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Science Careers: Interview with Vince Reinhardt

Name: Vince Reinhardt
Current employer: Motorola Inc.
Science Career: Electrical Engineer Staff Senior. Sounds fancy, huh? And no, I don't drive a train:).
Time working in this field: 10 years, though it really doesn't feel that long.

How would you describe what you do on a typical day?

I make and draw electronics equipment that gets built in large quantities to be used for entertainment and communication all over the world. Hopefully at the end of the day I make someone's life a little brighter, happier, and easier.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

I used to break everything I owned and take it apart to see how it worked. As I get older, I fix more stuff than I break, but I still break stuff.

What did you study in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school?

In grade school, I learned how to program on an Apple computer. I remember making a colored comet fly across the screen. Or you could draw lines that, when drawn correctly, formed a curve.

In high school, I took two circuits courses that showed me what electronics were all about, and to be honest, found the whole thing overwhelming at the time: "You mean if I connect these random things together they light up?"

I have played with programming computers and tinkering with stuff my whole life: microscopes, telescopes, circuits, insects, all kinds of stuff. When I got into college, I decided to do the hardest thing I could, which was electrical engineering. I thought I would learn everything. I actually learned that there is still so much to learn! That's engineering...always learning.

In graduate school, I started playing with GPS (global positioning systems). To get a basic idea of how GPS works, imagine 24 small space shuttles orbiting Earth, and at any given time, a few of them are visible to us. These little shuttles tell us where they are. And if we know where they are, we can figure out where we are. The path that these little space shuttles follow looks like the threads on the outside of a baseball if you were to trace them along the ground.

How would you describe your work environment?

Among my engineering clutter and pictures of my family hang two pieces of inspiration. One is a quote from Einstein: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough," and the second is a picture from the entrance at Disney World that says, "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy." I work at an average desk inside what is known as a cubical, which is a small room that gives you a little privacy to do what you want. Behind me is a large lab full of all kinds of instruments and equipment that make my job easier to do.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

You need to be able to work well with others, play nice, put things back where they belong, and clean up after yourself when you're done. Pretty much everything you learned in kindergarten.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?

The thing I enjoy the most is meeting people from all over the world. As far as things I would like to change, I wish I could bring my German shepherd to work, and that we had free breakfast and lunch.

Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

I think they would be surprised how simple some aspects of our jobs are. On the other hand, it's pretty amazing what a small group of engineers are capable of.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

I really enjoyed a project I worked on with an intern (a student from college trying to gain work experience) where we took a handheld computer and used it to create a display that showed how many satellites our GPS system was tracking in a Mercedes while it was driving.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field?

Play with computers, and always ask yourself if there's a better way to do this or that. Don't be afraid to take things apart (with your parents' help of course).

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?

Yes, I remember doing several when I was in grade school. They were nothing like the amazing projects that Science Buddies has to offer. One project was where I labeled all the parts of a grasshopper, down to every little detail. There was a last-minute project my mother helped me with, which required you to boil a can in water and then put the can in cold water, which caused it to implode (I guess it was a pressure experiment). I remember the pop when the can hit the cold water...it was like someone stepped on the can.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

Be creative; you have the tools right in your own home to do lots of really fun stuff. Spend time at the library; if you don't know what to look for, ask a librarian or your favorite teacher—they tend to be really smart people. Oh yeah, don't forget to just observe nature. I have yet to see an engineer who could design a plane that could fit on your fingertip and land on the ceiling, but the common housefly does just that. The most amazing engineer is already all around you in nature. When in doubt, look to nature for the answer.

What do you do in your free time?

When I'm not giving rides as a giant galloping horse to my beautiful little girls, or cuddling with my wife, I spend my free-time writing smart phone applications. I am currently a US FIRST volunteer for Lake Zurich High School, Team Bear-botics, teaching high school students about programming and electronics, and dodging loose power tools.

Free science fair projects.