Harrisburg's inaugural engineering systems doctoral students begin journey

collages of engineering icons superimposed over the Nittany Lion
Credit: Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Penn State Harrisburg’s new doctoral program in engineering systems kicked off in fall 2023 with an inaugural class of students from diverse backgrounds in engineering.

The new engineering systems doctoral program aims to prepare students to pursue careers in industry, government and academia by providing them with interdisciplinary engineering education, critical-thinking skills and research experience. The program is designed to provide students with an opportunity to pursue a variety of research topics, ranging from disciplines focused in engineering to cross-disciplinary fields like computing and science.

“This Ph.D. program will evolve, but we are already seeing the potential for taking advantage of the multitude of engineering, computing and science disciplines within our School of Science, Engineering, and Technology at Penn State Harrisburg, as well as a large array of relevant expertise in other schools on our campus,” said Vahid Motevalli, Quentin Berg Chair of Engineering and interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, who is currently directing the program.

The inaugural class of five students includes individuals from a variety of backgrounds and engineering experiences, several of whom said they were drawn to the unique nature of the program.

“No matter what field of engineering you’re in you can find a way to work your program into this and specialize in whatever field you want,” said Dennis Wilson, a part-time student who started in the fall.

Wilson earned his master’s degree in environmental pollution control from Penn State Harrisburg in 2002. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in physics. He previously worked in roles at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and for the past decade has been teaching in an adjunct capacity at Penn State Harrisburg and other colleges in the region. He hopes to teach full time, and earning his doctoral degree is the necessary next step.

“It is the type of program that fits well with my master’s degree,” Wilson said. “I can take a concentration in environmental engineering courses … and I am planning on doing a doctoral thesis in that area. It just fits really well in my academic background already. I do like the fact that there is a lot of flexibility and students can concentrate in whatever field of engineering they’d prefer to do.”

Full-time student Sohail Asger, from India, holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in transportation engineering.

Asger’s academic interests lie in transportation equity. He hails from an area of India that is not highly developed, he said, and transportation is key to opening opportunities. He discovered Penn State Harrisburg’s doctoral program through Nikhil Menon, assistant professor of civil engineering, who researches transportation issues and shared information about the new program.

“The plan is to do research integrating with other disciplines of engineering as well,” Asger said. “Transportation is not just about taking people from one place to another. It’s about opening up different opportunities, enabling people to be more independent.”

Asger said one of the highlights of the first semester was just meeting the other students from different disciplines through a required course they took together.

Two of the students in the class come with civil engineering backgrounds, two with electrical engineering and one with mechanical engineering.

Trisha Campanaro, a full-time student, earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering technology from Penn State Harrisburg in 2020. She earned a master’s degree in engineering management from Rowan University in New Jersey in 2022, where she now works, and has previously worked at companies including Graphics Packaging International, International Paper and American Water.

Her education taught her how interconnected engineering is with other disciplines, she said, so the interdisciplinary focus of the new doctoral program is part of what attracted her. She also noticed some of her favorite professors from her undergraduate experience listed among those involved. The required courses seemed current and relevant to today’s workforce.

She said this program “seemed like the perfect fit.”

In the fall semester, Campanaro said, it was nice connecting with the other doctoral students. She’s enjoyed hearing the perspectives of students from different areas of engineering, though the interdisciplinary nature of the program also means they might be following different paths. Her research will be in the vibro-acoustic field, she said, and include machine learning.

“The education aspect has been so wonderful and I’ve learned so much,” she said, adding that she’s appreciated efforts to ensure the course content is relevant and current for doctoral students. “The professors have been above and beyond wonderful.”