May 6, 2013

Tinkering his way to an innovative academic career

As with many budding researchers, Glenn Walters found his calling in the field. In his case, however, “the field” was not a clinical site, a remote corner of the globe or a neighborhood ruined by industrialization. For Walters, inspiration came from a junkyard.

“The junkyard wasn’t far from where I grew up in Vermont,” Walters says, “and I was always over there looking for old TVs, car parts and things like that. I was always taking things apart, but it drove my father nuts that I did not always get them put back together correctly.”

When he was in high school, Walters befriended a local contractor who had a metal-scrapping business. One of the man’s clients was IBM, which had a research and development plant in nearby Essex Junction.

“I would get switches, conductivity meters, process controllers, scrap wire and switches from him. Anything I could get my hands on. I even got hold of a chip fabricator once,” Walters says, with more excitement than you’d expect a chip fabricator to generate. “I used to break parts down, hook other parts up and try to figure out how everything worked.”

Walters didn’t have the same level of interest for his school work, however.

“I wasn’t a very attentive student. In fact, I barely graduated from high school,” Walters says. “I had no intention of going to college.”

However, after a year of working odd jobs, including pumping gas during one of the coldest winters on record in Vermont, Walters saw only one way to get ahead-college.

“So I enrolled at a local junior college in the business management program, and it all just clicked,” he says. “I was highly motivated, worked hard and quickly became ranked at the top of my class.”

After graduation, Walters was hired as membership manager for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. It was a great job for a young person, traveling around the state, meeting with businesspeople. Still, he wanted to do something more substantive. A battery of aptitude tests and talks with a career counselor pointed toward engineering.

Walters subsequently enrolled at the University of Vermont, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering, with an emphasis on environmental systems. He worked for a time at an environmental consulting firm in Alaska, consulted with a Boston-area firm for several years, and then started looking at graduate schools. The search led him to UNC, where he earned his doctorate in environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

He also found his way to the ESE Design Center in the basement of Rosenau Hall, where the facility’s then-administrator, Randall Goodman, recognized Walters as both an experienced engineer and skilled craftsman. Before Goodman retired in 2007, he recommended that Walters be brought on as the new director. Because of Walters’ advanced degree and training, the position was enhanced to include an academic component, as well.

Walters quickly expanded the operation, developing a more capable facility that could provide services University-wide.

“We do everything from basic design and simple repairs to some very sophisticated work with metals, plastics and other composite materials,” Walters says. “We’ll take on almost anything.”Along with the Gillings Device and a wide array of other projects for ESE researchers, this “anything” has included membrane filtration cells for RTI International (, special testing chambers for a UNC School of Dentistry pain-control study; an inhalation toxicology for UNC’s School of Medicine; and an estuary-sampling instrument for the Department of Marine Sciences.

“We’ve also been working on a highly sensitive swallowing monitor for premature infants that helps new mothers differentiate various sounds the infants make while feeding,” he says.

Crafting these devices requires more than making them functional. Many have to be shrunk down, simplified, expanded or even made to look like something they are not.

“Often they have to be made to look as if they have no apparent value,” he says. “Many of the researchers with whom we work travel to parts of the world in which sophisticated-looking things have a way of disappearing.”

It’s a long way from collecting scrap electronics, but Walters wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A lot of what I learned back then informs what I do now,” he says with a smile. “I may not have taken the typical path to an academic career, but I love where I am. Every day presents a new challenge, a new thing to build or take apart and put back together in a different way.”

–David Pesci

The ESE Design Center serves more than 60 clients at the School, across campus and at other organizations, each year responding to more than 100 work orders of varying complexity.

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Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit