Grit and a great mentor gave this graduate student his competitive edge

Alexa G. Sharpe
September 24, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Connor Jennings, a soon-to-be graduate of the industrial engineering (IE) graduate program with a doctorate, is a shining example of how developing meaningful relationships with faculty can help to positively change a student’s future. 

Jennings, who is originally from the southern suburbs of Chicago, completed his undergraduate degree as a dual major in economics and IE, and his master’s degree in IE at Iowa State University. He began his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering, but before the first day of class, his passion for planning and interest in IE elective courses led him to switch majors. After completing his master’s degree, he came to Penn State for IE and will officially receive his doctorate in December. 

He successfully defended his dissertation in August and is currently completing a Non-academic Research Internship for Graduate Students, which is a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) and a small start-up company to understand the transition of technology from academia to the manufacturing industry.  

In 2016, Jennings and a team of three other engineers placed second in the Digital Manufacturing Commons Hackathon, where he competed against 11 other teams comprised of students and industry members.

When asked “Why Penn State?”, Jennings mentioned that his adviser, Janis Terpenny, had moved from her previous position at Iowa State to serve as a professor and Peter and Angela Dal Pezzo Chair and head of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. She then encouraged him to consider making the move.

He also said that because Penn State’s campus is between so many big cities, it provided a lot of opportunities for collaborations with other universities. 

“Penn State draws in so many diverse groups because of its location,” he said. 

During his time as a doctoral student, Jennings worked with Terpenny at the Center for e-Design as a graduate research assistant. The Center for e-Design, which is funded by the NSF, is an industry and university collaborative research center that works with industry professionals to help bring theoretical research into real-world applications.

Some of his work in this position included forecasting when products would become obsolete in a market place. 

“For example, when you consider the market for phones, you can look at how they have steadily evolved over time,” Jennings explained. “We wanted to predict when a certain model would no longer be competitive in a market.”

He also worked with Terpenny to determine the trade-offs between the cost of manufacturing and the lifecycle of a product through an 18-month project funded by the DMDII

Jennings said that one of the major takeaways from his experience as a graduate research assistant was learning about how research tends to get siloed in the professional sphere.

“A small group of people will do the research, which can result in a failure to identify certain flaws and issues,” he said.

By working with a variety of companies through DMDII, Jennings said that industry members would have the chance to see the research being worked on and start conversations, which would lead to more effective and valuable results. 

“Collaboration is key and gives a lot of clarification to research,” he said. 

While pursuing his graduate degree at Penn State, Jennings felt that two specific classes were especially valuable to his education.       

“I really enjoyed Dr. [Soundar] Kumara’s data mining classes and looking at how you can use data to predict what happens in the world around you,” he said.

He also mentioned Tim Simpson, Paul Morrow Professor in Engineering Design and Manufacturing,and his class on product family designing, which is all about designing the underlying framework for specific products.

“The coursework at Penn State has taught me about a lot of cutting-edge research and information on not-so-well-known topics,” he said. “Data mining research is still new, so having professors who have taught in these fields for years has been a really great resource.” 

Outside of his work, Jennings enjoys hiking, especially around Shingletown Gap, and watching the latest movies. He even built his own home theater in his apartment.

After graduation in December, Jennings will begin a full-time position as a data scientist for Wells Fargo, where his primary responsibility will be to help the company run efficiently based on data by using targeted marketing and fraud detection.

When asked what drew him to this opportunity, he mentioned how he has always had an interest in finance. 

“When I was a little kid my grandfather gave me a 50-cent coin, and it ended up being worth a lot more than 50 cents. That concept really struck my interest and I’ve enjoyed learning about finance ever since,” he said.

Jennings believes that the opportunities he has been granted through the IE curriculum and work with the Center for e-Design at Penn State have given him a competitive advantage in the industry. He only had kind words to say about his mentor, Terpenny, whom he has been working with for almost five years now. 

“Dr. Terpenny is such a good manager of people and is great at dealing with people’s emotions. She thinks about how to get everyone to do the best that they can and work together,” he said.

In the long term, Jennings hopes to start his own company that helps improve existing businesses around using metrics to improve their processes and profitability. 

Jennings strives to be a thought leader in IE and will make big waves as he enters the workforce in the coming months.

  • Connor Jennings

    Jennings with his advisor, Janis Terpenny, Peter and Angela Dal Pezzo Chair and Head of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial Engineering. Jennings followed Terpenny from Iowa State to Penn State after completing his master's degree. 

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated September 24, 2018