Faces of Research: Meet Aaron Stebner

Aaron Stebner graphic

The George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering is an inclusive, innovative, and thriving educational and research environment that is making significant contributions to society through its research in a wide range of disciplines ranging from mechanics, robotics and automation, and energy systems, to bioengineering, nuclear and medical physics, and acoustics.

This installment of the Faces of Research Q&A series is with Aaron Stebner, associate professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Materials Science and Engineering. He is also a faculty member of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute who is leading the Georgia Artificial Intelligence Manufacturing Technology Corridor (GA-AIM) effort.

What is your field of expertise and why did you choose it?
My research programs sit at the intersection of mechanics, manufacturing, materials, and machine learning. I don’t know that I really chose these focuses, as much as they chose me — or at least a combination of choosing each other. As far as the decision to go into engineering, this was strongly influenced by my grandfather. In the 1970s, he started an engineering and manufacturing business. Growing up in the 1980s, I would go to work with him, and I loved everything about it — from playing with alligator clips and circuit boards to drawing at the drafting benches with T-squares. While in high school in the 1990s, I started my engineering career at this company during the summers, and then full time while going to college. The first year or so, I started in shipping and receiving and janitorial services, and then started working up to become an engineering assistant. I initially thought that I wanted to be an electrical engineer like my grandfather had become, but after a few months of working there, electrical schematics and software diagrams and the like weren’t making any sense to me, but I’d fallen in love with the machine shop, mechanical assembly, and drafting in AutoCAD. This experience motivated me to choose mechanical engineering as a major when I started college. It was what came naturally to me. This experience laid my foundation for work in mechanics and manufacturing (the company engineered and built automation equipment for circuit breaker and power transformer manufacturers).

However, in 1999, with 1 quarter left in my bachelor’s program, I had an early-life-crisis and decided to rebel against engineering and everything that I thought had been predetermined/decided by others in my life, and I quit school and the job and spent several years doing anything but engineering (night clubs, raves, and generally rebelling against society). My family sold the business during this time. In 2005, I decided that I wanted to finish my bachelor’s degree, only not in engineering - I was going to finish in teaching with a goal of teaching high school math and coaching high school football. However, when I went to enroll at the university, they pulled my transcripts and told me that since I’d dropped out with only one quarter left, I could finish my engineering degree and then get a Master’s in education in less time and money than it would take if I changed major’s for finishing my bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t sure if I could remember how to do all the calculus and differential equations anymore having not used that part of my brain for 6 years, but I couldn’t argue against the logic of more education for less time and money, so I tried.

I ended up loving engineering again within a few weeks of being back in school. In pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Akron, I won a NASA graduate fellowship to perform research at the nearby NASA Glenn Research Center. This is where I picked up the “materials” part of my research endeavors. They were working on really cool materials called shape memory alloys and I was completely fascinated.

What makes Georgia Tech research institutes unique?
The people, the size, the diversity, the vision, its place within the city of Atlanta and state of Georgia, and its public mission. This is a lot and while some of which may seem obvious at first glance, I didn’t fully appreciate just how unique and forward-looking the collection of Georgia Tech institutes are until I started working on organizing large research and economic development programs as an employee here. And I still haven’t begun to experience the international institutions/presence that Georgia Tech has in the world. To have the collection of economic and business development programs under the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute such as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, ATDC, and the Georgia Minority Business Development Agency Business Center, and more, fully integrated with the campus and the Georgia Tech Research Institute creates unprecedented synergy and ability for the Georgia Tech brand to be so much more than just the premier educator of scientists and engineers in the Southeast.

Holistically, Georgia Tech is a leader in moving the state, the nation, and other nations forward in everything ranging from transforming rural and impoverished regions/countries to ensuring our national security to putting humans where no human has gone before. The Georgia Tech reach is unfathomable - and the real evidence is in the reputation and network of alumni and businesses impacted by Georgia Tech alumni. I know that having only been here for a little more than 2 years, I’m only just starting to wrap my mind around the leadership and influence that Georgia Tech provides to the world.

What impact is your research having on the world?
I’m really excited about the opportunity to bring to reality the vision for creating an advanced “test-track” for autonomous manufacturing technologies. I think that the ability for companies, students, faculty, and the government to be able to access such a facility is going to transform the ability for artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to benefit future manufacturing — from startups to the 100-year-old family business, to the established global leaders.

However, the most exciting aspects of the programs we’re executing here at Georgia Tech is designing the workforce and outreach programs to provide opportunities to people and places that feel historically excluded or globally displaced to benefit from manufacturing technologies and jobs. In a recent meeting with President Biden regarding the new Georgia AI Manufacturing program we are establishing, the president challenged us to enact these programs in ways that the person we’ve never met in the most remote or underserved places in Georgia will benefit and have a better life — even people without high school educations. From post-World War II to the 1980’s, manufacturing jobs were what gave every-day Americans opportunity to live the American Dream, even if they didn’t finish high school. Global trade largely took that dream away from many U.S. regions in the 1990s and 2000s as that manufacturing moved to other countries where labor was less expensive. 

I’m fully aware that “the easy part” of realizing impact through our GA-AIM programs is innovating and training Georgia Tech students to become future leaders. However, the fullest reward, and “making good” of our promise of these programs to the government will only come when, 15 to 20 years from now, we can look at the state and see all of Georgia’s people benefiting from good-paying careers in AI and manufacturing jobs in the towns they want to live in -good jobs available in the towns where they were born, businesses that revive communities and small towns that are currently economically distressed, the demographic of equity in salaries reflects the demographic of the people of each region around the state, and more. These goals take cooperation and coordination of dozens of organizations around the state and hundreds of people - an incredible opportunity.

What is the most profound advice you ever received?
When I first read this question, at least four or five voices popped into my head, each a recording from different periods in my life. The profound advice I needed when I was 15 is different than what I need to hear at 45. However, this one is timeless:

“Just do the next right thing for the right reason.”  

No matter what age, I often find myself facing decisions that will set me down one path vs. another in life or struggling to decide what to do next when my to-do list is longer than I can read in one sitting. When I was younger, I used to plan my life years in advance… at age 16, I was sure what I would be doing and the life I would have and where I would be living at age 25 and beyond. By the time I was 20, it was clear that I’d failed miserably (my life at 25 wasn’t going to look anything like what I’d planned or hoped for given the trajectory I was on at 20). However, in my early 20s, this advice was given to me — over and over and over again, until I had a permanent recording of it burned into my mind, such that I learned to hit the “play” button whenever I started to feel internally conflicted. While the context of “right” certainly changes as life’s circumstances change and I grow older and priorities change, I have found more internal peace and resolve and external productivity in life by breaking things down to this mantra. By the time I was 30, having heeded this advice, I was living a life and accomplishing things that my 16-year-old, and even 25-year-old self never could have imagined. 2.5 years into the job here at GT I’ve laid the foundation and set myself on a trajectory (something I thought would take 10+ years to do) to accomplish more than I would have ever dreamed about accomplishing in my career when I was hired to do this job. By learning to be open/comfortable in not knowing what the future holds, and instead focusing on what the moment demands and offers, I’ve been able to do things, attain satisfaction in life, and go places I’d never imagine or experience if life brought me exactly what I thought I wanted/hoped for years ago.

What is something you wished you knew as a budding researcher that everyone considering research as a career should know?
I wish that I knew in high school, or even first semester of college that those extra years of graduate school education are paid for, and you can earn a stipend too. When I was making decisions about whether to take a job or continue my education and pursue research during my undergraduate education, I looked at it as a decision between “keep paying tuition out of my pocket versus starting to earn real wages.” However, in engineering, that’s not reality. If you go into thesis-based master’s and doctoral programs in engineering, all of your school costs are covered, you get a stipend/salary, and those stipends/salaries are increasing. In total, graduate assistantships provide anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000+ a year in financial support toda. Plus, you often get to attend conferences around the world (paid-for travel) and more benefits. I think today we do a better job getting the message out than we did 20-30 years ago when I was finishing high school and my bachelor’s degree, but even here at Tech, with a lot of opportunities and advertisements of research programs and positions, there are still undergraduates who take classes with me in their junior or senior year that don’t realize the full benefits of graduate school when they are approaching graduation and making career decisions.

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Peralte C. Paul