Engineering Runs in Nilsen Family’s Blood
June 30, 2022
The Nilsen siblings - Matthew (25), Michael (23) and Rachel (22) - have a lot to talk about when they get together, a rare occurrence for the busy working engineers and graduates of Old Dominion University's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Matthew '18 is a Navy lieutenant serving on a Virginia-class, fast-attack submarine as the quality assurance officer and assistant engineer. Michael '20 is a software engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL). Rachel '22 is an electrical engineer for Dominion Energy's Eastern Region Grid Planning Department.
The siblings may have been inspired by their father, Dean, who was the first Nilsen to attend ODU.
Nilsen, a retired career Navy submarine officer and current program manager for mine warfare at JHU APL, earned his master's degree in engineering management online in 2003 while alternating between sea and shore duty.
Matthew, Michael and Rachel, from Bristow, Virginia, were inspired to go into engineering after participating in a Project Lead the Way (PLTW) curriculum at their high school.
"That really sparked my interest in engineering," Matthew said. "Coupled with excelling in math and science, I thought engineering was an exciting field to enter after high school."
One of the PLTW courses led him to electrical engineering. "I enjoyed learning how electrical circuits work and how important electrical power engineering is to society," he said.
Matthew chose Old Dominion for the Navy ROTC program in addition to the engineering program. "After I toured the campus, I knew I made the right decision," he said.
Matthew was influenced by Associate Professor Gordon Melrose in ODU's Department of Mathematics and Statistics. "His Calculus III class completely changed my approach to problem solving, which in turn improved all aspects of my engineering curriculum," he said.
When Michael graduated from high school, ODU was an easy decision. "I chose ODU because my brother was enrolled there," he said. "I really liked the campus when visiting, and it was far enough away from home, but not out of state."
Michael and Matthew spent quality time together on campus. "I saw Matt occasionally on campus, mostly in Kaufman Hall studying with his friends or working on his senior design project," Michael said. "We also went to the gym and played basketball just about every day the two years we were both on campus."
Michael found a mentor in Sachin Shetty, executive director for the Center for Secure and Intelligent Critical Systems at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center and professor in ODU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Michael ended up working with him for most of his four years at ODU. "I was his research assistant starting my sophomore year through senior year, working every semester (including summers with internships) on various aspects of research," he said. "Fast forward, I have been out of school for over two years now and still work directly for Dr. Shetty as a research assistant."
Shetty lauds the siblings' achievements. "It is indeed gratifying to see Matthew, Michael and Rachel's engineering journey," he said. "I am proud of their accomplishments and look forward to hearing about their continued success."
When Rachel graduated from high school, Matthew had already graduated from ODU but was stationed close by at Naval Station Norfolk.
ODU was the obvious choice for Rachel as well. "Matt and Michael before me had enjoyed the classes and curriculum," she said. "I also liked the idea of having my brothers nearby while living in a new place."
Michael and Rachel would see each other occasionally in Kaufman or Dragas Hall. "She would stop in when I was either studying or in a lab working on projects or homework," Michael said.
For Rachel, it was helpful to have him around for his institutional knowledge. "Michael helped me with material as well as scheduling each semester," she said. "It was a big help when it came to choosing professors and help with classes since he already took them."
"I gave Rachel the advice to talk to as many faculty as she could while in school," Michael said. "Coming from a research background and working directly with research faculty, I saw first-hand the experience I was able to get outside of the classroom that was not in any course I took in my program."
When the family is together, the dinner table talk always goes to their ODU experiences. "We are able to carry on great conversations about many class subjects as well as compare notes on professors," Rachel said. "We talk about how our experiences have been similar as well as different - grades, difficulties, likes and dislikes."
The siblings' mother, Maria, is the only non-engineer in the family. "She describes us as the cast of 'The Big Bang Theory' television show," Rachel said." She was always very engaged and interested in our college conversations, even if she did not know what we were talking about."
As the eldest, Matthew offered tips on navigating college and life. "The best advice I gave Michael and Rachel was to never be afraid to ask for help and that you get out what you put in," he said.
"Having gone through everything they would eventually do, I was always there to help them study or offer any advice for classes. But most importantly, enjoy the next four years. They go by quick, so slow down and make the most of each day."