Greg White says that when he started college, he was romanced by the idea of becoming a professor. But along the way to an advanced degree, he realized his interest had veered toward working for a national laboratory.
“It’s important for me now, and it was at the time, to have an impact on our national security,” says Greg (1835), who researches the aging of polymers and the resulting changes in how they perform.
The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering selected him this year for New Faces in Engineering, a recognition program the National Engineers Week Foundation began in 2003 to highlight the work of engineers ages 30 and younger.
Greg’s first glimpse into engineering came when he was in high school and attended a precollege initiative weekend at Virginia Tech sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
It was his first exposure to a large university and engineering students, and the weekend was made all the better by the engineering projects the students got to do, he says. He recalls a Rube Goldberg device that created a domino effect.
“There was a lot of fun involved in that weekend,” Greg says.
Since he enjoyed math and science and liked solving problems, the precollege initiative program and his contact with NSBE “kind of lit that fire for engineering,” he says.
Greg went to Virginia Tech for his undergraduate work, starting out in computer engineering.
“Then I started doing programming, and that was awful,” he says. He turned to chemical engineering instead and earned his bachelor’s in 2006.
He was debating graduate school or a full-time job when one of his Virginia Tech professors intervened. As Greg sat in the office, the professor picked up the phone and called a former graduate student who had gone on to become chairman of Clemson University’s chemical engineering department. “’I’ve got a student in my office,’” the professor said, and handed Greg the phone.
“That was awkward. I didn’t know what to say,” Greg recalls. But with his professor’s urging, he applied to Clemson. He drove from Virginia to South Carolina for an interview and to meet faculty and students.
“It felt like the right place to be, so I took that opportunity and went to Clemson,” he says.
On the advice of another professor, he skipped a master’s degree and went straight to a doctorate, doing his dissertation on nanomaterials synthesis and processing.
Greg began questioning his idea of staying in academia when he was in his last year or so of graduate school. He had married by then, and he and his wife, also a PhD student, had the first two of their three sons while in graduate school.
“At the end of your grad school tenure, you’re tired, and being young parents was also difficult,” Greg says.
At the same time, he says, he was watching his adviser go through the labyrinth of the tenure process, “and I didn’t know if I wanted to go through that rigor.”
He had worked for the defense contractor Battelle as an undergraduate and did research on his dissertation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the National Institute of Standards and Technology near Washington, D.C. When he began looking into post doc programs, those experiences influenced him to consider the national laboratories as a path between industry and academia, he says.
Greg came to Sandia as a postdoc in May 2011 and joined the staff in August 2012.
Sandia, he says, was an excellent fit because of his interest in the high impact work of polymers.
“Whether it’s for nuclear power or assistance to the Department of Energy, those are all high consequence and I enjoy that,” he says.