Always on the move

Mechanical engineering Associate Professor Donna M. L. Meyer carries two spiral-bound notebooks at all times. Scribed on the pages are hundreds of innovative research ideas that could change how we think of everything from miniature mechanical devices and disease control to biosensors.

For more than a decade, Meyer has chipped away at the list. Her research at the University of Rhode Island has led to new information about hip replacements and a handheld device to rapidly detect E. coli and salmonella in meat. She’s filed patent applications for technology integral to creating a lab-on-a-chip device the size of a credit card. And Meyer shows no signs of slowing down.

The fast-talking, bubbly professor says there are challenges being a professor. Finding research ideas – the task she feared most as an aspiring professor – is not among them.

“I will never get to every idea in my notebooks,” she says. “Who knew?”

Indeed, few guessed Meyer would become a professor. For 15 years, Meyer worked in the nuclear industry. She built an expertise, a professional reputation and a comfortable wage. Then she did the unimaginable. She left to begin a second career as an engineering professor.

Growing up, science and math fascinated Meyer and teaching always loomed as an attractive profession. But it would take Meyer more than 15 years to reach her goal.

Fresh out of high school, she attended Franklin Pierce University on a one-year scholarship as a language major. When the scholarship ended, Meyer could not afford to stay. She worked odd jobs for a year before spying a newspaper advertisement for an engineering aide position at Windsor Manufacturing in Connecticut. She applied.

“The supervisor who hired me changed my life,” she says.

Soon she was pestering company engineers for more complex problems. Much to their surprise, she tackled them and used them as learning opportunities. Eventually, she moved to ABB Combustion Engineering and, in a stunningly rare scenario, became a nuclear engineer without an engineering degree.

Determined to finish her college career, she took eight years of night classes at the University of Hartford while working. Then, with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at last, she left ABB to pursue a doctorate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In 1999, the newly minted Ph.D. became a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and helped build the institution’s first school of engineering. Two-and-a-half years later, looking for a new challenge, she applied to the University of Rhode Island.

Here challenges are in abundant supply. Her specialty is tribology, the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion, and is reflected in her research of seawater’s effects on the wear of bearings used in marine environments. Her research is mostly experimental in nature, with some computational modeling when necessary or, as Meyer likes to say, “just for the fun of it.”

She’s also working to prevent the formation of deadly bacteria on medical devices such as peripherally inserted central catheters for venous delivery of drugs and long-term use urinary catheters. And she’s guiding undergraduate student David Ponte in a project to develop a cast-removing saw that does not require a power source and could be used on battlefields or in remote areas.

Meanwhile, she’s advising mechanical engineering graduate students, including Gregory Turner, on a project to develop micro-components. Created by dropping molten metals on textured surfaces, such devices are becoming increasingly important in electronics such as cell phones and airbag sensors.

Turner says that Meyer urges students to use the power of mathematics to predict results rather than relying solely on costly and time-consuming physical models and experiments. And she urges students to learn everything about the challenge at hand.

“She’s really supportive of me doing something outside my comfort zone,” Turner says.

Meyer says she expects what students’ future employers will take for granted.

“My expectations are if I were your boss in industry, would this be an acceptable result that you’re showing me?” she says.

It’s partly why she takes teaching seriously. But she also loves the chance to see the light bulb moments and leaps at the prospect to learn from her students, who bring their own perspectives to the problem at hand.

“I love teaching,” Meyer says. “Every class to me is technical theater; it better be right and it better be engaging,”

To be sure, she keeps DVDs about teaching techniques in her desk drawer and books on instruction on her bookshelf. Turner, however, says Meyer brings what no textbook can deliver: a genuine sense of concern for her students and research.