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Q&A with Volkswagen Fellowship Recipient William Henken

Andrew Foote, Nathan Strain, Chancellor Donde Plowman, and William Henken stand in front of an orange Volkswagen gatelift.

(Left to right) Andrew Foote, Nathan Strain, Chancellor Donde Plowman, and William Henken attend the announcement ceremony of a new research partnership with Volkswagen

Since 2020, Volkswagen Group of America has awarded several fellowships to University of Tennessee, Knoxville, graduate students. The fellowships are one component of a partnership that also created the automotive company’s first North American Innovation Hub at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm. 

Doctoral student William Henken is one of the first recipients of the fellowship, which not only includes funding but also an opportunity to gain real-world experience working with Volkswagen on industrially relevant research and development. We sat down with Henken to discuss his experience.

What are you studying?

I am studying structural mechanics of composite materials in the civil engineering department. My work focuses on the interface between fiber reinforcement and the resin matrix in fiber-reinforced plastic materials.

What UT professors and VW professionals are you working with?

My academic advisor is Professor Dayakar Penumadu with UT, and I often collaborate with UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair Uday Vaidya as well. From Volkswagen I work very closely with Marton Kardos and Hendrik Mainka who represent the Knoxville Innovation Hub.

Have you had to travel for your research, or do you plan to travel to complete your research or degree?

I completed my undergraduate degree in Orlando at the University of Central Florida. Through various internships with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), I spent summers working in West Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University and in Knoxville at Local Motors. It was during my summer internship at Local Motors in Knoxville that I was introduced to Dayakar Penumadu, and the idea of graduate school became realized. Since my time with Volkswagen, I have had opportunities to travel to San Francisco, California; Detroit, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

When do you estimate you will graduate?

My original target was to graduate in 2024, but that was before the pandemic locked me and many other graduate students out of labs for at least eight months.

Do you have any additional comments about the value of the UT-VW fellowship?

Since joining the VW fellowship program, I have been exposed to many intricacies of the automotive industry. I have learned so much about how R&D is conducted between OEM’s (original equipment manufacturer) and suppliers in North America. Many of these experiences would never be had simply by conducting research as a graduate student not pursuing an industry PhD. The opportunity to learn and grow as a student as well as a professional cannot be understated and I’m grateful to take advantage of it.