Society of Distinguished Alumni inducts first class

Society of Distinguished Alumni inducts first class

Above from left: New members John Sparks, Walter O’Brien, and Keith Van Houten; Legacy members Nicholas Des Champs, John R. Jones III, Mary “Prim” Jones, and Robert Gibson; new members Michele Grieshaber, and Sarah Mayer; and Legacy member, William Wells.


On April 25 the department of mechanical engineering hosted the first-ever induction into the newly created Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering Society of Distinguished Alumni.

“Working with our advisory board, we felt it was appropriate to create a society to formally recognize alumni who have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in their careers, and promote greater interaction between alumni, faculty, staff, and students,” said Azim Eskandarian, department head and Nicholas and Rebecca Des Champs Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

The department inducted individuals from mechanical engineering who had been previously inducted into the College of Engineering’s Academy of Academic Excellence through 2017 as Legacy members, as well as five new members to make up the inaugural class.

Legacy Members include:

Jerry H. Ballengee, ’62, David A. Christian, ’76, Nicholas H. Des Champs, ’62 and ’67, Regina E. Dugan, ’84 and ’85, Elmer R. Easton, ’47, Robert C. Gibson, ’61, George R. Goodson Jr., ’49, John R. Jones III, ’67, Mary “Prim” Jones, ’62, William K. Wells, ’66.

Also included as legacy members are the following who were inducted posthumously: R. Sidney Barrett Jr., ’62, Edgar Boynton, ’21, William A. Cox Jr., ’34, J.B. Jones, ’45, E. George Middleton Jr., ’50, Hobart A. Weaver, ’50.

The five members of the ME Society of Distinguished Alumni Class of 2018 are:

Michele M. Grieshaber, BSME ’85, MSME ’86 and PhD ’91. Grieshaber is currently a senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Silicon Labs, a leading provider of silicon, software, and solutions for the internet of things. Michele came to Silicon Labs from IBM where she held executive and strategic positions in IBM’s software, hardware, financing and services businesses, including positions based in Europe and Asia spanning over 20 years.

Grieshaber holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and was a Fulbright Scholar to France. She recently served as Adjunct Professor of Global Business Ethics at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and is a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business.

She is a member of the Board of Advisors for the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, and for the Munday School of Business at St. Edward’s University. She is also an active board member for Communities in Schools of Central Texas.

John F. Sparks, BSME ’74, MSME ’76, PhD ’81. A senior program director at Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sparks has program management responsibility for development and advanced technology programs. His career has been focused on propulsion starting with his graduate work in gas turbines and his subsequent thirty-seven-year career in solid propellant rocket design. He began employment with Atlantic Research Corporation, which became Aerojet Rocketdyne

John’s initial assignment was in engineering design where he rose to a position director with time spent as chief engineer on key programs. He then moved into program management running several advanced technology programs with U.S. government laboratories. For the last several years, he has led a team exploring novel technologies for advanced air-launched missile systems and currently heads and engineering and development program which will qualify and produce the propulsion system for a new advanced missile.

Sparks has three degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech and is also a graduate of the Wharton School Advanced Management Program. He serves on the Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board, has been a member and chair of the College of Engineering Advisory Board, and continues to head the College of Engineering Advisory Board Legislative Committee.

Sarah Mayer, BSME ’88. Mayer is a Senior Director in the Boeing Defense Space & Security (BDS) Operations & Quality organization. She has the responsibility for the deployment, implementation, sustainment and upgrade of all the I-T systems in use across all of the plants, programs and factories for Boeing’s B-D-S global operations.  Her team ensures that the capabilities and architecture of these systems are enabling the manufacture and delivery of all the BDS portfolio of products in the most efficient and effective manner.

During Mayer’s nearly thirty-year career at Boeing she has had positions in a variety of functions, including Program Management, Logistics, Marketing & Sales, and Engineering.  She has supported domestic and International programs for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps customers.

She is also the Boeing Executive Focal for Virginia Tech, a position she has held for over 10 years.  She has served on the Advisory Boards for both the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the College of Engineering, and is a member of the Committee of 100.

Sarah has recently joined the Board of Directors for LaunchCode, a non-profit organization based in St Louis that is building a skilled workforce by creating pathways for driven people seeking careers in technology.

Keith Van Houten, BSME ’91. An Engineering Group Manager at General Motors in the Active Safety & Autonomous Vehicle domain, Keith Van Houten began his 27-year career with GM as a test engineer.

Keith is a subject matter expertise in noise, vibration and harshness engineering. In 2003 he was appointed the N&V Performance Team Leader for Cadillac, responsible for developing the world class road, wind, and powertrain noise performance of the Cadillac CTS, SRX, and STS programs.  In 2012, he became Lead Development Engineer for the Buick Regal program, responsible for vehicle performance, ride and handling, stability control, noise & vibration, and fuel economy.

His currently leads the development of an advanced simulation toolchain for control system development and validation.  Capabilities span basic safety features, such as collision imminent braking and lane keep assist, up through advanced features, including fully autonomous and connected vehicles.

Mr. Van Houten has led the GM/Virginia Tech University Relations team for more than 20 years – recruiting and internally promoting the university’s research efforts.  He’s mentored the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team in the Department of Energy-sponsored Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions since 2004.

He serves on the Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering Department Advisory Board and is a member of the College of Engineering Committee of 100.  He was the College of Engineering Outstanding Young Alumnus in 1995.

Walter F. O’Brien, BSME ’60 and PhD ’68. O’Brien spent nine years in industry with Aerospace Research Corporation and Litton Industries, before joining the department in 1970 an assistant professor.

In 1985 he was named J. Bernard Jones Professor, becoming the first departmental faculty member with a named professorship. In 1987 he was a visiting professor with the Air Force’s Aero Propulsion Laboratory, and in 1990 he became Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies for the College of Engineering.

O’Brien was a founding Associate Dean of the Virginia Consortium of Engineering and Science Universities, a graduate research and education cooperative involving four Virginia universities. In 1993, he became Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, serving until 2004. He reorganized the administrative structure of the department and a year later it was selected as one of three University Exemplary Departments. In 2002, he chaired a multi-university proposal effort to found the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), a NASA-affiliated Research Institute in Hampton, VA, where he now serves as the Virginia Tech Liaison Professor to NIA.

O’Brien has supervised the graduate work of 130 MS and Ph.D. students and published more than 150 technical papers and journal articles in the propulsion field. He is a Life Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 2003 he received the Virginia Joint Engineering Society’s Pletta Award as the Outstanding Engineering Educator in the State of Virginia.