Brian VanVoorst

Brian  VanVoorst
  • BS Computer Science 1991
  • MS Computer Science 1993
After graduating from Michigan Tech with a bachelor's and a Master's degree in computer science in 1991 and 1993 respectively, Brian VanVoorst has already had a successful career and has certainly earned a place in our alumni spotlight.

VanVoorst, who calls Traverse City, Mich. his hometown, grew up as an only child with his mother following the death of his father when he was in the seventh grade. He was interested in computers at a very young age, and while he was very skilled in them, VanVoorst was just an "okay" student in high school. "[Computers were] something I realized really early on that I was interested in and was really good at."

A Michigan Tech recruiter came to VanVoorst's school and made it sound like a great experience and challenge. "As I researched it, I realized that I really wanted to do computer science, software development and computer programming, and Michigan Tech had a really good program for that," said VanVoorst.

He ultimately decided to come to Michigan Tech and become involved both inside and outside the classroom. He was quite involved with the Student Entertainment Board and the Association for Computing Machinery. "Today the SEB is mostly tied to the Rozsa Center, but back then, it didn't exist. We hosted our events in Fisher 135, the gym and the Calumet Theatre, and that was a lot of fun," said VanVoorst. He also fell in love with the area during his time up here. He said, "I really liked getting out and going Copper Country Cruising and exploring the shoreline, the woods and the small towns. That was a lot of fun."

Even though he was here for about seven years, VanVoorst has no regrets about his time at Michigan Tech. "I had an absolutely fantastic experience. I met a lot of great people, both students and faculty. I really enjoyed the campus and the community. The department was challenging. It was small, too, so there was a lot of individual attention."

With the help of his advisor, VanVoorst earned an internship with the NASA Ames Research Center during the summer between the years in his Master's program. He had a tremendous experience there and applied for and received a job there following the completion of his degree. He worked on parallel supercomputers, specifically software tools to assist people in tuning the performance of their applications on the supercomputers.

"I was there for a couple of years and, after growing up in Traverse City and living in the Keweenaw for so many years, I found that California and the Bay area was an exciting place to be as a computer scientist, but it wasn't the environment I wanted to live in," said VanVoorst.

He ended up accepting a job as a principal research scientist at Honeywell in Minneapolis. Recently, VanVoorst has been working on robotics, including working on a robotic vehicle that can drive through a city by itself. This was a DARPA-funded project called the DARPA Urban Challenge. Now he is working on sensor technology for the vehicle and on external applications of the sensors.

In the middle of his time at Honeywell, VanVoorst's career took an interesting twist. "I came up to Michigan Tech to teach for two years. I took my Honeywell position here as a scientist and worked to reduce that down to 25 percent, 10 hours a week. The Computer Science department [at MTU] was growing so rapidly, and they were looking for lecturers, so I came up and taught in the department," said VanVoorst. "That was a lot of fun, and it gave me a whole different perspective on the University that gave me a chance to give something back to the students. It was a really rewarding experience."

For VanVoorst's excellent research and teaching, he has earned numerous awards, including the Space Act Board Award and NASA's software of the year award for his software system called AIMS. His numerous accomplishments have also earned him the 2004 Outstanding Young Alumni Award. "It was an unexpected and huge honor, and I really can't thank Linda Ott and the rest of the faculty enough. It meant an awful lot to me, more than I was able to express at the time. There's so many people at Tech that have helped me over the years, and I really appreciate that."

In his personal life, VanVoorst has been married nearly eight years to his wife Jenny. They do not have any children, but they have a dog and a cat that they treat like children. He enjoys kayaking, snowshoeing and painting in his free time. "I want to be the best husband and the best person that I can be. Of course, anything that I've been able to do in my career would not be possible without the tremendous support from Jenny," said VanVoorst.

VanVoorst enjoys new challenges and opportunities and would like to continue in research for a while. He may be interested in something entrepreneurial or returning to teaching.

Taking years of experience into account, VanVoorst has a lot of advice for students looking to excel. "I would suggest that students who can get an internship in their field of study do that. It makes a big difference. I would suggest that students spend a summer on campus because the Keweenaw is a magical place in the summer. I would say that if you know what you want to do in two to five years from now and you stay focused, you can really make anything happen for yourself. You have all the power you need to shape your future, you just have to know what you want and go for it," summed up VanVoorst.

by Stephen Anderson, reprinted from the Michigan Tech Lode (3-26-08)