Our Outstanding Alumni

Meet some of our outstanding mechanical and aerospace engineering alumni.

Tim Sopko.

Tim Sopko, BS '92

Currently serving as Chief Executive Officer of Taylor Devices Inc., Tim Sopko (BS, Mechanical Engineering, 1992) says his UB engineering education helped him prepare for his career by teaching him how to be an effective problem solver — something he says is engineering at the fundamental level regardless of the branch studied. “My ability to apply effective problem solving to other functional areas of a business and the overall business is critical to my current role as CEO at Taylor Devices Inc.”

Based in North Tonawanda, N.Y., Taylor Devices is an industry leader in seismic dampers, industrial buffers, shock isolation systems, and more. Prior to his role at Taylor Devices, Sopko worked at Carleton Technologies, serving as Director of Engineering and Programs and then as Vice President/General Manager.

Sopko says he has been fortunate throughout his education and career to have had great mentors who helped guide him and his development as an engineer and leader. One UB faculty member who inspired him during his college years was Dr. Irving H. Shames.

“Dr. Shames was not only a brilliant scholar, but an excellent teacher who genuinely cared about people and engineering as a profession,” he says. “His passion for engineering was contagious and positively influenced me to persevere through the more difficult challenges of the program, without which I’m not sure how my career path would have otherwise progressed.”

When Sopko wasn’t busy managing his full time course load and working 30+ hours a week, he participated in UB’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and had the opportunity to work on the university’s Ultra-Light Plane program during his senior year.

His advice for soon-to-be UB graduates? Work hard, appreciate that the collateral functions to engineering are equally important to the overall success of the team and company, and be sure to balance your intellectual capabilities with humility and empathy. In the words of advice received from John C. Maxwell during a leadership training Sopko attended years ago, genuinely care about people as “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”


Mike Pelino, BS '12

Mike Pelino, '12, self-proclaimed gear head, scored a big win when driver Kyle Busch took home Toyota's first NASCAR Sprint Cup with an engine Pelino helped design.

Pelino serves as an engine development engineer for Toyota Racing Development USA in Newport Beach, California, assigned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and is involved in the design, manufacturing, testing and optimization of all aspects of the engines. His duties include meeting with designers, characterizing engines in state-of-the-art test cells, and analyzing data at the racetrack.

During his time at UB, Pelino completed an independent study with SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Joseph Mollendorf, regarding engine performance with various fuels, which evolved into an attempt to build an engine dynamometer to measure engine performance. As an undergrad, he was also involved with the ASCE Steel Bridge Team, SAE Baja and Clean Snowmobile.

Bradley Cheetham, BS '09

Bradley Cheetham '09, majored in both Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering while at UB. He was a Goldwater Scholar recipient and worked for NASA Academy at Goddard Space Flight Center. Bradley is also the founded of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

As a National Science Foundation Fellow and National Defense Science and Engineering Fellow, Bradley is now the President and CEO at Advanced Space. He also is the COO at Black Swift Technologies and holds a position as an Instructor at University of Colorado Boulder.

John Amend, BS '08

John Amend BS '08 leads Empire Robotic's technical team. He is the inventor on the company's core patents and serves and Principal Investigator on a number of the company's research grants. John was the National Science Foundation graduate Research Fellow while earning his MS and PhD at Cornell University. John's research advanced robotic jamming grippers from initial concept to publication in top robotics journals, receiving coverage in over 200 popular news sources including, TIME, Scientific American, MSNBC, The Washington Post, Wired, NewScientist, MIT Technology Review and IEEE Spectrum.

Marcus Yam, BS '06

Marcus Yam BS '07 was among the staff of the Seattle Times to win a 2015 Pulitzer Prize in the category of breaking news coverage. Yam was the only photographer on duty when reports of the devastating landslide in Oso, Washington surfaced on the morning of March 22, 2014. Yam now works at the Los Angeles Times and believes his engineering background plays a role in how he approaches his job because he takes an analytical and technical approach to everything that he shoots.

Lesley Weitz, BS '02

Dr. Lesley Weitz '02 is a lead simulation and modeling engineer for the MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, a federally funded research and development center that supports the mission of the Federal Aviation Administration. Weitz is a technical lead in the development of an international avionics standard to create more precise spacing, or intervals, between aircraft that will increase efficiency of air traffic operations in the U.S. and Europe. Lesley received the George Thorn Award which recognizes UB graduates under 40 in recognition of their outstanding national or international contributions to their career field or academic area.

Michael P. Girard, B.S. ‘90.

Michael P. Girard, BS ‘90

Michael P. Girard ‘90 is a Partner with Klarquist Sparkman, LLP, a full-service intellectual property law firm in Portland, OR. Since 1994, Mike has specialized in planning, preparing, and prosecuting U.S. and international patent applications. His practice also includes patent infringement and other analysis, trademarks, and U.S. and international designs. He has litigation, licensing, and counseling experience. Mike has worked with clients in many different technology areas, including computer hardware and software, manufacturing, medical devices, transportation, agriculture and wood products, and consumer products.

Mike is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association.

He earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in English from the University of Buffalo in 1990 and his JD from the University of Virginia in 1994.

Among many formative experiences during his Buffalo years, Mike recalls his capstone design course with Dr. Mollendorf, the opportunity UB provided to explore courses outside of engineering and summers spent working in the "real world" as a co-op at General Motors.  

Allison Carr O'Connor, M.S. '88.

Allison Carr O'Connor, MS '88

Allison O'Connor began her career at the NASA Glenn Research Center as a Research Engineer working on alternate fuels for the Space Shuttle program. From there she went to Calspan Corporation where she worked as a Test Engineer for 11 years working in Wind Tunnels and Hypersonic Shock Tunnels. She worked on the F-18, Stealth Bomber and F-16 programs. She then moved on to GM/Delphi  where she was a Project Engineer and a Research Engineer working on vehicle HVAC systems, new technologies and on NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) projects in regards to the small car platforms for GM. She then changed companies and moved to Prestolite where she was Director of Marketing working to broaden the company's product offerings and market penetrations. Ms. O'Connor then joined AMPAC ISP (now Moog) where she has been for the past 15 years. She started as the Manager of the Propulsion Hot Fire and A&T Departments. She moved on to the position of Director of Engineering and then Director of Process Improvements. She is passionate about Lean and Continuous Improvement activities. She now holds the position of Business Unit Operations Manager in charge of technical operational projects. She is on the Board of Directors for the Niagara Aerospace Museum and currently is the Vice President. She is an active member of AIAA and was just recently awarded the AIAA Fellowship status. She is very active in volunteering at UB and other schools and encourages the participation of students in regards to STEM events. She is currently a member of the UB Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Deans Advisory Board.

Dexter Johnson.

Dexter Johnson, BS '87, MS '89, PhD '95

Dexter Johnson is an engineer, educator, entrepreneur, minister, and musician. He is currently employed at the NASA Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio, as the Chief of the Structural Dynamics Branch, and has worked there for over 24 years.

Dexter has previously served as an Aerospace Research Engineer in the Structural Dynamics and Aeroelasticity Branch, the Acting Branch Chief of the Controls and Dynamics Technology Branch, and the Acting Deputy Chief of the Life Prediction Branch. He also worked at Cleveland State University as a part-time faculty member in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

He graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a Bachelors Degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1987, and a Masters and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Mechanical Engineering, in 1989 and 1995, respectively. He is also pursuing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the Cleveland State University College of Business.

His current engineering interests involve overseeing Structural Dynamics personnel, projects, and resources focused on Aerospace Structural Systems research and engineering associated with Spacecraft and Aircraft Hardware Design, Development, and Testing.

In 1998, Dexter was one of six individuals selected nationwide to participate in the prestigious NASA Administrator‘s Fellowship Program. During his two-year tenure in the program, he was a visiting professor at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering, worked at NASA Headquarters in the Office of Aero-Space Technology Programs Division, and was a visiting researcher at Pratt & Whitney in E. Hartford, Connecticut, Veridian Engineering in Buffalo New York, and Moog Inc. in East Aurora, New York.

Also, in 1998, Dexter received the esteemed “NASA Honor Award -- Exceptional Service Medal” for “the successful development of power-saving magnetic bearing controls for magnetic suspension systems, the development of a magnetic suspension and excitation system for the Dynamic Spin Rig, and contributions to the NASA Administrator’s Fellowship Program.” In 2003, he won the Structures Division Mentor of the Year Award at NASA Glenn. In 2003, he won the National Technical Association Technical Achiever of the Year - Technologist Category Award. In 2006, he won the Science Spectrum Magazine Trailblazer Award. The Science Spectrum Trailblazers are outstanding Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and Black professionals in the science arena whose leadership and innovative thinking on the job and in the community extend throughout and beyond their industry. In 2006, he was selected as a University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences 60 years of Excellence - Distinguished Alumni. In 2008, he won the NASA Honor Award - Group Achievement Award for contributing to the design and development of the NASA Ares I-X Upper Stage Simulator. The Ares I-X  was the first demonstration flight test of NASA’s new launch vehicle, and was launched in October 2009.  In 2010, he received the Celestial Torch Award – Aerospace Pioneer of the Year from the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Aerospace Systems Conference. 

Robert (Bob) G. Harrison, B.S. ‘83.

Robert (Bob) G. Harrison, BS ‘83

Mr. Harrison is Vice President of Engineering and Construction at Transmission Developers, Inc. He is a senior engineering / construction executive with over 30 years of operating experience in diverse markets including power (generation and transmission), industrial gases and petrochemicals. 

Bob started his career in the natural gas industry, working as plant supervisor/field engineer in a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant for a predecessor company to National Grid.

From there he moved to Linde AG where he progressed into a senior project management role executing design/build projects worldwide. His time at Linde included a 3 year assignment at the parent company office in Munich, Germany where he led the development and commercial introduction of standard sized air separation plants.

During his time with EMCOR Group, Bob’s initial role was as Vice President, Operations overseeing a portfolio of mechanical and electrical contractors in the US and Canada with combined revenue of $500 million. Upon seeing the opportunities presented by changing energy markets, Bob accepted the role as Vice President, Construction Services in EMCOR’s energy subsidiary. There he led the largest business unit in the subsidiary in pursuit of design/build opportunities in the power generation markets.

In his most recent prior role as Vice President, Energy Infrastructure for AECOM, he was recruited to AECOM to assume the operations lead in turning around their unprofitable energy division. In less than three years, it became the fastest growing unit at AECOM.

Mr. Harrison has served as Chairman and Executive Board member of the Long Island, NY section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). He currently serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council and is the Chairman of the Departmental Advisory Board for the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the University at Buffalo.

He is a Professional Engineer licensed in New York and Vermont and holds a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the NYU- Tandon School of Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo.

Ronald J. Benczkowski, B.S. ‘82.

Ronald J. Benczkowski, BS ‘82

Ron Benczkowski joined Moog’s Missile Systems Division in 1982 as a Product Engineer in support of hydraulic servo control products for various defense and space applications. In 1986, he was promoted to Senior Product Engineer, responsible for development and production of Moog’s first pneumatic servo actuation system for the Maverick Missile. In 1989, Benczkowski was promoted to Project Engineer and Engineering Group Leader, responsible for all electro-pneumatic servo actuation systems. In July 1992, he was selected to join the Product Development Team, which was responsible for developing Moog’s first electric motion simulator, an innovation that led the industry’s transition from hydraulic to electric motion control technology.

In 1996, Benczkowski was named Product Engineering Manager for the Systems Group and in 2004 became the Engineering Manager for Moog’s Defense Control Systems Business Unit, focused on precision pointing, slewing, and stabilization of highly unbalanced loads in high disturbance environments. In this role, Benczkowski assumed technical and business management responsibilities for all defense control projects as well as future technology acquisition for the business.

In July of 2008, Benczkowski was named Director of Engineering for the Space and Defense Group, with leadership responsibility for the engineering function across all of Space and Defense Group’s business units and sites. By 2012, the scope of Ron’s responsibility had grown to over 500 engineers distributed across 22 locations worldwide in support of revenues exceeding $400,000,000 as a world leader in precision control solutions for spacecraft, launch vehicles, military and homeland defense systems, and undersea vehicles.

On 1 December 2012, Moog’s Board of Directors confirmed Ron Benczkowski’s appointment to Group Vice President – Engineering, which further expanded his leadership responsibilities as a senior executive of the company. Currently in his 35th year with Moog, Ron is leading the Space and Defense Group’s efforts to generate strategic options for new business growth through innovation.

Ron Benczkowski received his BS degree in mechanical engineering from UB in 1982, with continuing academic studies concentrated in the field of control systems. Ron currently serves as a member of UB’s School of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council to facilitate continued alignment between the School and Industry.

James F. van Oss, B.S. ’81, M.S. ‘83.

James F. van Oss, BS ’81, MS ‘83

Mr. James F. van Oss is currently the Aerospace and Defense PLM Architect and Strategist working with product lifecycle management (PLM) and additive manufacturing projects at Moog Inc. Space and Defense Group and Aircraft Group. Prior to this he held a number of positions at Moog Inc. including Engineering Manager Spacecraft Fluid Controls, Group Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Manager of Engineering Applications, Section head of Design Engineering, and Design Engineer. He received a Bachelors and Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) and holds 1 US patent. Jim has worked on many aerospace programs including Space Shuttle, Space Station, F-15, Small ICBM, and many satellite programs. Jim has taught numerous courses as an undergraduate, graduate and post graduate at UB in the undergraduate and graduate schools. Jim was born in Paris France, speaks French fluently, plays ice hockey, is active in scouting, canoeing, old home repair, is a Director of the Buffalo Zoological Society, Director of the Greater Niagara Frontier Council of the Boy Scouts of America, member of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Advisory Board at UB, and is married to Rosanne Frandina a Civil Engineer and Land Surveyor with three children in Buffalo, NY.

John L. Vanderhoef, B.S. ‘79.

John L. Vanderhoef, BS ‘79

Mr. John L. Vanderhoef is the CEO of Mechanical Dynamics & Analysis in Latham, NY. He has been the CEO approximately for fourteen years. Mechanical Dynamics & Analysis, Ltd., a turbine-generator repair and engineering company, provides project management, overhaul, and reconditioning services for heavy rotating equipment worldwide. Prior to his current role John spent 23-years at General Electric where he held several senior management positions.

He also serves on the UB Engineering Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Advisory Board. John is a member of the Delta Society.

John earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Buffalo in 1979. He also holds an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.