Stromberg, wearing a heavy leather apron over his “UVA Engineering” T-shirt and a bandana in University of Virginia blue on his head, is peacefully at home in the forge, surrounded by ancient and utilitarian tools used in the delicate art of shaping iron by hand. He works in Steve Stokes’ forge in Keswick, a 1901 converted railroad warehouse once visited by James Dean, in town for the filming of “Giant.”
“It is my therapy, because I get to turn my brain off and work – and I don’t mean ‘turn my brain off’ as in ‘any idiot can do this,’” he said. “It is hard, difficult work. It is a real master craft.”
Stromberg, who at 34 will graduate from UVA this week with degrees in environmental engineering and environmental science and launch a second career after years of restaurant work, can turn off his brain to theory and mathematics and work with his muscles, feeling by instinct how a piece of metal is responding to fire and hammering and tempering. He takes out the frustrations of the day with the five-pound hammer, while making something practical, such as a knife, or something decorative, such as a metal flower.
“I would say it’s a complete break from my research, but it is not a complete break from engineering,” Stromberg said. “Sometimes that is good. For me, it’s a learning experience, because it is the difference between knowledge and experience.”
Part of becoming an engineer, he said, is learning to analyze problems and solve them.
“You learn all this these incredibly useful things, and you don’t always get to apply them while you are in school,” Stromberg said. “Learning about the structure of the metal I am working with has been super-important, and I have learned as much, if not more, about materials science blacksmithing than I did on my materials science class, though I love professor Marek-Jerzy Pindera, who taught it, and I have nothing but respect for the man.”
Stromberg’s research at UVA deals with using algae to remove antibiotics from wastewater – investigations taking place in the lab of engineering professor Lisa Colosi Peterson. Stromberg is researching the affects the antibiotics have on the algae.
“We can use that particular algae because it is very tolerant of anoxic environments and can be used in wastewater treatment in modern methods of treating things for which we don’t usually treat, such as endocrine disruptors, such as hormones if you are on hormone replacements, or a girl taking birth control, or a guy using a testosterone supplement,” Stromberg said.