Senior Ryan DeBlock Named Co-op Student of the Year

DeBlock will pursue a PhD in materials science after graduation

Materials science senior Ryan DeBlock is known as a “super co-op.” Having completed co-op and internship programs with Baxter, NASA, and General Electric, he’s developed hands-on experience in more than one arena. Recently selected as McCormick’s 2015 Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Education Student of the Year, DeBlock sat down with the Office of Career Development to discuss the importance of building relationships at work, his future plans, and the advice he would give to his younger self.

Ryan DeBlockHow did your co-op and internship experiences shape you as an engineer and as a person?

I started my first Baxter rotation as a freshman, and I was able to see right away that the things I was learning in class were actually used in work. That really excited me to go back to school and learn more things that would help me in my job. I also learned that engineering jobs are about relationships—not just hard science. It’s all about how you get along with people, and how you present your work to people. I realized it was important to develop my soft-skills as well, and in the end, I think it made me a more well-rounded student and employee.

You’ve emphasized the importance of relationship building at work. Do you have an example of a relationship you built at your co-op?

When I was at GE, I worked in a manufacturing plant. There especially, it’s all about who you know rather than what you know. You can have great ideas, but if you don’t know the people in charge, you can’t actually get anything done. So my supervisor sat me next to one of the older employees, Marvin, who had been there 30 or 40 years and who knew everybody. He knew exactly where to go for specific parts or forms that needed to be completed. We really fostered a good relationship, and he helped me out a lot.

Co-op students must alternate between quarters working and quarters at school. How did this alternating schedule affect you personally?

I really liked the alternating schedule. Sometimes after finals, you’re just exhausted, and then the next quarter you get to go to work and meet all these new people and learn a lot of things really quickly. You get to work on projects and present them to people at work, which is a nice closure from what you’ve learned at school. Then you go back to school and learn more to perform better at your next rotation. Every time I went back and forth, I became stronger as an employee and as a student. 

What is your advice to students who are hesitant to do co-op because they graduate during their fifth year rather than their fourth?

I would say the fifth year really doesn’t change anything. You won’t graduate with your friends, but that should be the least of your concerns. I gained so much extra knowledge, work experience, and money from these co-ops, and it was really beneficial for me. I wouldn’t be going to grad school without these experiences. It was worth it to see what was out there and what engineering is actually like.

Co-op companies typically hire students from a variety of institutions. What was it like to work with students from other schools?

When I was at GE in Cincinnati, I was one of only two Northwestern co-ops, and I didn’t even see the other guy until my last week there. I really liked working with other students because they brought an interesting perspective, and it was cool to see the different things their programs offered and the culture at their school. Some kids went to school in the south, and they wanted to be outside all the time, and I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, it’s like Siberia up here!’ I think the number of different places I’ve worked has been interesting, too. I was in northwestern Illinois, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Houston. All of those places are very different culturally, and I got to experience that. It was great to visit places where you might potentially want to live or go to grad school.

What advice would you give your freshman self?

After all these classes and internships, I was able to figure out what I wanted along the way, but at the beginning I was so stressed about trying to figure it all out right away. I wanted to go into healthcare, and then after interning, I realized that it wasn’t the type of science I wanted to do. That completely changed things for me. I also never thought I would go to grad school instead of into industry. So, I would probably tell myself to be open to new opportunities and not be so stressed trying to figure it all out right away.

What’s next for you professionally?

I applied to five graduate schools for PhD programs in materials science, and I’m hoping to focus in alternative energy systems, specifically in nanotechnology. I think I’ve really found a field where I’m interested in the science and can do some good for the world. I’m specifically interested in a program at Rice University, and the head of the program there is a Northwestern alum. I’ve talked to him, and he has a good vision for the department and where it’s going. I’ve applied, and I should start hearing back soon.