If you met Ryan Stoddard on the street, you would never guess he had served the highest military officers in the American government. His humble spirit deceptively masks his experience. In a conversation, he unassumingly states with a shrug: “I worked 6 feet from the secretary of defense for a year and a half.”

Stoddard is a rare combination of soldier, pilot, philosopher, teacher, scientist, and leader. He has engaged all of these identities over the last 20 years, taking him from the cockpits of planes to the docket of mechnical engineering Ph.D. recipients for the Class of 2021.

In July 1994, at 17 and as the son of a World War II Navy corpsman, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating four years later with a commission as an ensign. He was offered graduate education at Georgia Tech while still in the Navy, so he took that opportunity to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He later received his wings at flight school, graduating four days before Sept. 11, 2001.

Fresh out of flight school, he was selected to fly the E-6B Mercury, an airborne command post jet and the biggest plane in the Navy’s inventory. Three years later, Stoddard moved to Pensacola, Florida, to teach new pilots the skills he had learned. He eventually became the lead instructor for the Navy’s new T-6A Texan II plane, a small aircraft in comparison to the mobile command centers he had flown previously.

Ryan Stoddard in the cockpit of the E-6B Mercury.
Ryan Stoddard in the cockpit of the E-6B Mercury. Photo courtesy of Ryan Stoddard.

He took a step away from planes and turned toward boats, serving for two years as an assistant navigator the USS John C. Stennis. This assignment placed him for a significant time in the North Arabian Sea and the Arabian Gulf, earning Stoddard a promotion to lieutenant commander. He then returned to the E-6B as a department head at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, followed by an assignment in 2011 to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

“Not long after that move, the request went out to the headquarters staff that General Mattis needed a new aide,” Stoddard said. “I threw my name in and did a handful of interviews. The next thing I know, I got an email that said to come upstairs, things are going to change.”

Stoddard served as the aide-de-camp to Gen. James Mattis in Tampa for over a year, accompanying him to Washington, D.C., and other locations around the globe. When Mattis retired from the Marines in 2013, Stoddard moved back to Oklahoma to become the executive officer and later the commanding officer of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FOUR, a 600-member E-6B squadron in Oklahoma.

“After that, I was planning to retire, but I was only at the 19-year mark in my career,” Stoddard said. “I had to do one more year to make it to 20, so the Navy sent me to the Pentagon. President Trump was elected a year after I got there, and General Mattis was chosen as the secretary of defense. Several weeks after he became secretary, I got a phone call suggesting I should come talk to the chief of staff and think about a job change.”

Stoddard’s appointment as junior military assistant to the secretary of defense came as a result of his service to Mattis in Tampa. The general had come to appreciate his junior officer’s ability to sum up a room and speak plainly to him, assets that became critical to a secretary of defense.

“I needed someone who knew me well enough that he would challenge what was going on,” Mattis said. “If he thought something had to be said, he would tell me. Trust is the coin of the realm in high-ranking positions. Ryan knew that, and he knew how to build trust. He knew how to reassure people.”

Ryan Stoddard with General Mattis during Mattis's time as Secretary of Defense.
Ryan Stoddard (left) with General James Mattis (center) during Mattis' tenure as secretary of defense. Photo courtesy of Ryan Stoddard.

Working with Mattis queued Stoddard for a promotion and another move, but he decided to turn it down. His time as an instructor and mentor had instilled a sense of purpose in teaching, and his quest for learning drove him to pursue a higher academic degree. He turned his eyes toward Virginia Tech instead of advancing to wing command in the Navy.

Making the transition to academia

While still working at the Pentagon, he ventured to the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Virginia, where he met with Ranga Pitchumani, the George R. Goodson Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who is based in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.

“He had worked in the Department of Energy, and he had cultivated people from a variety of backgrounds,” said Stoddard. “It was fortunate that I essentially stumbled into his office.”

Stoddard had prior experience in Pitchumani’s field, having done experiments on heat transfer and flow instability while pursuing his master’s degree.

“Ryan came across as very motivated and excited to pursue a doctoral work in the field of energy,” said Pitchumani. “I explained our activities in the Advanced Materials and Technologies Laboratory, and the project that we were embarking on in the area of novel non-wetting surfaces for power plant condensers. Ryan’s interest piqued and he was full of ideas.” From there on, it was full steam ahead.

Stoddard took his qualifying examinations in spring 2018 while still at the Pentagon, starting preliminary classes while still living in Washingon, D.C. He launched his research efforts simultaneously in collaboration with Pitchumani.

“Whether it was on a car ride across the Potomac to the Hill or the White House with the secretary of defense or on a flight over the Atlantic en route to Afghanistan, Ryan kept me updated on his weekly research progress,” Pitchumani said. “Being in the greater Washington area, I was also able to meet with him in person to make sure that he was off to a great start on his new venture. We had fantastic meetings that generated exciting ideas to pursue when he would join the lab in fall.”

Stoddard moved to Blacksburg in fall 2018, bringing his experience in research and real-world application together for a harmonized approach to academics.

“One of the reasons I came to Virginia Tech was that I had a front row seat to history in my Navy jobs,” Stoddard said. “I saw a lot of energy-rich, but governance-poor regions in the Middle East. It convinced me that energy is extremely important, and it was an area where I wanted to pursue education.”

In pursuit of his Ph.D., he studied non-wetting surfaces and their applicability in power plant condenser conditions. He focused on scalable means of fabricating superhydrophobic and lubricant-infused surfaces, their behavior during condensation heat transfer, and their feasibility in preventing fouling inside heat transfer tubes. His objective was to shed new light on making the workhorses of power generation more efficient and sustainable.

“One of the things that Dr. Pitchumani and I share is the desire for applicability,” said Stoddard. “Someone needs to understand these principles in context, and they need to withstand some rugged use. If the technology is repeatable and can withstand a little wear and tear, that’s useful."

“Ryan’s careful work with great attention to detail elucidated many fundamental insights into the use of non-wetting surfaces for steam condensation," Pitchumani said. "It brings out their real value for practical applications. By making condensers more efficient, his research contributes to reducing water consumption in power plants for a sustainable future.”

No brass ring

While working on his doctoral dissertation, Stoddard was also the executive officer at the Virginia Tech Navy ROTC, making him the second-in-command of the largest source of Navy and Marine Corps officers in the U.S., after the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. This mentoring pipeline was attractive to Stoddard for the ways it could contribute to a deeper sense of purpose, and it enabled him to teach a leadership and management class.

In that capacity, he brought an interesting point of view to offer his students: the idea that there is no “brass ring,” the singular reward that signifies finding preeminent achievement in life.

“All experiences are important, and there’s no brass ring,” Stoddard said. “The journey and who you bring with you are more important than the achievements. A student once told me that he didn’t want to regret his decision. I told him, at some point, he would regret his decision, no matter which decision he made. You’ll come to a low point, you’ll be tired, and you’ll look back and wish you had made a different decision. You’re going to have second thoughts either way. Think about the experiences you’ll value in 10 years, the things you’ll be proud to say you did. Then do those things.”

After graduation, Stoddard will don his leadership hat as the dean of engineering at Rose State College. The campus is just outside Oklahoma City, not far from the familiar environment of Tinker Air Force Base.

“Ryan has a sharp acumen and all the qualities of a great leader,” Pitchumani said. “I am confident that he will be successful in his future pursuits.”

— Written by Alex Parrish