Back home: A journey from student to professor

Back home: A journey from student to professor

After earning a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering at TU in 2013, William LePage completed a master’s and PhD at the University of Michigan. In fall 2020, LePage and his family packed up their belongings and headed south as he took up the position of assistant professor of mechanical engineering at TU. We recently got together with LePage to find out more about his journey from student to professor, the role of research in undergraduate education and his thoughts on ways to maximize life and learning while at university.

Welcome back to Tulsa and TU. It must be exciting to start your teaching career at your undergraduate alma mater. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you! It is a joy and privilege to be back at TU. Summing up my identity: I’m a Christian, husband, father, scientist, teacher and engineer.

Mechanical engineering is not an easy field to break into. When and why did you decide that this would be your subject?

Mechanical engineering drew me in for the opportunity to design and build stuff that can make the world better. Mechanical engineers get to create and innovate, both in the physical and digital realms, and this lets us do a lot of things that can have a positive influence in the world — and it’s a lot of fun! Mechanical engineers are often called the “utility players” of engineering, and it’s exciting that there are excellent opportunities to put this to good use.

a man standing outdoors wearing glasses, a light blue shirt and a dark blue blazer
William LePage

When I was a kid, my parents — Lesley and Bill — really helped spark an interest in science for my brother Daniel (B.S. ’11) and myself through abundant opportunities to explore, wonder and tinker. We have a family farm and grew up on several acres out in the country, and this gave us our own laboratory of sorts. My parents also instilled a desire for learning and to do something good for other people. By my senior year of high school, I was sold on pursuing mechanical engineering.

Was there any pivotal moment or person during your TU undergraduate studies that convinced you to pursue advanced studies? Or was it always a part of your plan?

A pivotal moment came during my first semester at TU, when I told John Henshaw something along the lines of, “Your job is really cool. I think I’d like to be a professor, too.” John was mentoring several other students and me on projects with a student organization called Sustainable Engineering for Needy and Emerging Areas (SENEA). John guided me into a research project in collaboration with Gordon Purser. Over several semesters and summers, they steadily guided me in this research project, helped me find summer research internships and coached me on fellowship and graduate school applications.

It was the inspiring example and thoughtful mentoring from professors Henshaw and Purser that really propelled me into graduate studies. Now, I hope I can provide a similar level of mentoring and support for many TU students to come!

Graduate school is an intimidating prospect for many students. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with master’s and doctoral studies? Do you have any words of wisdom or warning for students who are considering it?

The best advice I could share would be to talk with your professors. If you haven’t found a faculty member or two that you can have career planning conversations with, then asking about graduate school is a great way to start a discussion with a professor! Through your discussions, they’ll get to know you, and since they know your discipline and its prospects in grad school, they will be able to guide you well.

Graduate school is an incredible opportunity to further your learning and open new possibilities. I was very blessed to get to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and to have fantastic mentors all along the way, especially my Ph.D. advisors (Samantha Daly and John Shaw) and my postdoc mentor (Neil Dasgupta). It was an amazing experience to work with such driven, intelligent, thoughtful mentors.

What is it like to now be a colleague of people who were formerly your professors?

It’s a joy! I’m blessed to have outstanding colleagues, and it truly feels like a team. We’re all working together to provide the best learning and development opportunities for our students.

Could you speak a little bit about your current and planned research for the future? Is there any way that TU students could get involved, through, for example, the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) program?

My research group looks at how metals break and how we can make them last longer. Our areas of expertise include “memory metal” (nickel titanium) that is used primarily for cardiovascular implants (e.g., transcatheter stents and heart valves) and the metals that go into next-gen, solid-state batteries (lithium and sodium). Right now, we’re working on some new ideas to make 3D-printed metals last longer.

There are several ways for undergraduate students to get involved in research at TU. One of the best parts about being a student here is that you can lead your own research project in an unusually big way.

Often, undergraduate research at universities is simply aimed at supporting graduate research. At TU, however, our small size affords us the chance to let undergraduates be the main investigators on their own projects, which is a rare gem in higher education. Our undergraduate research opportunities are really outstanding in forming students to be dynamic problem solvers and effective communicators.

TURC is a great vehicle for undergraduate research and it is often the starting point in our students’ research careers. If current students are interested in research, I definitely recommend they reach out to a professor who has an area of expertise that interests them. They’ll be eager to help prepare a TURC application or get involved in research in other avenues.

What is the importance of peer-to-peer relationships to the college experience? For example, what are some benefits of these relationships? What are some good ways to form these relationships?

No doubt, friendships are a key part of a well-rounded college experience. On an academic level, it’s a big boost to have peers in your classes that you can team up with for study groups and team projects. On a social level, college is an incredible time to develop deep, lifelong friendships.

LePage is one of a group of alumni who founded and support the Patrick O’Shenanigan Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund, which provides financial assistance to deserving TU students while also paying tribute to the happy times and shenanigans that these friends enjoyed while they were students on TU’s campus.

Forming these relationships is often a matter of finding people who share your interests and values, and then nurturing these friendships organically. Who knows how your friendships might blossom. In fact, my lifelong best friend — my wife Rebecca — and I met at TU!

You were also a student-athlete during your TU days. Do you believe that participating in athletics contributed to you having a more well-rounded college student experience?

Yes, I was a walk-on to the TU cross-country and track teams. I was always one of the slowest guys on the squad, but it was a great experience! Coach Gulley will attest that I never performed very well, and I only scored at conference once, in my very last race! Nonetheless, it was a big gift to get to share many miles and memories with a really great group of guys. We’re fortunate at TU to be able to have a large proportion of student-athletes, and extracurricular experiences like athletics are outstanding ways to enrich our students’ experiences.

Finally, what have you found so far to be the most rewarding things about teaching at a university level?

It’s been very rewarding to see students make big strides in their learning and have their successes snowball. Even just one semester in, it’s been a gift to have students share their excitement about their successes, like doing a great job at a conference or landing a solid opportunity for after graduation.

a man wearing a black face mask standing in front of a large machine
William LePage in the McElroy Prototyping Lab

The focus at TU on investing in our students is also a big part of my TU story. Chip McElroy (BMG ’85) generously supported the scholarship that allowed me to attend TU. I’m so grateful for his generosity toward me and many, many other TU students over the years, including my brother Daniel.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, professors John Henshaw and Gordon Purser really invested in me and my development as a young scientist. I’m so grateful that they generously poured into my development as an undergraduate researcher, something that helped me thrive in graduate school. They’re a big inspiration for me as I get started with mentoring students on their own research projects.

The University of Tulsa is host to a huge number of organizations that enable students to take part in serious research. Find out how you can get involved with exciting research opportunities here!