Over the years things change and evolve, but one Iowa State grad stayed true to his roots and found his place in academia.
“Engineering teaches you how to solve problems,” he says. “So transitioning from one engineering discipline to the next wasn’t too difficult because I had learned those fundamental problem solving abilities.”
Pertmer grew up at the dawn of manned spaceflight – the Mercury Project all the way up to Apollo 11 – and he said those events helped shape his early career path.
When he set out from his home in West Allis, Wisconsin, in 1967, he was determined to study aerospace engineering at Iowa State University and design next-generation technologies in astronautics and orbital mechanics.
At Iowa State, he was instantly hooked on the discipline after riding in the department’s airplane to collect data for a sophomore-level lab course. For his senior class project, he helped design and build a propulsion system for an airplane.
But as the national awe of Apollo 11 waned, so too did his interest in aerospace engineering. “At the time, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of potential career opportunities in my area of interest,” he said. Nuclear power, on the other hand, was a rising new energy source and engineering field.
He met and consulted with Professor Glenn Murphy, who was a pioneer in nuclear engineering and head of the department at Iowa State, about the prospects of nuclear power. This encounter encouraged Pertmer to take a nuclear engineering course that drew him closer toward the discipline.
“Probably the most interesting aspects of the course were the fission process and an introduction to reactor engineering – how the energy released in fission was ultimately used to generate electricity in a power plant,” he said.
After graduating with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering, he went to graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia to study nuclear engineering. Pertmer completed his master’s degree in 1973, and at the same time, he began to make plans for a career in academia.
“My passion has always been teaching, especially at the undergraduate level,” he said. But first, he wanted to gain experience in the nuclear power industry.
He initially worked for Stone & Webster, an engineering consultancy company, in Boston, Massachusetts, doing thermal and fluid systems design. He then gained experience as a startup engineer at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While at Beaver Valley, Pertmer resolved to pursue a doctorate degree that would help him realize his dream to teach. He returned to the University of Missouri-Columbia and taught classes in addition to conducting research.
After completing his doctorate in nuclear engineering in 1978, Pertmer headed to the University of Maryland to teach classes in reactor physics and engineering, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and reactor system safety as an associate professor of nuclear engineering.
In 2000, he put his teaching responsibilities on hold to serve as the associate dean for undergraduate student affairs until returning to regular faculty status in 2011, but this time, as a professor of mechanical engineering.
He now teaches engineering mechanics – statics, which is taught to freshmen at Maryland, and also the mechanical engineering senior capstone design course.
“It’s pretty exciting to watch my students grow and progress from being incoming freshmen to graduating seniors,” he says.
No matter where life takes them, one thing’s for sure – the students who sit in Pertmer’s classes will learn those same engineering principles he learned at Iowa State that they can use to create meaningful careers, just as he has.