Arriving by ‘Bank Shot’ to Controlled Environment Career

By Ben Shank, IEST Technical Vice President (Environment Test and Reliability)

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Ben Shank

“I kind of took a weird path to get here—I’ll explain one-on-one later.”

This was how I began to introduce myself during my first meeting of the IEST Executive Board in April 2018. Three years earlier, I left an academic career revolving around the detection of dark matter to help Thermotron Industries improve its line of electrodynamic shakers and its vibration controller. I felt that the circumstances surrounding this transition were odd enough to require explanation but far too complicated for this group introduction.

Instead of the awkward pause I was expecting, my introduction drew laughter around the table.

“I don’t think anyone took a straight path to get here,” said a veteran board member. Subsequent introductions included what each board member anticipated they were going to do with their career before the twists and turns of the working world drew them to either contamination control or product testing. It was a strange mix. One thing we all concluded: Environmental control isn’t among the “visible” careers one sees in a career counselor’s office; everyone arrives by a bank shot.

There is a steep learning curve at the start of any new job, but especially when the job requires expertise in a field you have never formally studied. In my first year at Thermotron, I pored over code, grilled the shaker experts already at the company, and soaked up anything I could find written about vibration testing and control. I learned that there is a great deal of misinformation floating around the field of environmental testing (as compared to, say, academic astrophysics) and spent a long time sorting out the truth from the salesmanship. Much of the information I considered to be of high quality came from or referenced the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology.

So, the next year when I had a concern about non-stationary environments, it made sense to submit a paper to IEST’s annual ESTECH conference. One thing led to another and now, here I am, a member of the IEST’s Executive Board.

‘Finding a Professional Community is Critical’

In the past four years at a manufacturer of test equipment, I have met many people who feel like they indirectly arrived at their environmental testing job. Some, like me, step into a group with established expertise. But many find themselves alone in (or in charge of) a world of specialized equipment and unfamiliar concepts, where details that seem irrelevant to an outsider can invalidate a test program. There are many lessons that can only be learned the hard way and there isn’t enough time or money to learn them all. In this situation, whether you arrive with hard-earned knowledge of your product or a Ph.D. in physics, finding a professional community is critical. I am pleased with what I have been able to accomplish at Thermotron and with IEST, but I owe even my basic subject mastery to colleagues and writers who took time to explain things that I could never have derived.

So, to those who are new to controlled environments: Welcome. We’re glad you bounced in. The work you are doing is important and sometimes difficult; it is normal to need help. Please take a moment to explore the range of courses and Recommended Practices available through IEST. But, just as important, take time to connect with the people in your own organization who can help you along the way.

Ben Shank is an R&D engineer at Thermotron Industries in Holland, Michigan.

How did you get your start in controlled environments? Who or what assisted you with your career? Leave your comments below.

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