Editor's note: General Electric hires some of the brightest young engineers to continue its legacy of innovation, then works to grow their talent. In this week's installment of The Daily Gazette's coverage of GE's 125th anniversary, we talk to three young engineers in GE's Edison Engineering Development Program and the chemical engineer who leads the program at the Global Research Center in Niskayuna.
SCHENECTADY — Young engineers have help as they start their careers at General Electric.
Formally and informally, mentorship and guidance are offered to the hundreds of engineers who join the company each year, with the goal of creating an atmosphere in which they can feel inspired and confident, rather than intimidated or overwhelmed.
Three young GE engineers spoke recently to The Daily Gazette about their experiences and ambitions, and about the idea of making their own way in a company with such an extensive history of invention and innovation. Each sees that legacy as an opportunity to excel, rather than a burden to live up to.
The engineers work at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, and each is part of the Edison Engineering Development Program, a highly selective process that rotates new hires through three or more areas of research over the course of up to three years.
Jen Gavin, 25, an Orlando native who holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering from Florida State University, set out to do “classical” mechanical engineering in her career — hands-on work with moving parts. She thought she would do all of her Edison rotations in that field, but she has not.
“That’s the beauty of the Edison Program,” she said. “Branch out, try things, hone in on what you’re passionate about.”
During Gavin’s first rotation, she worked in non-destructive testing, using medical scanners to look at turbine parts and jet engines. The second rotation was in digital optimization, with the goal of minimizing the disruptions and downtime created by maintenance.
“That was really my first experience in digital technology. It was absolutely fascinating working in that space,” Gavin said.
For her third rotation, she sought to combine the digital and physical realms of engineering. She’s now working on lifing and probabilistic research — using physical testing to create digital data to show how components will wear over their lifetimes. The data become part of a Digital Twin, the virtual models GE is creating by the thousands.
“This is getting closer and closer to how the Digital Twin needs to know when a part needs to be serviced,” she said. “It’s a really fascinating spot to be in.”
As she nears the end of her time in the Edison Program, Gavin said she’s learned to be adaptable and flexible in her research, and she wouldn’t be surprised if her career goes in a different direction from classical mechanical engineering.
Down the road, she might like to move into a leadership role — and perhaps a mentoring role — within the Edison Program, she said.
Gavin said she likes being part of a company that has touched so many aspects of everyday life and has a history of never being satisfied with the current level of innovation.
Shoulders of giants
Pictured: GE robotics engineer Kori Macdonald displays a remote-controlled camera-equipped robot that can crawl into an electric turbine to perform inspections. (John Cropley)
Kori Macdonald, 25, a Colonie native who holds a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh and a masters in mechanical engineering from Rice University, has a strong interest in robotics and has focused two Edison Program rotations in that area. The first was in microrobotics — tiny robots that can crawl into big machines to find problems without having to tear the machines apart. The second is in telerobotics, in which robots are controlled remotely so humans needn't take the time or risk to be on-site with the machines they are controlling. She said computer coding wasn’t her strongest suit, so she chose a second rotation that would require her to do a lot of it.
Macdonald loves research.
“I feel like the idea behind research is really to stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said. “We’re really building on what other people have accomplished and discovered.”
Having at her disposal cutting-edge technology that her forebears may never have dreamed of is nice, she said.
“It certainly speeds things up. It certainly makes my job easier.”
So it’s not surprising that Macdonald likes working at Global Research and hopes to be there for years to come.
“To me, it means opportunities,” she said. “I feel like we have the entire company behind us.
“If in 10 years, I wanted to be working on health care, I could still be doing that at" Global Research.
Next year, her third rotation in the Edison Program could be equally varied, and she likes that.
As a young engineer, Macdonald also serves as a GE ambassador — both off-site, doing volunteer outreach, and on-site, leading tours.
“We get to expose people from all over the world — all over GE — to all that’s going on,” she said.
The ranks of women in the engineering fields are growing, thanks in part to efforts to encourage young girls to pursue study of science, technology, engineering and math in grade school.
Macdonald had natural instincts in those areas and received encouragement to develop them. She spent her early childhood tinkering with things and working with her hands; when she reached Colonie Central High School, she wanted to take wood shop, and her parents gently nudged to her toward the school’s engineering curriculum instead.
One of the teachers in Project Lead The Way became her first mentor, she recalled.
Impact of research
Arjun Sadanand, 24, was born in India, grew up in Singapore and Maryland, and went to school in Georgia and California.
Through all that, he recalls learning about some of the innovations GE has had a role in, the scale of which makes a significant impact on the young engineer starting a career there, he said.
“Especially for me,” he said. “When I was in Singapore, they taught us about Thomas Edison and the light bulb and General Electric. There’s definitely a lot of history associated with the [Global Research] Center.”
In his first Edison Program rotation, the young electrical engineer worked on edge computing -- in which computers are placed closer to the sources of data that they will analyze. “This allows for realtime data processing,” he said.
Arjun Sadanand demonstrates using goggles that help identify organs in the body. (Peter R. Barber)
In his second rotation, Sadanand is working on computer-guided ultrasound scans. Current ultrasound imaging technology depends heavily on the skill and experience of the operator, creating the possibility of varied results or even error.
“Through this effort we’re trying to improve medical care,” he said.
“The technologies and the impact of both projects I’ve worked on are pretty different,” he said, adding that the potential impact of both has been significant.
“The thing that really attracted me to GE is the huge impact that the research has.”
Sadanand said upon completion of the Edison Program, alumni often circle back to one of the labs where they worked. He hopes to do the same.
“I don’t think I’ll be heading back to school,” he said. “I would be looking to stay within the center and do more research.”
The Edison Program operates throughout General Electric’s many businesses and locations. Chemical engineer Tiffany Westendorf, a Global Research Center employee since 2004, began leading the program on the Niskayuna campus last year.
“I realized I really like to exercise the soft-skills part of my skillset,” she said. “This role is kind of a good, natural next step.”
Westendorf puts together a team that decides how and where to recruit for the Edison Program, and what skills are most needed at the Global Research Center, then goes out to find people who have those skills. Once the new participants arrive at Niskayuna, she helps them settle into the program and the company.
Pictured: This desk used by General Electric founder Thomas Edison is on display at the GE Global Research facility in Niskayuna as a celebration of the company's history of innovation. (John Cropley)
“I’m the continuum, I’m the constant throughout the Edison Program,” Westendorf said.
Typically, the Edison Program accounts for 10 to 20 percent of the new engineering hires, she said. There are now about 1,100 participants worldwide.
The rotations through sometimes-disparate areas of research are good preparation for working at the Global Research Center, Westendorf said, because GRC touches all of GE’s businesses, and many of the assignments presented to it require complex, multidiscipline solutions across organizational borders. When their time in the Edison Program is done, participants ideally will have built a network of technical contacts and mentors they can turn to when presented with a challenge outside their area of specialty.
Westendorf recalled that when she joined GE 13 years ago, she got to expand her own horizons and expertise in a manner similar to the Edison Program.
“I think all of those things were part of my experience as well, in a less formal way. It happened a little more organically,” she said. “I think formalizing that experience of rotating and trying new things is a really valuable experience to have.”
The best-case scenario, she said, is to enter the Edison Program with an area of expertise, hone it, and gain exposure to a lot of other things.
Among those helping young engineers transition from academia to the corporate workplace are people like Justin John, an electrical engineer and team leader who, at 36, isn’t old but is well-seasoned in real-world applications of his science.
“The interesting thing about the GRC is that we are looking for the best and brightest in a certain area,” he said. “When they come to GE, what they lack is what we call domain expertise.”
Newly minted PhDs, for example, may know a lot more about the science of an electrical power plant than about the practicalities of designing, building and running one. They also may not know what customers want and need, which is critical to a for-profit corporation.
“I spent a lot of time in the power business so I have a lot of experience in starting up power plants,” John said. “That domain expertise — I've been in the hot seat of adding a gigawatt to the grid.
“The first thing I tell all my folks is, there’s multiple ways to learn,” he said. “We have so many resources at GE online that will get you up to speed. Even when I started at GE, we didn’t have those resources accessible.”
Co-workers are among the best resources, John said.
“There’s tons of people on the team with 20 to 30 years’ experience,” said John, a product himself of the Edison Engineering Development Program. “Everyone is willing to help.
“We actually started doing lunch-and-learn sessions. There’s a lot of ways to get up to speed.”