Mark Shepheard arrived at Virginia Tech filled with determination to make the most of his undergraduate experience.

Four years later, he prides himself on having taken advantage of every opportunity. Shepheard attributes his growth as an engineer to his involvement in undergraduate research, participation on design teams and in professional societies, and service to the global community. 

Shepheard is graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in ocean engineering from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.

“Mark is simply the best undergraduate I have seen at Virginia Tech in more than 20 years,” said Alan J. Brown, NAVSEA Professor of Naval Ship Design in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. “I have had the pleasure of knowing Mark since his arrival at Virginia Tech as a freshman, and his maturity, technical aptitude, communication and leadership skills were immediately evident. I was fortunate to get to know him further as an undergraduate researcher. His work is creative, intuitive, and practical. I simply cannot say enough good things about this young man’s ability.” 

Shepheard, who hails from Hagerstown, Maryland, didn’t initially realize that naval architecture or ocean engineering was a future career option. Growing up, he had spent a lot of his free time sailing, and his interest in science and physics became more focused during middle and high school. His parents, both Hokie graduates (Andrea, chemical engineering '89 and William, business '89), encouraged him to consider Virginia Tech when he began looking at engineering schools. He would soon discover the field of ocean engineering, one that aligned well with his interests. 

Start jumping 

Shepheard arrived in Blacksburg in the fall of 2017. As a freshman, he joined the Galileo living-learning community, which brings together first-year engineering students in a residential environment to build a community of peers to help with academic assignments, projects, and adjustment to college life.

Early on, Virginia Tech engineering faculty noticed Shepheard as a sharp and detail-oriented student who asked thoughtful, in-depth questions during lectures and in office hours. Bright and motivated with a positive attitude, he quickly became one of the top performing undergraduate students and a natural leader within the aerospace and ocean engineering program.

Shepheard was also quick to immerse himself in life outside of the classroom, joining student groups, engaging in service activities, and exploring opportunities for undergraduate research. He was drawn to the Virginia Tech SailBot team, which annually designs, fabricates, and assembles an unmanned autonomous sailboat and competes in fleet races at the International Robotic Sailing Regatta. 

Brown recalls that on a team filled with ocean engineering seniors, Shepheard was selected by his peers to serve as the naval architecture lead. “Mark had not taken any naval architecture and marine engineering courses at the time, so I gave him text books and recorded online lectures of primarily junior and senior course material, which he digested and was using within months,” Brown said. “His mind soaks up everything, even when the content is beyond what he should be able to understand. He seems to store it away to figure it out later.”

2019 SailBot team placed 2nd in the International Robotic Sailing Regatta
The 2019 VT SailBot team placed second at the International Robotic Sailing Regatta. From left: Blase Cornett, ocean engineering '21; Owen Richter, aerospace engineering '20; Mark Shepheard, ocean engineering '21; Carson Pearce, ocean engineering '21; Ryan Singman, electrical and computer engineering '22; and Kyle Snyder aerospace engineering '22. Photo submitted by Mark Shepheard.

In 2019, the young SailBot team struggled with operational systems that were not functioning properly. “Everything that could go wrong at competition did,” said Shepheard. “Our sail did not actually move, and we had to fix the rudder system on the fly. We were forced to think on the spot and find solutions to be able to continue through the competition. There was a big difference in attitudes of the competing teams. Schools with more money and better equipment were giving up when their systems stopped working. As Hokies, we pulled together, persevered, and solved the challenges.”  

With Shepheard’s leadership, the team placed second in the 2019 International Robotic Sailing Regatta. 

Due to restrictions surrounding the global Covid-19 pandemic, both the 2020 and 2021 regattas were canceled. Shepheard and the senior members on the current SailBot team have been focused on recruiting new students, getting their current boat operational, and passing on as much knowledge as possible to the underclassmen so they’re able to have a solid foundation for next year.

Diving into undergraduate research

In order to gain practical hands-on experience, Shepheard sought out undergraduate research opportunities focused on naval architecture and ocean engineering. Brown hired him as an undergraduate researcher on a project for the Naval Engineering Education Consortium, in which he assisted in developing preliminary design tools for integrated ship systems.  

Admittedly listening and learning more than giving input to the project, Shepheard enjoyed discovering how research functions, as well as the “ins and outs” of U.S. Navy processes and government acquisitions. He took the knowledge he gained in those early research meetings with Brown and applied it during two separate internships with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland. As an intern in the center’s STEM Student Employment Program, Shepherd spent two summers working in the Future Concepts division and the Combatant Craft division. 

During his senior year, he joined assistant professor Christine Gilbert’s research group in the Hydroelasticity Lab, developing and documenting methods to evaluate the similarity of irregular wave slamming events. His work included incorporating facial recognition algorithms in the analysis of planing craft tow tank acceleration data.  

Gilbert said the fall 2020 semester was unique in that all of her research group’s work was conducted online. She noted that of all her undergraduate researchers, Shepheard was the most independent. 

“While many students need guidance to come up with their research topic, Mark identified a topic of interest on his own,” Gilbert said.“He wrote a report that showed promise for the categorization of slamming events in the field of naval architecture and ocean engineering by using machine learning concepts. This is a current area of interest in the naval and ocean community, and we are hoping to expand this project for Mark’s master’s degree. I am very pleased to have him continue to work with me for his graduate work.”

“The opportunity to learn in a hands-on interdisciplinary environment is a hallmark of a Virginia Tech engineering education,” Shepheard said. “I think these opportunities help us grow as engineers and problem solvers and truly balance performance goals with cost constraints to find creative solutions to complex problems.” 

Fueled by the spirit of Ut Prosim

Shepheard’s achievements extend beyond the classroom and the research laboratory.  During his time at Virginia Tech, he felt called to serve and assist others, both locally and across the globe. At his first Gobblerfest, he eagerly signed up to participate with a number of student teams and clubs, and became active in Service Without Borders. 

As a freshman, he traveled to Nepal during winter break, collaborating with residents of the remote village of Dhumba to identify and work on critical projects including aqueducts for irrigation and a warming hut for the young and elderly using passive solar-heating. Shepheard was active in the Boy Scouts of America growing up, earning the rank of Eagle Scout.

While he was passionate about service throughout his life, Shepheard's experience in Nepal was his first with international service. “There were language barriers and a completely different cultural background,” said Shepheard. “The people there were so appreciative that we cared enough to travel across the world during our winter break to assist them, and that was really gratifying.”  

Closer to home, Shepheard found that he had greatly benefited from his Galileo mentors, and wanted to assist new freshmen coming in who were facing similar struggles. He signed up as a sophomore mentor in Galileo, as well as a peer mentor for the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, where he mentored engineering students through their first semester in College of Engineering. 

In order to network with his fellow ocean engineering students, Shepheard became an active member of Virginia Tech’s student chapter of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers and spent two years in leadership positions, most recently as the student chair. He is also an active member of the national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi. 

Throughout his four years at Virginia Tech, Shepheard has made the Dean's List every semester to date. He has supported himself through scholarships, and was awarded funding through the Northrop Grumman Engineering Scholars program; the Nathaniel Gebreyes Service Scholarship; the James A. Lisnyck Scholarship from the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) and the Mandell and Lester Rosenblatt Scholarship from the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME).

Looking ahead

Shepheard’s time as a Hokie is not yet complete. As a participant in the accelerated undergraduate/graduate degree program, he has already begun to earn credits toward his graduate degree and plans to stay at Virginia Tech to earn his master’s degree in ocean engineering. 

He will be continuing his work with Gilbert on a project for the Office of Naval Research, on the testing of various composite materials and the effects of slamming of waves on high speed watercraft. His goal is to analyze data and condense the slamming events to have a smaller experimental data matrix for prescribed motion tests in the Virginia Tech Towing Tank facility. The result of this research in industry would be lighter, faster boats that are more fuel efficient and require less upkeep on the structure. 

After graduate school, Shepherd would like to return to the Naval Surface Warfare Center and work in the Combatant Craft division. He has received an offer for employment but has deferred a year to work on his master’s degree.

“Virginia Tech has prepared me to take whatever path I may choose, be it industry or academia, and to lead and serve others in meaningful and impactful ways,” said Shepheard. “I am grateful for all the opportunities that have been provided to me and I hope to be able to give back.”

Written By Jama Green