Adventures in Engineering
Exploration and Service Are Natural Impulses
To be an engineer, you have to enjoy trying new things, wandering down new paths. Air Force engineer Jeff DeMatteis seems to have been “wired” with the adventurous spirit of an engineer.
Right after graduating college, DeMatteis headed off to see what was out there beyond his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and the gates of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he'd earned his B.S. in industrial engineering. He knew he had a great degree and his job prospects were good, so why not spend some time exploring the wider world? His first step was to go solo-backpacking in Europe for four months, immediately followed by three months hiking around New Zealand.
Once back home, DeMatteis landed a job as a test engineer at a battery-manufacturing company near Rochester. His duties involved planning, coordinating, and directing UL safety tests on rechargeable batteries. “It was a lot of fun to overcharge and short-circuit them, drive nails through them, and subject them to vibration, heat, and freezing temperatures,” says DeMatteis.
True to an engineer’s soul, however, his wanderlust was still strong. DeMatteis eventually quit the battery company and joined his new wife, Rena, for an 18-month tour with Youth With a Mission. Their humanitarian aid work took them to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Guyana, and post-war Kosovo. “It was an eye-opening experience to see the destruction and need, and it gave us a real appreciation for all the blessings we have here,” he says.
After that journey ended, DeMatteis took small jobs before seeing a listing for a system safety engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren, Va. The application involved minimal red tape because the DoD laboratories are eager to hire civilian engineers who want to use their technical skills and intellect to serve their country.
Soon DeMatteis was on his way to NSWC Dahlgren, where he worked on projects that push the boundaries of technology. “I loved the people and the critical work we were doing to keep our Navy fleet safe and superior,” he says. Among other projects, he was involved in electromagnetic environmental effects (E3) test engineering for the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Standard Missile-2, and Tomahawk Missile. While at Dahlgren, he earned a master’s degree in systems engineering from Virginia Tech and also ventured into student mentoring with the Virginia Demonstration Project (VDP), an educational-outreach program in which Navy engineers spend time in local middle-school classrooms working with students and teachers.
“My dad was a math teacher, and at one point in college I contemplated switching my major to education,” says DeMatteis. “When the announcement came about the VDP, I thought: ‘This is awesome! I can be an engineer and, at the same time, work with kids in math and science.’ I jumped onboard.” The VDP eventually became a model for the DoD’s National Defense Education Program.
With a growing family under his wing, DeMatteis again decided to try something new. He transferred to the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., as a system safety manager. His main responsibility is to ensure that tests and in-house research is performed safely and with minimal potential for mishap. This requires the understanding and interpretation of many DoD and Air Force regulations and standards.
DeMatteis’ move from the Navy to the Air Force coincided with NDEP’s nationwide expansion to all three service branches. At the urging of NSWC Dahlgren’s Bob Stiegler, DeMatteis proposed starting up a STEM outreach program at AFRL Rome. The director, Donald Hanson, readily authorized the initiative and provided top-level management support. DeMatteis was appointed NDEP site coordinator at AFRL Rome and now spearheads technology challenges and other engineer-facilitated STEM educational activities in conjunction with local schools in upstate New York.
DeMatteis says he believes that “God put me in the right place at the right time” to engage in exciting engineering work while also mentoring young people interested in math and science. It started with him picking up his father’s love for math at an early age. “My dad taught me ninth- to 11th-grade math at home, which allowed me to take advanced math classes before I graduated. This opened wide the door for me to study engineering in college,” says DeMatteis. “I am living proof that you can do math and science, get a STEM degree, and still follow your heart and have fun along the way.”
Photograph by James N. Faso II, AFRL/RIOIM