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New Faculty Q&A: Nicholas Szczecinski

A portraIt of Nicholas Szczecinski

Nicholas Szczecinski was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where he studied at Case Western Reserve University. During his doctoral studies he was a NASA Space Technology Research Fellow, which enabled him to spend his summers performing research at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. After he received his Ph.D., he completed a postdoctoral research position at the University of Cologne in Germany, where he worked alongside neuroscientists to model how animals walk. After his postdoc, he accepted a research associate position at Case Western Reserve University, where he managed a team of graduate researchers, taught a course and wrote grant proposals.

What inspired you to start your mechanical and aerospace engineering career?

I have always been fascinated by things that move! As a child, I was obsessed with trains. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to compete in Lego and FIRST robotics competitions, which gave me hands-on experience in building and programming machines. While at university, I had the opportunity to take courses in biomechanics and neuroscience, which helped me learn how animals solve the same problems as robots. All of these experiences have led me into a career where I can study how animals move and how we might make robots that move just as gracefully (or better!).

How would you describe your teaching style?

I love to learn, and I love to teach! I believe that the key to success is enthusiasm. Therefore, I try to foster excitement about different topics by tying them in to real-life problems, by drawing connections to related topics, and by digging deep to really understand the material. I think every student needs to work hard on their own to master new topics, but I strive to give every student the resources they need to succeed.

What will be your research focus?

My research has two symbiotic goals: apply engineering and biological topics to build and control walking robots; and use the resulting robots to better understand how animals control their locomotion. Developing legged robots specifically will enable humans to explore and traverse extreme terrains everywhere, whether on farms and in orchards, underground in mines, underwater on the sea floor, or even on other planets.

What makes this work meaningful to you?

This work is meaningful to me for two reasons. First, robotics is a hugely interdisciplinary field, which means we are always learning something new. My research draws from dynamics, controls, electronics, analytical and numerical methods and neuroscience. I find it exciting to blend these topics in new ways to solve engineering problems. Second, this work exists at the interface between engineering and science. Of course, engineers build the world they want to see; but scientists discover and describe the world as it is. This work lets us experience both of these, often simultaneously.

Besides your work, what are some of your other hobbies and passions?

I have several other hobbies and interests. I love mountain biking and watching and playing sports. My weekends often contain day-long meat smoking projects (and consumption). I love to play music, specifically guitar and piano. My wife and I love exploring new places, whether our new community in Morgantown or around the world. At the end of a long day, I love reading a book that will expand my mind, whether pop science, sci-fi, or any other literature.

What are you most looking forward to about your new journey at West Virginia University?

I’m very excited to work with such talented students in such a warm, welcoming and collaborative environment! My wife and I have already fallen in love with Morgantown, and are looking forward to exploring it more. And of course, I can’t wait to ride the PRT to work every day.