Ever since beginning her undergraduate education at Virginia Tech, Val Hernley had dreamed of finding a way to combine her two passions: engineering and France. She got that chance in the fall of 2017.

Hernley, an engineering science and mechanics senior graduating this May, had just finished her third co-op rotation with the French tire company Michelin at their U.S.-based research center in Greenville, South Carolina. When Michelin called and offered her an additional internship at their headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, a small city located several hours south of Paris in the French mountains, she knew she couldn’t say no.

“When I look back over that experience, some of my favorite days were the ones I got to spend working with my mentor there,” said Hernley of her Michelin internship. As a French minor, she was well prepared to speak French on the job, but she also had to learn the French technical vocabulary so she could communicate clearly with other engineers.

“We would work out problems on the whiteboard and just talk through concepts together,” she said. “It was amazing.”

For Hernley, finding a way to pursue those deep, fundamental questions in engineering has been a hallmark of her educational journey. Through both the Michelin co-op rotations and another extended co-op and internship with aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, she has never shied away from difficult problems.

Picture of Val Hernley with Michelin Man
Val Hernley began co-op rotations with French tire company Michelin in the fall of 2015 and eventually secured an internship at the company's headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

“I love the why behind engineering and really digging down into the fundamental physics,” said Hernley. “Research problems that explore why something is happening from a fundamental point of view tend to be my favorite.”

It was for that very reason she chose to major in engineering science and mechanics, a major based in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics within the College of Engineering that hosts a strong emphasis in math, physics, and interdisciplinary problem-solving. It’s also why she’ll join the University of Notre Dame’s Turbomachinery Lab this fall as a graduate student in aerospace engineering.

“Choosing a graduate school was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Hernley, who received offers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan in addition to Notre Dame. She was also recruited by Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin, the company’s famed advanced research division.

“But in the end it came down to the research I would be doing,” she said. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Hernley credits her co-ops in industry as well as several study and service trips abroad – including a trip with the Rising Sophomore Abroad Program – with helping to redefine her desired career path. These experiences allowed her to figure out what she didn’t want to do just as much as what she did want to do, she said.

“The cool thing about being a student is that all of these opportunities have very short-term timelines,” she said. “You can do an internship or a service trip and it doesn’t have to be this long-term commitment with a lot of obligations. You get to try something to see if you like it, and it’s no big deal if you don’t. That’s really valuable experience.”

For example, Hernley’s first co-op rotation with Michelin was in manufacturing, which allowed her to get her feet wet on the plant floor. However, it also led her to realize she was more interested in technical, math-centric roles. 

Picture of Val Hernley (right) with rocketry senior design teammates
Hernley (far right) recently traveled with her senior design teammates to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Student Launch Competition. The team's rocket flew successfully and demonstrated the team’s concept of operations.

Hernley’s willingness to explore projects and opportunities outside of her comfort zone also motivated her to join a rocketry senior design team during her last year on campus. With a focus on building a rocket from scratch that could qualify for NASA’s Student Launch Competition, the hands-on project at first felt very overwhelming, she said. But with encouragement from her teammates, she eventually found her place working on the rocket’s electronics system and analyzing the data it collected.

The team ultimately qualified for the initiative’s on-site launch competition at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where their rocket flew successfully and demonstrated the team’s concept of operations.

“We had such a great team dynamic,” Hernley said of the project. “We all learned so much about ourselves, like how we approach problems and how we respond in different situations. The project was definitely a success in that regard. We all grew as engineers, both technically and professionally.”

As the only female on the team, Hernley also learned that her male counterparts wanted to hear what she had to say.

“I think it’s harder – and I’ve seen this in my co-ops, too – for women in engineering to speak up and make themselves heard,” she said. “So when my teammates challenged me to share my ideas more often because they appreciated my contributions, it was really encouraging.”

It’s that potential to cultivate soft skills in addition to academic rigor that Hernley has really come to appreciate about Virginia Tech. While on campus, she held leadership positions in the French club Le Cercle and also participated in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Chi Alpha Campus Ministry.

“I think Virginia Tech does a really good job of producing well-rounded, yet really qualified engineers,“ she said, adding that finding a work-life balance can sometimes be a challenging but rewarding process.

“We’re encouraged to have a life outside of the classroom and to seek out experiences on design teams, club sports, and service teams,” she said. “Those intangible skills are also really important.”