Alum Returns to Grounds, Builds Ties Between Darden and Engineering Schools

After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2009 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Edward McDonnell worked for five years at Honda and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Now he has returned as an M.B.A. student, and he’s applying his real-world knowledge to forge connections between students at U.Va.’s Darden School of Business and its School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“They can learn from each other,” McDonnell said. “I really just want to get people together.”

By combining different students’ skills and knowledge in business and technology, they can form interdisciplinary teams and work to start new companies, he said.

McDonnell, 27, of Richmond, returned to U.Va. last fall after working for two years as a body structure design engineer for light trucks at a Honda facility in Ohio, and then for three years as a mechanical design engineer for solid-fueled rocket propulsion systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne in Gainesville.

Over time, he developed an interest in business management and entrepreneurship, and he decided to pursue his M.B.A. Once back at U.Va., he quickly realized there was untapped potential to bring together business and engineering students.

He networked at last fall’s Medical Hackathon, a three-day contest organized by the biomedical engineering student group Health UnBound in which entrepreneurs and health care business professionals served as judges and led workshops.

“It was great to meet all those people and see the potential,” said McDonnell, who helped mentor a team. “Those sorts of events are great for Darden students.”

As vice president of events for Darden’s Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital club, McDonnell helped involve Darden students in a fair hosted by the Engineering School’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, where engineering students had an opportunity to present their ideas.

His efforts at collaboration are aimed at yielding strong, diverse teams with mutual respect, said Dasha Tyshlek, an engineering science major who last year was picked for the national University Innovation Fellows program and who developed Health UnBound.

“The two groups give each other a lot of context,” she said, noting that Darden students bring long-term perspective while engineering teammates bring technological creativity. “Darden students can think three steps ahead.”

McDonnell, she said, does due diligence on all aspects, going from trying to learn 3-D printing to talking with insurance company executives.

“He feels comfortable with both the technology side and the business side,” she said. “He’s the perfect person for creating these sorts of collaborations because he feels comfortable learning from everybody about everything.”

David Chen, director of the U.Va.-Coulter Translational Research Partnership in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and a Darden graduate himself, lauded McDonnell’s efforts.

“Ed has taken a lot of initiative,” Chen said. “He’s on the ground talking to his peers. He has the technical capabilities to speak engineering, but being at the Darden School, he has a lot of business school peers and friends.”

Currently, McDonnell is organizing “Shadow a Nurse Day”; his own recent opportunity to shadow a nurse gave him ideas regarding health care innovation.

This summer, McDonnell is interning at Harpoon Medical Inc., a development-stage medical device company in Maryland.

Working on real products makes a huge difference in the learning experience, he said, citing his participation as an undergrad in Virginia Baja Racing. During that time, he designed and built a mini dune buggy for off-road racing. The Baja team reinforced CAD skills learned in class and allowed McDonnell to develop the creative design skills needed to transform a 10-horsepower lawnmower engine and some steel tubing into a working car.

“It was one of the best learning experiences I had at U.Va.,” McDonnell said.

Such experiences, he said, greatly bolster what students learn in the classroom and are critical in landing jobs.

Plus, he points out, experiential extracurricular activities may one day turn into real-world companies.