Interview with the 2013 AIAA Lawrence Sperry Award Recipient, Dr. Eric Ruggiero
Dr. Eric Ruggiero from GE was the 2013 recipient of the Lawrence Sperry Award. The
Lawrence Sperry Award is presented for a notable contribution made by a young person, age 35
or under, to the advancement of aeronautics or astronautics. This award honors Lawrence B.
Sperry, pioneer aviator and inventor, who died in 1923 in a forced landing while attempting a
flight across the English Channel. Dr. Ruggiero received the award at the 2013 AIAA
Aerospace Sciences Meeting in Grapevine Texas on January 8, 2013, for his innovation and
leadership in turbomachinery seals technology. He was interviewed by Ryan Rudy (chair of the
young professional committee) and Kimberly Hicks (deputy chair).
<RR> Can you give us a bit of background about yourself? What led you into engineering?
<ER> I grew up in southern New Hampshire, in a small town called Kingston. I am probably
one of the only persons in my entire family who enjoys math and science. When I was in 7th
grade, I have a particular memory in mind: in our homeroom classroom we had one of these
charts that had “skills you learn in school” and “professions” on the other axis. There were only
two professions that actually had dots all the way across the board meaning you used every skill
you learned in school- either becoming a medical doctor or an engineer. That sparked my
interest in learning more about “what does it mean to be an engineer?” and I made sure my
Sanborn Regional High School courses aligned me on that kind of scientific track going into an
engineering field. I enjoyed the technology aspect; that is what drew me in the most. And now,
looking back, that is absolutely my passion. That, and working with people – which is why I
love engineering and the job that I have right now.
<KH> What led you into becoming involved in sealing technologies?
<ER> Alright, so that’s a fun story. I went to Virginia Tech and got all three degrees there –
bachelor’s through PhD in mechanical engineering. When I started at Virginia Tech I knew I
wanted to be an engineer, but I didn’t know what field. I really fell in love with mechanical
engineering when I was introduced to piezoelectric materials in the Center for Intelligent
Material Systems and Structures my Freshman year at Virginia Tech. If you fast forward a
couple of years, my undergraduate research led into “why don’t you stick around to do a
masters?” and that rolled into “why don’t you continue onto a PhD?” That’s how I got into
adaptive structures, and that was how I first was introduced to AIAA and my research career. In
January 2005, I was nearing the end of my PhD, and I was interviewed by Imdad Imam at GE
Global Research. His group was called the Performance Technologies Laboratory, and his lab
worked primarily in developing advanced seal concepts for all of GE’s businesses, whether it be
aviation, energy, or oil & gas. I went to New York for my interview with the intent of “just to
interview” because I didn’t really see a great fit. I came away from my interview blown away
by the depth of the people that were there; it was much different than the perceptions on
industrial research I had heard in academia … in a very positive way. But still, background-wise
I was kind of on the edge. When I came back from that interview, my wife, Jennifer, and I had a
heart to heart about what is most important to us as we transitioned into “life beyond
Blacksburg,” … one of the biggest things for us is family. The research position at GE won out
because it was geographically close to both sides of our family. So I accepted the job offer at GE
Global Research, and I threw myself into the Performance Technologies Lab and started working
on turbomachinery seals. I love the breadth of problems, and the depth and challenge of the
problems that came with working for Imdad.
<KH> So as you got into the sealing technologies, who were the most influential people that mentored you and helped shape where your career is today?
<ER> Shortly after joining GE I asked Chris Wolfe, who at the time was a senior engineer
within the Performance Technology Laboratory, if he would mind serving as my mentor. Now it
was a little unusual because sometimes folks might not feel comfortable asking for a mentor
within their own group. But what I really appreciated about Chris was that he had spent a
number of years working in GE’s business side and he also had a healthy element of the research
center under his belt in terms of experience. Chris introduced me not only to sealing technology
but also how the business works, how the research center works, and how to find success with all
the different moving parts that go into building a research program. I really credit him for
getting me started on the right foot and such a strong foundation at the research center. I’d also
like to acknowledge Imdad Imam, the manager who hired me, because he has never been afraid
to throw a lot of responsibility to early hires within his teams and have them take on big
challenges early on in their career as opposed to, say, waiting. It takes a lot of faith and trust in
your team and in the person that you are asking to do that, and Imam has done this with just
about everyone that has joined his team. In my own particular case he provided me with
opportunities, especially with GE Oil & Gas, to work on very large programs that were very
closely tied to product. These programs had very tight schedules, but they also gave me an
opportunity to make an impact in an immediate way. It was a wonderful set of opportunities that
<KH> Can you tell us a bit more about your specific area of research that you work in, a little bit more about the particulars of what you do?
<ER> My first stint was with GE Oil & Gas. I worked with Nuovo Pignone to develop advanced
seals for their compressor product line. The compressors we worked on are typically used for
the generation of LNG. In particular, we worked on developing a new seal for what is called the
tertiary seal; this seal is located on the ends of the compressors and its purpose is to prevent
lubrication oil from migrating across the shaft of the compressor and gumming up the most
critical seals of the machine (which are called the dry gas seals). You don’t want any of that gas
to leak out because of environmental concerns, hence the dry gas seals operate with incredibly
tight running clearances. The dry gas seals are not very tolerant to liquids, so that’s why you
have these tertiary seals to act as a buffer between the compressor bearing cavities and the dry
gas seals. We worked on developing a brush seal alternative solution to the existing tertiary seal
technology. A brush seal is as its name implies – it looks like a paintbrush in terms of having a
bristle pack that is attached to the stationary housing of the compressor and the bristles kiss the
rotor of the compressor to form a seal. The bristles act like little cantilever beams and track the
rotor throughout the operation of the compressor; thus, the brush seal is very tolerant to these
types of dynamic excursions. So we proved over a couple year program that the brush seal was
an attractive solution because it was very robust to such transients and it was competitive with
the best in class tertiary sealing technology available at the time. So that was my introduction to
Meanwhile, the other fun thing I got to do was bring my smart materials background to the world
of seals. I was always curious about what a seal would look like if I looked at a seal through the
lens of a controls engineer. I put together a technology development program where we inserted
a fiber optic sensor into a brush seal and we were able to demonstrate that we could track
temperature with it, track the displacement of the bristle pack, and do some other cool things that
had never really been explored before. That was a lot of fun because it was just kind of a crazy
idea. We’ve got mechanisms in place at GE Global Research where you can present your crazy
ideas and get a little pot of money to go off and try to make them happen. We strung together a
number of tests which eventually led to an engine demonstration. Nothing beats seeing your
Most recently, starting about three years ago, there was an opportunity to have an advanced seal
technology development effort for our aviation business. So I got to work on bringing together
multiple advanced seal design concepts for our next generation aircraft engines. With that
program underway, the opportunity came up for me to apply as a lab manager within the
research center and to work for Todd Wetzel. My lab is the Turbine Heat Transfer Technologies
Laboratory. As a lab manager at the research center I have a team of the world’s best experts in
gas turbine heat transfer and my team’s responsibility is to design, build, test, and innovate on
the latest and greatest cooling technologies that go into our gas turbine products.
<KH> What advice do you have for students considering entering the aerospace field?
<ER> If you already have the passion for technology and you’re going into engineering, my
advice for young engineers is to not be afraid to make mistakes. A lot of times I find as I speak
and interact with grad students that they’re very tentative in trying new things. Sometimes it is
because of fear of failure. My first failure at GE had a huge impact on my life because I was
given the chance to learn from my mistake and to rebound and make it a success. If young
engineers had more of that “I’m just going to try it out attitude” then things would just get done
quicker. Engineers would learn more, faster, and we would get to the right solutions in a much
more expedient way compared to just waiting and always trying to take the conservative route.
<KH> How do you keep busy outside of work and AIAA?
<ER> I’ve been happily married for just over eleven years now and my wife, Jennifer, and I have
two children: Mason who will be 8 this year and my daughter Megan who will turn 5 in just a
couple months. Really my family is my life outside of my nine to five job. We try to do as
much we can as a family. Outside of that I love to play basketball. I’m a very competitive
person so I like to do a lot of sports. I also enjoy billiards. I’m now coaching my son’s second
grade teams, both soccer and basketball, which I’m enjoying tremendously. I also enjoy
professional baseball, and it’s a lifelong goal of mine to see all of the MLB ballparks.
<KH> What role has AIAA played in your career?
<ER> Getting involved early on in grad school with the adaptive structures technical committee
was really my introduction to AIAA. I love the passion present when you get together in a
technical committee room. The idea of getting brilliant people together in the same room that
have great ideas for how to advance the state of the art of technology – that really is what made a
lasting impression on me. That helped me to grow my network, which led to other walks of life.
<KH> If you had to say, what are your top three value added reasons to be an AIAA member,
<ER> Numbers one, two, and three would be networking. The fact that within AIAA you get
these pockets of technical excellence that then take the form of not just technical committees but
also as conferences – I think that’s a great purpose for why AIAA should exist. You bring
people of like mind together that have creative ideas and different thoughts and AIAA provides
structure so that you can then develop the state of the art of technology. I really think that that is
an important role that AIAA should be playing. And I think that they do.
<KH> What is your perception of AIAA’s engagement of younger members?
<ER> For me personally, because my advisor, Dan Inman, who has and continues to be so
actively involved with AIAA, I was able to align my professional career with a lot of the values
that drive technical committees. I got exposed to the environment of what defines success within
the Adaptive Structures technical community, and so I was able to model my own career after
what well established folks had already done.
In terms of engagement I would say, then, that what I have seen of late is that the engagement is
on an upward trajectory. I do enjoy the YP e-newsletters that get sent out. I enjoy reading those
and seeing what is going on. For me in my new role as a lab manager I am always looking for
the world’s best talent, so when you guys [AIAA] are highlighting people my ears perk up
because they could potentially be the next GE global research employee, coming from a
recruiting stand point. That monthly letter at least tunes me in to know that there are YP
activities going on. Prior to that publication coming out it was only because I was actively
involved that I knew things were going on. The other thing that I enjoy seeing is from
conferences: I open up the program and I see that there are dedicated sessions for YPs and
invitation-only events for YPs. I think that is a fantastic opportunity you guys are providing to
that community to say “hey look, we embrace you, we want you to be excited about this and to
be actively engaged and to continue being actively engaged beyond turning 36 years old”.
Networking and introducing yourself takes energy. It is something you have to pursue. It
doesn’t just fall into your lap just because you show up at a conference. Everyone needs to
understand that this is a fantastic opportunity here, but you have to take the initiative to make it
happen and to start connecting those dots that otherwise might not be connected in your life. If
you don’t realize that, then I can see where people can just sit back and say “oh man, AIAA, (or
any professional society) you’re not doing anything for me”. If you don’t put your energy into it
then it’s really hard to get any energy out of it.
<KH> What do you think either the YPC or AIAA as an institute could do better? Where is there room for improvement? In terms of engaging YPs and getting them involved and showing them
<ER> The newsletter is the right thing. The YPC needs to keep that up. The networking events
that you sponsor at various conferences – I don’t think you can advertise those enough to get
people engaged. You need a level of personal invitation. If there are either existing young
professionals, or potential young professionals, your network has to be broad enough that you
can actually tap people on the shoulder and say, face to face, “Hey, I really want you to come to
this networking event.” I don’t know if there is an opportunity where you invite some of these
young professionals who are in that 30 to 35 category to present to other AIAA sections. The
result of such opportunities would be twofold: one would be to try and strengthen the person’s
resolve as to why the person is a member of AIAA; and two, at the same time, give other young
professionals a chance to hear what role AIAA has meant to someone else and how it is linked to
<KH> Is there anything else you would like to add?
<ER> I can say, reflecting on my career, especially at the research center, I love the people that I
work with, and I love the challenge of the technological problems that we are tackling every day.
You have to love the people that you work with and love the technology that you are working on.
If you have these two elements, you’ll find success no matter where life takes you.
Dr. Eric Ruggiero pictured with Ryan Rudy and with Kimberly Hicks
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