Jacob Wilson followed a winding path from earning his bachelor’s degree to graduate school, blending in the ingredients of teaching and national lab research. Now in his third year of the graduate program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, his education is funded through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF-GRFP).

Wilson is from Georgia, where a state-wide initiative was put in place to fast-track teachers in the midst of a shortage of educators. Through that program, he was able start teaching immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree in physics from Georgia Tech and was to complete his full certification within a couple years. He enjoyed the teaching experience, but wanted his long-term career to include a deeper level of investigation.

Mathematics had been his favorite subject throughout his years in school, and was a pillar of his degree in physics. Thinking that he may want to apply to graduate school, he took a few math classes that he hadn’t taken for his degree, increasing the rigor of his study and deepening his knowledge. When considering the graduate program he might want to enter, he narrowed down the choices between Virginia Tech and staying in his home state of Georgia. For the final decision, Wilson contacted several faculty members in each institution. In the final tally, his decision to work with Professor Rui Qiao was made for more personal reasons.

“Dr. Qiao and I really clicked because he seemed like a very kind, understanding, and supportive person,” said Wilson. “That’s why I chose him.”

Wilson became a John R. Jones Fellow after his first year, receiving funding that helped sustain his studies. Now engaged in the research of Qiao’s Laboratory of Transport Phenomena, he found the integration of mathematics into complex engineering problems to be the deeper dive he had sought. The research environment was a great fit, so he made the decision to pursue an additional experience during the summer break of 2022. An application to Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico resulted in a short-term position as a student intern, working with a man he greatly admired.

“At Sandia, I worked with Stuart Silling, the father of a method in computational solid mechanics,” said Wilson. “We were working on a specific problem he was having with the method.”

Wilson returned to Virginia Tech at the conclusion of the summer job at Sandia. In the meantime, he had applied for the NSF graduate fellowship, and discovered that he was a recipient of the prestigious award in fall 2022. The chances had been low of winning. The acceptance rate for the award is roughly 16% among more than 12,000 applicants, so being chosen as a recipient felt particularly victorious.

Receiving funding means he can continue his studies, finding new ways to blend education with research. At this juncture, he still looks back at his time as a teacher with fondness, wishing to bring all the parts together.

“The trifecta is independent research to advance your field, being a student to systematically refine your skills, and also teaching,” said Wilson. “You’re learning, you’re passing on information. In teaching, I think you learn so much more than being a student. You’re not passively working out problems, and you reach a maximum level. In research, you’re not only trying to understand your field, you’re trying to push the current level of understanding. You’re making knowledge.”