BLACKSBURG, Va., May 8, 2003 – While some graduate students scrounge for scholarship opportunities, others like David A. Neal III, a budding morphing guru, receive multiple offers.
Neal's academic credentials started early in his career. As an undergraduate and a master's student at Virginia Tech, Neal became interested in designing futuristic aerospace vehicles that efficiently adapt to diverse, multi-variable conditions during flight. For example, morphing aircraft are planes that have wings that can change shape like a bird's wings, instead of rigid flaps.
Neal spent a summer as an undergraduate intern with Virginia Tech's Center for Intelligent Material Systems and Structures (CIMSS). Subsequently, the center and Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio sponsored Neal's senior design team project. Neal was selected as presenter for the team, placing him in front of an audience full of high-ranking Air Force scientific officers, all very educated in morphing. Neal 's nervousness did not show, and he was ultimately awarded a graduate research assistantship combined with support from the GE Scholars Fund to study morphing at CIMMS. His resulting master's degree work included the development of a complete simulation model for looking at morphing analysis.
Now that he is planning his doctoral studies, Neal learned recently that he is receiving a 2003-2004 National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship. The NSF graduate fellowship will cover his tuition and fees and provide Neal with a $27,000 annual stipend for three years while he earns his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. Neal learned about his NSF fellowship just days after opening an email informing him he had earned a distinguished National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.
Neal selected the NSF fellowship, designed to promote early career development of scientists and engineers by offering support at critical junctures in their careers. NSF strives to assure a steady stream of diverse, high-ability students through the educational and research training systems by providing such fellowships.
When you meet Dave Neal, it's easy to see why he is getting so much good news lately.
An interest in engineering and aerospace runs in Neal's family. His father, David Neal, Jr., was an engineering technician in the Air Force for 20 years, stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. "As soon as I displayed the slightest interest in engineering, my father pushed me to pursue engineering. He kept me on track all along the way," Neal says.
He credits his mother, Latannia, with helping him with everything from school projects to Cub Scouts as he was growing up. His mother encouraged him to join the Young Astronauts Club in 4th grade, piquing his first interests in engineering. "My education has always been paramount to my mother and she has always encouraged my participation in clubs and activities that made me more well-rounded," says Neal. His parents now reside in Dover, Del., where Neal graduated from high school.
Neal selected Virginia Tech despite being offered a full scholarship to attend Florida A&M because of its pre-freshman program, Academic Summer Program Introducing Resources for Engineers (ASPIRE). This engineering college program provides students with a head start on college studies. Neal made lasting friendships during ASPIRE and met his future wife Helen.
During his undergraduate career, Neal also participated in the Black Engineering Support Team (BEST), providing him with an upper class mentor. Neal felt strongly about the importance of the BEST program; so he went on to serve as a BEST mentor for two years. From his experience both participating and leading, Neal believes minority engineering programs are paramount to encouraging more minorities to study engineering.
"Students might come into college thinking things are impossible, but they aren't," says Neal. He has this advice for entering engineering students: "Really explore what is available in different fields before you decide. Try to get involved with engineering activities as early as possible. Work as soon as you can with upper class students doing design projects. The College of Engineering has a great environment, the professors are great people, and the opportunities for undergraduate involvement are tremendous."
Neal's hobbies are weight training and martial arts. He also loves to read fiction, with his favorites being novels by Byron, Huggins, and Koontz. He has always been a big reader, which he said his parents encouraged. He has a vivid imagination, which is why he likes to read fiction whenever he can take a break from engineering textbooks.
Harry Robertshaw, assistant department head for research and graduate studies in mechanical engineering and Daniel Inman, the George R. Goodson Professor of Mechanical Engineering, are his co-advisors.
"I am a spiritual man and I really feel blessed by this opportunity," Neal says after deciding to accept the NSF fellowship. After completing his Ph.D. in the morphing program of mechanical engineering, Neal plans to work for private industry involving dynamic modeling and control of military defense systems.