The Physics, Computer Science and Engineering department had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. David Conner on October 20th. Dr. Conner is from a small rural city southwest of Blacksburg, Virginia. He grew up near the Blue Ridge Mountains and spent his childhood days hunting, fishing, and riding a motorcycle. He lived on a working farm with cows and lots of land. As a kid, Dr. Conner described himself as a “geek.” He talked about having a microscope and chemistry set that he tinkered with during his adolescence.
Dr. Conner described some of the must see attractions in Floyd County Virginia. There are the Blue Ridge Mountains with the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as the famous Mabry Mill. In addition, they hold Floyd Fest (https://floydfest.com/) music festival. Besides that, there are wineries and lots of farmland and mountains.
Dr. Conner attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech or VT) as a first generation student. He wanted to stay in state and VT was close. Coming from such a small town, VT was a huge change with many more students and much bigger classes. Dr. Conner identified as being shy and struggling with making friends in this new place with all new people. He spent his undergraduate years alternating between working to pay for school and attending semesters at VT. Because of this, he graduated with no debt, but did not have a continuous group of classmates to go through college with. He graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering.
After graduating, Dr. Conner found a job and began working. He found that he loved the creative side of engineering like designing and math, but did not enjoy the management side. He decided to go back to school for his MS in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. He found that he wanted to continue his research and discovered the robotics program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA where he went on to receive his MS and Ph D in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. While there, he enjoyed the collaborative open door policy he was met with and the interdisciplinary faculty in the program.
After getting his Ph D, Dr. Conner spent time working in the autonomous vehicles industry as a research scientist. After competing in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, he found he enjoyed working with students and decided he wanted to teach to have more impact in peoples’ lives. Going somewhere that valued teaching was important to him, so he chose Christopher Newport University and began teaching here in 2015.
Dr. Conner has tried many different things, research, graduate school, working in different jobs, and now he is teaching. He spoke of admiring the lack of fear of failure that Michael Jordan exhibited when he took a break from the NBA after winning 3 championships and pursued a baseball career before returning to the NBA. Dr. Conner encouraged students to try many different things. Dr. Conner’s advice for students interested in the creative side of engineering is to continue their studies in graduate school and get a masters. He advised students to find a program that specializes in the specific area they are interested in working in.
Thank you to Dr. David Conner for joining us to talk about his experiences. He has shown us that it is okay to not know what you want to do and explore different options, and that failure should not be feared.