan’s lab, which is used for pressure and stress testing of materials

By Marlese Lessing

Senior student Joseph Podbielski spends his school days helping manage labs for engineering students, and his summers helping design helicopters for Sikorsky. An Avery Point transfer and a Mystic native, Joe’s dream is to work at Sikorsky like his father.

His supervisor for the lab, Francis Almonte, calls Joe a “natural leader” within the MSE department.

“The best students are those who demonstrate academic success and pursue information. The best leaders are those who exhibit an initiative to learn and real energy to serve the community,” Francis says. “Joseph is a natural leader whose persistent habit is volunteerism, and through these efforts he has gained a level of mutual respect from UConn’s Materials Science and Engineering community.”

We sat down for an interview with Joe about his experiences in the MSE department as both a student and an experienced lab technician.

How did you become interested in materials science?

My dad was an engineer for Sikorsky, and as a kid I was always playing with Legos and K’NEX. My dad always pushed towards that and encouraged me to pursue it.

For me, it was when I took ‘Mechanical Behavior of Materials’ with Dr. Seok-Woo Lee and Adam Wentworth, who was my lab instructor. In that class, we were getting into real-world scenarios and doing hands-on experiments. Both of my teachers were excited about what they were teaching, and that rubbed off on me. My personal favorite module from that lab was when we did a geopolymer project and used a custom concrete blend to try and reduce CO2 emissions. I feel like I apply what I learn in class right out the door. I’ve always loved working with my hands, working with stuff and fixing things. I’d definitely like to go into mechanical behavior, seeing why things break, how they can break and how they can be improved.

How did you find a way to stay in the lab?

Last fall I started working as a laboratory technician for the undergraduate labs. I also work as a teaching assistant for Dr. Volkan Ortalan in his Mechanical Behavior class. Right now, his students are testing the mechanical properties of wood, and the tensile properties of certain types of guitar strings. I help prepare samples, run the samples and collect data. For the undergraduate labs, I help prepare modules and labs for the students. I now spend about 15-20 hours a week in the lab on top of a full class schedule, which I manage with a lot of coffee!

What do you enjoy about managing a lab?

I get good attitudes from the students I work with. Generally, they’re very excited to get into the material. In the junior labs, they’re given a lot of freedom—they have a material they’re working with, and it’s up to them what to do with it, how they’re gonna test it. I just guide them. It helps foster a positive attitude. I do my best to get them enthusiastic and help them enjoy the experience.

I also love using the mechanical testing machine. We use the dog bones and see how a material can withstand stress. It’s really cool seeing what something can take and how it breaks.

Which professors and mentors have helped you in your journey?

Adam Wentworth, for sure. Dr. Lee and his excitement for MSE has truly inspired me. I get to work with people who are excited to do what they do, which is a motivating experience. It helps to have people who are enthusiastic about they do. All of my lab classes have been extremely helpful, since it’s something you can see and apply to your work. At one point, I was helping Dr. Lee do some research, and he had thumbtack-sized cylinders of magnesium. We were doing strength tests on them, and it was amazing how much weight these tiny little cylinders could hold—thousands of psi.

Tell me about your work with Sikorsky.

I’ve interned there every summer since my freshman year, in 2015; I think I’ve logged about 600 hours every summer since I’ve started there. I started doing basic design checks for the helicopter parts. The senior engineers would draw up designs and send them over to me, and I’d check them for any errors before sending them off to our boss. Now, I draw the designs myself, and help train new interns to do design checks like I did. We’re working on ways to upgrade the aircraft we’re producing. I’ve worked on Blackhawks, Seahawks, and some commercial aircraft.

It’s something I enjoy. To actually be handed responsibility and have a say in aircraft that people will use for decades to come, it’s unique. My coworkers are wonderful to work with, and it’s awesome to see the designs I helped put together as they literally take off. During Lockheed Martin day, I got to see one of the helicopters I worked on, a Blackhawk, and I talked to the flight crew who had just flown in from North Carolina after rescuing people from the recent hurricane. Seeing that, and seeing people use the mechanics I worked on, which have had an impact on people, well, that has been priceless. I hope I can work full-time there after I graduate.

What advice would you offer to undergraduates looking for an internship like yours?

Apply yourself. Talk to your professors, talk to industry people. Senior Design really helps, especially if you do a good job and show a good work ethic.

What is one challenge you had to overcome during your time in the MSE Department?

Moving away from home. I used to commute to school at Avery Point and go home every night. When I moved here, it was a new place, with new people, and a brand-new world. I was a little overwhelmed, but I buried myself in my work and my studies. I spent as much time as I could in the lab and got to know as many people there as I could. Now I always have a home in the lab. I have a great group of lab mates, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

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