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Q&A: Top Boeing engineer, Vandy alum lauds aerospace club for wins

Vanderbilt Aerospace Club members recover their rocket at the launch day competition that took place on April 11 at Bragg Farms in Toney, Alabama, near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Aerospace Club)

Paul Turczynski graduated Vanderbilt University in 1990 with dual undergraduate degrees in electrical and biomedical engineering and a plan to go to medical school. Today, he’s the director for The Boeing Company’s Solution Architectures Group with the Electronics & Information Solutions unit.

That path wasn’t as winding as one might think.

The cross-disciplinary problem-solving skills he learned at Vanderbilt prepared him to save lives one way or another, either on the exam room table or by finding and fixing holes in the nation’s cybersecurity systems.

When Turczynski visits his alma mater, he checks in to get inspired by members of the Vanderbilt Aerospace Club, which just won its third consecutive first-place award in NASA’s annual Student Launch Challenge. The Boeing Company, which hires three to five of the school’s top engineering graduates each year, provided financial support for the club.

Born in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and raised on Air Force bases around the globe, Turczynski now lives in Washington, D.C., and also holds a master’s degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from George Washington University. He spoke with the School of Engineering about his career, what he admires about the aerospace club and securing the future of STEM education.

As someone who has succeeded in the aerospace industry, what do you see that is setting Vanderbilt’s aerospace club apart as a consistently winning team?

It goes back to the fundamentals of an engineering education at Vanderbilt and how cross-disciplinary it is. The second aspect is the type of students you attract and the passion and enthusiasm they have for what they’re doing. The third aspect is the technical discipline that Vanderbilt students exhibit.  They’re highly qualified coming in, and then the types of courses they have to take, regardless of their engineering discipline, promote cross-functional systems thinking, and the depth of study promotes technical excellence.

I also give a large amount of credit for the team’s success to Professor ‎A.V. Anilkumar, their adviser. His teaching methods and positive support promote learning and internalization of the lessons.

Paul Turczynski

Vanderbilt doesn’t offer a major in aerospace engineering, but your professional experience seems to indicate that’s not a must. There wasn’t even an aerospace club when you were here, was there?

No, there was not. I received dual degrees in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, and I have been able to succeed in designing satellites, integrating sensors into aircraft, working with underwater vehicles – a lot of it on the basis of my education and how I got those problem-solving skills.

You studied biomedical engineering with an eye to going to medical school but built a career in cybersecurity. What ignited your passion?

Both of those areas have to do with problem-solving. It circles back to the type of education Vanderbilt delivers. You have to understand how to solve problems and attack them in different ways. Diagnosing a patient’s disease requires the same type of problem-solving that you do with risk reduction on a part on a rocket or meeting the key parameters required for a satellite.

The aerospace that I deal with is in the area of national security.  My father was Air Force Special Forces. Because of him, it’s easier to see a specific tie between the problems I’m solving now in national security and saving lives.

How did you make that career leap?

It was a very, very bad job market when I graduated. I received two offers, one in a geographically undesirable place and one writing software. I was capable and skilled at writing software, but I took that job because I needed a job. I was writing code for a simulator that looked at augmenting the national space infrastructure with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. I learned everything I possibly could about satellites and communication and datalinks and turned an engineering job into a mission-oriented function, studying how information and data flowed through the system to improve the mission.

The Vanderbilt team told the testers, “Put the sample wherever you want, we’ll find it, and put the payload wherever you want, we’ll find it and be able to pick it up and place it.” That is exactly a mission-oriented solution.

This week, after finding out they won, the Vanderbilt Aerospace Club gave me a briefing on what they did for the project this year. They had the requirement to build an autonomous ground support equipment robot that could collect samples from Mars and return those to the rocket, so they had to create a methodology and a user interface for that to happen. How would you actually collect a sample from mars? You wouldn’t know exactly where it was placed or the exact orientation of your rocket. They allowed for all those degrees of variability in the design and production of their system.

Some of the other teams said the sample had to be at X and your rocket payload section had to be at Y, and they could pick it up at X and move it to Y. The Vanderbilt team told the testers, “Put the sample wherever you want, we’ll find it, and put the payload wherever you want, we’ll find it and be able to pick it up and place it.” That is exactly a mission-oriented solution, one that bridges from academia to real-world solutions.

What do you want the American public to know – and that you’re allowed to say – about cybersecurity that might surprise us?

A lot of it comes down to personal diligence. If you trace back a lot of the attacks that have occurred recently, it’s because someone clicks through a link that they shouldn’t have. We can say phishing is a large contributor to a lot of the cyber-attacks that are happening. It takes personal diligence to understand, maybe this email did come from an address you know, but you need to verify the link and the source.

It recently made news in Nashville when a group claiming to be with Islamic State took over a local nightclub’s website.

There are inherent vulnerabilities in websites, and there are people who like to find vulnerabilities and do things with those. I was doing STEM outreach in Maryland, and a 12-year-old came up to me and said, “You work in cybersecurity. What can I do to make companies take me seriously? I alerted a corporation that they have a vulnerability in their website that will allow them to be hacked. I’ve told them six times over the past year, and they still haven’t fixed it.” It’s more pervasive than most people understand.

What do you think is important for the future of your field?

Vanderbilt Aerospace Club’s STEM outreach to grade schools is one of the big reasons Boeing continues to support it.  The members are much closer in age to the students they’re talking to than most engineers who do STEM outreach, and it’s structured in such a way that teachers in the schools can incorporate what they’re doing as part of their curriculum.

That’s exactly what you should be doing to generate long-term interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. If you look at most STEM outreach, it’s an exciting, one-time event for a short period that may or may not promote long-term interest. That’s something we need to look at – how do we ensure long-term interest in these fields?


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering