In June, Wilson (Wil) Benz will pack up everything he owns and head out west to begin doctoral studies at Texas A&M University. As part of the program, he will also work as a research assistant in the Connected Autonomous Safe Technologies (CAST) program.
It's not the first time Benz has been in that part of the country. This past summer, Benz took his 2014 Yamaha Bolt motorcycle, loaded it with camping gear, and went on a two-month, 16,000-mile journey across the western half of the United States.
Benz will receive his bachelor's degree in engineering technology on Saturday.
For Benz, a native of Burke, Virginia, it was an eye-opening experience. "I went from low deserts in New Mexico, and all of a sudden, I was in California. And it was seven degrees on top of the mountains in the Sequoia National Forest," he said. "Then I rode to the only temperate rainforest in the United States in Washington State. It was just crazy to drive 6 hours in a direction, and you're in a completely different style of biodiversity."
His wildlife encounters included coyotes, prairie dogs, moose and rattlesnakes. The human encounters, however, were more treacherous. "In San Francisco, I nearly got hit three times," he said. "And, I had a guy try to steal my tachometer in Las Vegas," he said.
Although his mother had earned her doctorate in engineering physics and worked for the Naval Research Lab for over 30 years, Benz never wanted to be an engineer. "I did everything in my power not to become an engineer," he said. "And, lo and behold, I became an engineer."
Benz always had a fascination with engines. He started taking motors apart as a teenager and worked for several years in the automotive field. "I didn't know if I wanted to do engineering, and then I thought, 'I'm already kind of rebuilding everything,'" he said. "Why don't I just design the parts?"
He found the perfect fit in ODU's Department of Engineering Technology. "As much as I like theoretically thinking of certain engineering aspects, I wanted to be able to put a hammer to metal and build the darn thing," he said.
It was Vukica Jovanovic, professor and chair of the Department of Engineering Technology, that sold him on the program. "Dr. Jovanovic was a massive influence for me," he said. "I didn't realize how much I liked robotics until I got here. She showed me pictures of her BattleBots, which probably sealed the deal."
Jovanovic believes that Benz made the right choices during his time at ODU. "With his practical work experience and research experience that he gained while working on a senior design project for Busch Manufacturing LLC, he has a great leg up for his future career," she said.
With a newfound interest in robotics, Benz tailored his degree to include a minor in electrical engineering technology and a concentration in mechatronics.
Benz has been working part-time at Leidos, an American defense, aviation, information technology and biomedical research company since his internship there ended in 2021. They recently hired him as a logistics engineer in the maintenance department for a six-month position. "My job will be looking at new updates to the servers and sonar systems on U.S. Navy ships to make sure they can mesh well with previous systems," he said. "It's a different side of engineering."
He'll be there until this summer when he packs his bags and heads back out west again.