'It’s science and creativity': Alumnus Victor Stewart is part-NASA engineer, part-YouTube chef
What do delicious food, mechanical design engineering, and corporate advertisements have in common? Virginia Tech alumnus Victor Stewart.
Since Stewart graduated from the university with a bachelor's degree in engineering science and mechanics and a master's degree in biomedical engineering in 2012 and 2013, respectively, he’s chosen pursuits as diverse as working as an engineer for NASA and launching a cooking channel on YouTube. He links his interests to elements of his Virginia Tech education and his work in biomedical engineering professor Raffaella DeVita's lab.
During his time at Virginia Tech, Stewart conducted research with DeVita in the STRETCH (Soft Tissue Research: Experiments, Theory, and Computations by Hokies) Lab. The research done in that lab is diverse and continuously evolving. DeVita’s lab aims to advance fundamental and mechanistic knowledge of biological systems. These systems can range from the tiny components of a cell to large tissue. Stewart began working with DeVita during his senior project. The senior project is a requirement for fourth-year students in the College of Engineering, often composed of teams to give students hands-on experiential learning opportunities. Stewart led a team in testing the mechanical properties of the MCL – ligaments in the knee – to better understand the elasticity of those ligaments.
Stewart believes he gained important skills from immersion in presentations, leadership of the senior research project team, and interdisciplinary team projects that relied on effective collaboration. In his current field, working with others is everything, he said. At Virginia Tech, networking, communication, and interdisciplinary collaboration toward a shared goal taught him “those softer skills” Stewart finds valuable now, including respect for others and the ability to delegate. Research made him more perseverant and attentive.
Stewart’s master’s thesis, written in just a year, was a continuation of the senior project, wherein he analyzed the viscal elastic properties of knee ligaments. He looked at the differences in the elasticity of knee ligaments depending on hydration levels. Using variations of sucrose with saline solutions, he analyzed the effects of sugar on the ligaments’ elasticity, or its ability to stretch and function well.
His perseverance did not stop on campus, but extended to summer and winter internships at NASA. He participated in a co-op at NASA’s Langley Research Center during his summer and winter breaks. He participated in projects that included testing inflatable systems, solar sail missions, and radiation testing.
“At Langley, I used the skills I learned in my undergrad,” Stewart said. “Engineering mechanics is such a broad field and gave me a great foundation for the professional world. So much of a job is on-the-job training, but there’s a certain amount, maybe 20 percent, that relies on one’s skills and knowledge. Tech gave me that 20 percent which enabled me to succeed in life so far.”
His co-op during college gave him credits that enabled him to enter full-time employment at NASA. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Stewart began working full-time as an engineer. As a mechanical design engineer at NASA, he supports the process of product generation into fabrication. He assists in generating design drawings which turn into actual products and functioning systems.
“I am really proud of my first project at NASA,” Stewart said. “I supported a radiation testing effort which led to creating a product that actually went into space. It recorded data in space, and helped us gain more understanding of radiation effects we experience during airline flights. It was amazing to be part of that. My work here has been satisfying from day one.”
Other projects he has supported include testing autonomous satellites to see if they can rendezvous together in space without the need to be manned by humans, which could enable space missions to Mars or farther. He also supported spacecraft assessment and testing for successful launches, such as the AA-2 mission that launched in spring 2019 and current efforts to return to the Moon.
He's carried his interest in creative and detail-oriented problem-solving from his senior design and master's thesis work and NASA to his hobbies as well. This year, Stewart began a cooking channel on YouTube, Chef Vic Cuisine, and just published his first cookbook.
He began cooking as a child. He and his father would add ingredients to the dish together and Stewart remembers thinking the science of it was magical. He wondered how the same basic ingredients – flour, salt, sugar – could turn into different, unique food items.
“Cooking has been the work of a lifetime,” Stewart said. “For me, it’s science and creativity. Recipes follow steps and have measured ingredients, but the outcome is this flavorful and fun dish that I created. I wanted to be able to teach others how to cook, passing on my love of cooking through simple, you-can-do-this-too type of instruction. That’s why I made YouTube videos – to help walk others through the steps that lead to a successful outcome.”
Stewart also does commercial modeling for corporations, such as Capital One, Wal-Mart, and Dominion Energy. During his co-op at NASA Langley, as he worked with others, he learned of a colleague that modeled. The two got to talking, and Stewart decided to seize the opportunity. The agency hired Stewart, and he has been with them ever since.
Stewart finds himself driven to seize the opportunities of a lifetime. He remembers getting the chance to participate in the NASA co-op by going after the opportunity as a high school senior. He tells the story of attending a scholarship dinner shortly before high school graduation and the speaker not showing up. The emcee announced that the speaker wouldn’t be there and opened up the microphone to senior graduates to congratulate their classmates. Stewart decided to jump at the opportunity, walked up to the podium, and made a congratulatory speech. His speech must have been all right, he said, because a NASA representative approached him afterward to talk about research opportunities at NASA Langley.
“If it wasn’t for my seizing opportunities in life, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Stewart said. “I believe it is important to seize an opportunity when you can, because you’ll never know where it will take you.”
-Written by Laura McWhinney