Mechanical engineering student saw how graduate school can open doors

After attending an aeronautics conference, Bennett Breese's career trajectory changed

Bennett Breese, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Cincinnati, did not plan on going to graduate school. While he was an undergraduate student, he attended a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and his plans changed.

Breese was chosen as Graduate Student Engineer of the Month by UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science.

How did you end up choosing UC? What drew you here?

Bennett Breese headshot

Bennett Breese. Photo/Provided.

I started at the University of Cincinnati in 2015 to pursue a B.S. in mechanical engineering. There are a lot of factors that go into picking the ideal school, but for me, I wanted the one that gave me the best chance of success after graduation. UC offers a great engineering program, and it is ranked top five in the nation for co-ops and and the highest ranked university in the State of Ohio for return on investment. It was a no-brainer; UC was the best choice. 

Originally, I had no intention of going to grad school. It was somewhat of a fluke. In July of 2018, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics was hosting a conference at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati. A friend from my hometown who worked for a large research lab at Georgia Tech was attending, and even though I had three exams that day, I decided to pay him a visit. He got me into the conference where I met with leading scientists and engineers from all over the nation. The experience showed me the doors that grad school could open. 

Motivated by the conference, I started looking for research opportunities in the labs at UC. I reached out to Dr. Manish Kumar from the UAV Master Lab and Cooperative Distributed Systems Lab. I joined the lab my senior year of undergrad and developed great working relationships with the team. The experience not only familiarized me with the nuances of research, but also helped me find my interest in autonomous and AI control systems. 

Why did you choose your field of study?

Initially, I wanted to pursue a career where I could excel; one that was practical and rewarding. That's what first drew me to engineering. But it was my senior research experience that kept me at UC for graduate school and helped hone my focus on AI systems and controls. 

Briefly describe your research work? What problems do you hope to solve?

Recently there's been a huge resurgence of AI related research. AI, specifically neural networks, are really good at finding patterns and learning complicated physics problems. Now, AI has been shown to work well in complicated systems before (think piloting a plane or driving a car), but nobody really understands how they learn or if what they've learned is safe in all scenarios (which is important if you want your plane to stay in the air). Simply put, I want to develop AI that is interpretable, safe, and stable by guiding its learning with these well understood physics-based models. 

What are some of the most impactful experiences during your time at UC?

By the time I finished my bachelor's degree, I was already pursuing research opportunities with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Science Foundation, and I had a great team around me.

What are a few of your accomplishments of which you are most proud?

During my undergraduate studies, I received the John Moteff award for academic performance, published a paper, and graduated summa cum laude. During my graduate career I was awarded the Rindsberg Fellowship at UC and won an award from the Air Force Research Laboratory on behalf of our lab. 

I've always thought that it is better to pursue a tangible goal rather than accolades and recognition. Nonetheless, it feels good to look back and see that all the hard work and consistent effort does not go unnoticed. 

What are your plans after earning your degree?

After graduation I will be working with the Ford Motor Company in their AI Advancement Center. I've accepted a position as an AI/Machine Learning Scientist. 

Do you have any closing remarks you'd like to share?

Graduate school isn't easy. It takes a lot of hard work and consistent effort. And it can be downright miserable if you do it alone. However, with the right guidance, and the right people around you, it can be a lot of fun! I'm extremely thankful to Dr. Kumar and my co-workers who provided guidance and direction for my work, and to my church (H2O) for their continuous support and commitment to me and to each other. 

Featured Image at top: View of Mantei center from a dorm room window. Photo: Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand.

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