When rockets take off or airplanes fly, all of their internal parts move, shake and bend because of various forces. How do you design those parts so they don’t break? Dr. Matt Allen’s structural dynamics research group is working on solutions to these types of problems.
Dr. Allen is an expert in things that move — and he recently experienced a kind of movement himself. Last year he left the University of Wisconsin-Madison to join the faculty of the Brigham Young University mechanical engineering department.
Although vibrations in rockets, airplanes and engines are a big part of Dr. Allen’s research, his discoveries don’t stop there. He helped to invent a device at the University of Wisconsin that uses vibration to sense how much force is in a tendon as someone is walking or running, invaluable knowledge for things like designing shoes, or helping athletes avoid injury.
The new professor is instructing his first BYU class this semester, but Dr. Allen is no stranger to the university. He received his undergraduate degree from the Y in 2001 and met his wife Melissa when she was a masters student studying modern dance. Their two children are now BYU Cougars as well.
“I loved my time teaching students from various backgrounds at the University of Wisconsin, but as I considered all that young members of the church are facing in this day and age, this opportunity to come to BYU and teach in an environment of faith felt really appealing. To be at a school where the eternal well-being of our students comes first is really cool,” Allen said.
As a student here his interest was mostly in thermodynamics and heat transfer. Then Dr. Allen got an undergrad research job developing carbon fiber that absorbs vibration, and the golf club they designed with that carbon fiber still sits in his office.
“That is how I got my start in vibration. Then when I went to grad school and looked at all the projects available, a project on using vibration to detect damage in structures such as bridges caught my attention,” Allen said. “It was kind of love at first sight.”
Dr. Allen advises students trying to figure out their own career path to do the things they love and take classes they enjoy the most.
“Let your likes and dislikes lead you, and often this will work over time to take you to where you want to be.”
Despite the fact that he is a professor, teaching wasn’t in the original plan for Dr. Allen.
“When I was younger, nothing terrified me more than teaching. In high school if you were to ask who was the least likely person to become a teacher, that was me,” Allen shared.
A love for teaching didn’t come until he became a gospel doctrine instructor. But even then he still thought he’d go work for a company doing research on airplanes or something similar, until the time came to look at jobs.
“I really loved doing research but I felt that thirty years down the road I might feel a little empty if that's all I did.”
Dr. Allen now tells people he gets paid to grade, because he’d do the rest of the job for free.
“What I like best is trying to make it real for the students and to help them see how this applies in the real world, and give them actual examples of the things we're learning. It is really energizing to be there as the students get to discover some of these amazing things.”
After 20 years in a career that has allowed him to meet all sorts of people and frequently travel to Europe, Dr. Allen has grown to appreciate how many good people there are, and that being in specific engineering research fields creates an international family.
“Sitting around a table after a conference with colleagues from several different countries, or in a faculty meeting with the great people that I worked with at UW-Madison really changed me,” Allen shared. “I learned a lot more from them than I taught them.”
Professor Allen is excited to be back in the mountains where he can hike and ski, and also excited to be back in the classroom teaching at a university near to his heart.
“We as teachers get to be part of students' lives at this really important part of life when they’re making some of the most important decisions of their lives: marriage, career and staying active in the church,” Allen said. “It's really an exciting time to be around all of them, and to try to see what small things we can do to help that go easier and better for them.”
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