ORONO, Maine — Politicians, investors and University of Maine officials celebrated Friday morning the announcement that a Florida-based investment group soon will pump millions of dollars into the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center to develop and market the AEWC’s latest bridge technology. Dozens of jobs are expected to materialize over the next few years.
For one group, however, the work put into the Neal Bridge in Pittsfield and other projects at the AEWC has paid off in a more immediate manner.
Below are profiles of five current or former University of Maine undergraduate and graduate students who worked on the Neal Bridge. For some of them, the project helped launch their careers. Others used it as a steppingstone in their academic lives.
And they’re all staying in Maine, for now, because of the opportunities provided by the AEWC and its bridge projects.
“We tell everybody this is a reverse brain drain. We bring people back here and not only [at the AEWC] but as we spin off this business we’re looking at hiring people from here to work in this business,” said AEWC director Habib Dagher. “That makes the most sense because they understand the technology and the engineering. So it’s a way to keep people in Maine who would otherwise leave, and keep them coming back to Maine.”
Bannon, who is from Bridgton, is working on his master’s degree in civil engineering. In fact, the Pittsfield bridge project is his master’s degree — he developed modeling techniques for testing the bridge structure in the lab.
Bannon, 24, is considered so instrumental on the theory and modeling side that earlier this week he was offered a job by Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, the investment group. He will continue to work on design, modeling and testing for AIT.
Aside from the implications for the University of Maine and the AEWC, Bannon feels the bridge project could affect other areas of civil engineering.
“It’s an exciting project for our industry, being directly related to composites,” said Bannon, who delivered talks on the subject this winter in Florida and South Carolina. “Civil infrastructure is an area that composites haven’t completely broken into yet as [opposed to] the automotive or aerospace industries. It’s a good opportunity for us to get composites used more heavily in that area.”
A 26-year-old Old Town native who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from UMaine, Goslin is working full time as a structural engineer at the AEWC. He worked on the design of the bridge in a bag and was a part of the Neal Bridge team.
Goslin watched many of his classmates leave Maine in search of better jobs. Now that a major investment is being made in the wood composite center, Goslin can continue to stay just a few miles from where he grew up and work in a challenging job.
“It’s a great opportunity to work on some projects and do some new things,” he said. “It’s nice being able to work on a bunch of different things all at once instead of being in an office all day, to be working on tests, design, play in the field. And it’s nice to be able to come back and work around here.”
Nagy, 36, who grew up in Lincoln, Neb., earned a master’s degree at UMaine and is working on a doctorate in civil engineering. He worked with Goslin on the design aspect of the bridge project.
The most challenging aspect of the Neal Bridge project, he said, was coordinating with the different entities involved.
“We were basically designing and manufacturing on a fast-track simultaneously, and working with the contractor and DOT so everything would be ready after they started the excavation and the foundation,” It was ready at the right time we were ready. If it hadn’t gone smoothly it wouldn’t have gotten done.”
Now that it’s in place, Nagy said, the project could spark interest in engineering in general and get people excited to be at UMaine whether as students or employees.
“I think having a real-world, high-visibility project that people can understand, something that people can get literally their hands on, can go a long way towards raising excitement about engineering as a career,” he said. “We’re excited about the opportunities that are coming down the pike because of the work the DOT did that enabled us to get our foot in the door. Now we can broaden that out.”
Vincent grew up in tiny Connor, just outside Caribou in Aroostook County. He spent two years working on an associate degree in computer drafting at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, then transferred to UMaine where he is considered a sophomore.
The 21-year-old got a job at the wood composite center through an acquaintance.
“I thought the place was extremely interesting and I liked the work that was done here,” Vincent said. “It’s great to have a job on campus and enjoy what you do. It’s new technology. I like seeing the bridge, and knowing I was a part of it. It’s a real sense of accomplishment.”
Like Vincent, Viselli hails from a small town in rural Maine and is now pursing a graduate degree at UMaine through the wood composite center. He’s from Cooper, which is north of Machias, where he grew up around his father who worked in the residential construction business.
“I thought I had a handle on concrete, knew what was going on, then I got here and this threw me a twist,” the 24-year-old Viselli said. “It’s a very different, very novel approach. It gave me a good impression of engineering and what’s possible.”
Viselli is working on his doctorate in engineering and also is working full-time for Maine Secure Composites, a Bangor-based company that is one of several AEWC spinoff companies. Maine Secure Composites received a $12.9 million grant last year to commercialize secure shipping containers made out of composite materials that were developed in the AEWC lab.
He worked on the bridge project more than four years ago when he was an undergraduate. Still, he’s getting a kick out of seeing what has become of Neal Bridge.
“When you’re working on these things you never know,” Viselli said. “You want very hard for the technology to blossom so to see it here now is pretty cool. My dad hasn’t seen this. Maybe we’ll go by the next time we’re on the road together. I’m sure he’ll be impressed.”