Class of 2021: Engineering graduate ready to launch thanks to applied learning
From a young age, Zach Kozar dreamed of working with launch vehicles.
He decided engineering would be a good route to pursue that dream given his interests in math and physics. Kozar, a graduating senior in biomedical engineering and mechanics (BEAM), said he chose Virginia Tech for its highly reputable engineering program. Now, with graduation nearing, he credits the university with launching him toward his dream.
Initially, Kozar was interested in both aerospace and biomedical engineering and not sure of which route to choose. He found his way to a major in engineering science and mechanics after learning about the program’s strong foundation in math and physics. Additionally, the undergraduate program provided students with many hands-on application projects and accompanying labs to learn career-specific skills ranging from biomechanics, to aviation, to electronics.
Senior design projects are part of the major curriculum in the College of Engineering, intended to provide hands-on learning experiences for seniors to apply the knowledge they have gained while finding solutions to the given problem.
“My senior design project was my best experience at Tech,” said Kozar. “It was both challenging and rewarding, because we were given a problem to solve, and that’s it. We used our class knowledge and research skills to come up with a product that we developed from scratch.”
Kozar was part of a senior design team that found a novel solution to plantar plate repairs. The team developed a surgical implant to assist a person’s plantar plate, a structure deep in the foot that assists in stabilization. The team’s design, patent-pending, helps reduce bone contact and, thus, helps reduce post-operation complications.
“When we showed the surgeon our design and pilot tests, the surgeon was amazed at how easy it was to use,” Kozar said. “That was really satisfying.”
Kozar’s team won the Dan H. Pletta award from the department for most outstanding senior design project. Team advisors were J. Randolph Clements, doctor of podiatric medicine in orthopedic surgery at Carilion Clinic; Vincent Wang, associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics; and Jennifer Wayne, professor and department head in biomedical engineering and mechanics.
In addition to the senior design project, Kozar worked on a booster design team competition as part of a senior-level rocket design course. He created a launch vehicle designed to take a 100 kilogram payload to low-Earth orbit that included 3D models, stability and control analysis, motor type and internal structures, and a project delivery schedule for the first batch of launch vehicles. Kozar was advised by Pat Artis, a professor of practice in aerospace and ocean engineering and generous donor to BEAM, and he and his team presented this design to the U.S. Space Force in April.
Kozar has ample experience sharing his work with the wider research community. Throughout his time at Virginia Tech, he presented at several conferences for professional organizations, including the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Orthopedic Research Society. He had the opportunity, early in his academic career, to conduct research with Wang and other students.
As an incoming first-year student, Kozar joined the Orthopedic Mechanobiology Laboratory at Virginia Tech, led by Wang, where he worked on texture analysis of medical (ultrasound) images. As lead engineering researcher in a clinical study on Virginia Tech athletes, he developed software codes to quantify changes in tendon ultrasound images over the course of multiple basketball seasons. Wang said Kozar’s efforts were key to the study’s goal of augmenting the clinical evaluation of athletes and patients.
“Kozar has been a fantastic researcher,” said Wang. “It has been so rewarding to mentor him throughout his undergraduate research endeavors and to celebrate his scientific advancements and achievements, attributable to his diligence, initiative, intelligence, and creativity.”
As part of the team in Wang’s lab, Kozar wrote custom MATLAB programs to quantify the changes in images from pre-season to post-season between dominant limbs and non-dominant limbs. The team worked with physicians at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine to evaluate and compare images of basketball athletes’ knees before and after their season. Their findings were promising, Kozar said, in that they identified specific indicators of weakened or damaged tendons. These methods enabled an objective, quantitative assessment of tissue integrity (i.e., damage or improvement), and the results were consistent with physicians’ clinical results.
During his second year, Kozar developed a web service called CoursePatrol intended to help students gain entry into the classes they need for graduation. It can be frustrating and time-consuming to continuously check the timetable for course availability as a student, he said.
Through the service, students receive a text notification when a class in which they wish to enroll has an open seat. More than 1,000 Virginia Tech students used CoursePatrol, since its inception in April 2019, so Kozar expanded his business to other schools, including Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Kozar plans on continuing to offer this service to students even after he graduates and to expand his web service to more schools.
Upon graduation, Kozar will be working as a software engineer at Inertial Labs in Leesburg, Virginia. He will use his design skills to innovate custom inertial navigation and orientation systems for land vehicles, aircraft, and watercraft.
“My dream was to work at an aerospace company that makes launch vehicles or to advance prosthetics and integration,” Kozar said. “In many ways, I feel I’ve lived my dream through the designs I got to do at Virginia Tech and now as I move forward, applying those skills, the dream continues.”