Accomplished alumna once told she would never succeed in engineering
February 24, 2006
In tenth grade, Andrea Hill’s algebra II/trigonometry teacher told her in front of her entire class that she was not “smart enough” to attain her dream –– to be an engineer. Instead of being totally embarrassed and crawling into a hole never to be seen again, as many young teenagers might have considered doing, Hill vowed to get the highest grade in the class. When the final exam grades were posted that semester, her eyes scanned the sheet, and her single word response was “Yes!”
As she recalls this experience, her “Yes” sounds as resonant today as it must have been when she was 15. “I did not get the highest grade out of spite,” Hill said. Instead, she just wanted to prove herself.
Well, today, at 27, her high school teacher should take note. Hill has garnered Virginia Tech’s Outstanding Young Engineering Alumnus Award for 2005-06. A graduate in 2003, the materials science and engineering major’s from the College of Engineering name has since appeared on some 20 technical papers and five patents in the last 30 months. Two of the patents are with her employer, NanoSonic, Inc., a nanotechnology company spun off from an electrical engineering research center at Virginia Tech. The remaining three are joint ventures between NanoSonic and a major corporate commercial partner, a billion-plus dollar company.
The patents are concerned with a new process for manufacturing in nanotechnology and a novel, groundbreaking material called Metal Rubber™. Although Hill was not the primary inventor, she has been instrumental in the further identification of a family of materials that have optimized Metal Rubber™’s unique qualities. Metal Rubber™ is a highly electrical conductive and highly flexible elastomer. It can be mechanically strained to more than 1,000 percent of its original dimensions while remaining electrically conductive. As a smart material, it returns to its original shape and nominal conductivity. Popular Science, The Economist, Knight Ridder wire service, and several broadcasting companies have featured Metal Rubber™ and NanoSonic.
Hill, who grew up in Bedford County, Va., and who attended Staunton River High School in Moneta, developed her time management skills at an early age. Living in the country, she had a 25-mile drive to and from school. “I was the first one on the bus and the last one off,” she reminisces, and each ride was 90 minutes long. “I spent many years of my life on that bus,” she laughs. “It gave me a lot of time to think, and sometimes I even did homework.”
Looking at her high school awards, Hill must have done a lot of homework. In 1995, she won first place in engineering in the Bedford County Science Fair from the Thomas Edison Society. She went on to receive third place in engineering in the Regional Science Fair, held in Staunton. Her talents were not limited to engineering, as she also was selected to participate in the All County and All Regional Concert Band as a flutist from 1992 until 1996, and was also Drum Major of her high school marching band. Hill graduated in 1996 as a member of the National Honor Society.
Hill entered Virginia Tech in 1996, and realized immediately that she had another hurdle to overcome. All engineering students must bring a personal computer to campus, and Hill had never even surfed the Internet, much less owned a computer. “The northern Virginia students were so well-prepared, and I had definitely missed out. But the engineering fundamentals (now engineering education department) faculty and other students helped me get through programming,” Hill says.
Hill, whose maiden name is Byrnside, met her husband Keith Hill, also a Virginia Tech student, at the beginning of her sophomore year. They married and she left the university halfway through her junior year to accompany him to Ft. Hood, Texas. Keith, a psychology major who was in the Corps of Cadets, needed to fulfill his term of duty in the Army.
“I always knew I was going to finish my education at Virginia Tech…and it was actually seamless,” Hill claimed. She returned to the Materials Science and Engineering department in 2001, and graduated in 2003. Keith also returned to Virginia Tech after a short stint with industry, and re-enrolled as a mechanical engineering student. He will graduate in May of 2006.
One of Hill’s classmates, Andrew Miller, now a graduate student at Stanford, recommended Hill for a job at NanoSonic after he completed summer employment with the company. Hill’s resume included work as a research assistant, with experience in experimentation on materials for use in pressure sensor devices in jet engines, analyzing reactions between bonded elements, and performing research on material properties of high temperature materials. NanoSonic’s president Rick Claus, also a faculty member at Virginia Tech’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, hired her immediately.
Hill credits Claus and Jennifer Lalli, also a Virginia Tech graduate and NanoSonic’s primary inventor of Metal Rubber™, as her mentors. Both of them are open minded about trying new things in the lab, she says. “They let me test my capabilities.”
“If anyone early on had told me I would be working in nanotechnology, I would have laughed. But now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I like the versatility of my job…although I do think the word ‘nano’ is over used. There is a lot of emphasis on making things smaller but I think what we are really doing is making materials more interesting,” Hill remarked.
Hill adds that when she first tells some of her friends about her work in nanotechnology, “their eyes glaze over.” But she tries to work her way past that reaction until she can excite them about the technology’s possibilities.
After a little more than a year with the entrepreneurial company, Hill was named the sensors group leader. Her responsibilities now include the management of several Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards, Independent Research and Development (IRAD) and non-SBIR government programs. She is also a principal investigator on a DARPA Phase II enhancement grant, an Air Force Phase I SBIR, a NASA Phase I SBIR, and a Naval Research Laboratory major development program.
Hill is also the administrator of the Metal Rubber™ fabrication, development, and sales. She believes the new material will be used in high technology applications, both in defense, and in commercial ventures. Based on some of the modifications, the family of associated materials should have a widespread commercial market, including sensors and flexible electric components.
In Hill’s limited spare time, she continues to play the flute, and she has also become a jeweler. She and her husband are building a new home nearby, as she hopes to grow with the company. The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,500 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 1,800 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.