Jeremy M. Gernand, PhD, CSP, CRE Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Safety Engineering
Associate Department Head for Graduate Education
John and Willie Leone Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
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Following the completion of my service in the Peace Corps, I returned to the United States to begin my engineering career. After a job search, I accepted a position as a Safety and Reliability Engineer with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) assigned to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

The ARED in use on the ISS.

At JSC I was assigned to conduct and oversee hazard and reliability analyses for a group of equipment known as the Crew Health Care System (CHeCS). CHeCS was made up of hardware developed for the International Space Station (ISS) including exercise equipment, medical equipment, and environmental monitors for air and water and radiation.

I learned how to conduct hazard analysis to identify safety issues and ensure that they were mitigated. I learned how to conduct reliability analyses including failure modes and effects analysis to investigate whether or not systems were designed for resilience. These activities combined with failure investigations consumed most of my 6 years there. I spent a lot of time working on the ISS treadmill (TVIS) [image below] and resistive exercise machine (ARED) [image above], and still like to check in occasionally to see whether they continue to operate as intended.

NASA crewmember using the TVIS on the ISS.

During my time with SAIC, I pursued my MS in Mechanical Engineering at Rice University on a part time basis. At the completion of my BS in 1998, I had had no interest in pursuing graduate school of any kind. I was ready to leave the university and experience the real world. But, after seeing some of the work that the MS-level engineers were assigned, I became more interested in continuing my education and gaining a few more skills. Thankfully my company, like many, had a continuation education benefit that covered most of the costs. This experience ended up being critical to my future career as it set the stage for my later PhD.

Looking for a risk-related engineering position that would allow me to conduct more quantitative data analysis, I accepted a position with the Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems Division in Baltimore, Maryland in 2006. There, I worked to predict failure rates for aircraft radar systems, though I spent most of my 2 years there working on one particular project called the Flats Sequencing System (FSS) [image below]. This machine was approximately half the size of a football field and would sort flats (post office terminology for magazines, catalogs, and large similarly sized envelopes) from the order in which they were received into the order in which they would be delivered by letter carriers. The maintenance portion of the contract was pivotal as well as system availability during critical operation period, and so highly reliability systems and the adequate provision of spares was important. I was part of the team responsible for predicting what would be needed to keep the system running.

The Flats Sequencing System, FSS, sorting mail.

I left Northrop Grumman in the summer of 2008 to take a position in Bangladesh with a Johns Hopkins University research program. But, at the time, I was already considering my next career move that involved a return to academia.

During my 8 years as a safety and reliability engineer, I has been responsible for uncovering and understanding risks to the operation of engineered systems, but the tools at my disposal had largely been heuristic in nature based on the past experience of my profession and previous engineers at my organization. I wanted better tools, but they didn't seem to exist. I wanted to be able to present as much data and modeling as my heat transfer and stress analysis colleagues, but the methods were just not in use at the places where I had worked (and I had worked in relatively high tech fields). Among some project managers, the critical need to mitigate risk sometimes took a backseat to other priorities until something bad happened. To continue to allow technology to make the world a better place, we need to improve that situation.

I was accepted to the PhD program in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and began my studies there in 2009. There, I was focused on one particular question: could we harness incomplete data on the potential future hazards of exposures to engineered nanoparticles to guide their development in a lower risk direction? We don't want to find out many years from now that we have created the next asbestos. The answer to this question is still being pursued, but collectively we have made some progress.

From the design of new materials, chemicals, transportation systems, and other technologies, we will continue to face this question in the future. Our ability to continually make the world a safer place, we will have to be smarter about how we mitigate risks, even those with very low probabilities, in engineering design. In my current and future career I hope to develop these tools and practice their application and make that better world a reality.