The Many Masteries of Doug Neal
He’s best known as a fixture on Lansing’s music scene. But there’s much more to Doug Neal than the Progressive Torch & Twang
show he’s guided on Michigan State University
’s student-run station, 88.9 FM “The Impact,”
for more than 11 years.
Neal is so well known and so beloved, in fact, that few listeners are likely to ponder how he has managed to monopolize a “student” position for so long.
But if they asked, his answer is legitimate: He’s still a student.
Just shy of his 37th birthday, Neal is within sight of earning a PhD in fluid dynamics from MSU’s College of Engineering
And during his East Lansing sojourn, he’s also earned several patents, spun off a business, gone global to fund his advanced degree, and gotten certified as a kayaking instructor.Patently Productive
Neal arrived on MSU’s campus in 1989. Soon after graduating in 1994, he started a master’s degree program. He also got involved with the then-new campus radio station, WDBM 88.9 FM, and host of an even newer show, the Progressive Torch & Twang
The show arose alongside a genre known as Alt-Country
in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, driven by bands such as Uncle Tupelo
and the launch of the music magazine, No Depression
. Its roots-oriented artists offered an alternative to the dominant new country artists of the day like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain—music Neal calls “R.E.O. Speedwagon with a belt buckle.”
As host, Neal dove into the local music scene, inviting local and national touring bands to perform live on the air, booking “Torch & Twang Nights” at local bars, and gaining a post on the Great Lakes Folk Festival
Music Advisory Committee and as a presenter for the East Lansing Art Festival
Meanwhile, in his master’s program, Neal was developing a concept called an “aerodynamic shroud,” intended to improve the performance and efficiency of greenhouses.
Neal’s research, which has since been patented, showed that the concept worked. He applied for and won a Small Business Innovation Research
(SBIR) grant for the project, and joined a consulting business that had been created by his professor.
“For roughly four and a half years I was an entrepreneur with the SBIR funding,” Neal says. “I wasn’t really working on my master’s so much for that time.” But, he says, “Our proof of concept went like gangbusters.”
Though Neal is no longer principally involved, a company in nearby Mason, Aerotech, Inc.,
is turning the technology into a cost-effective real-world solution.
During the same stint, Neal also worked with the MSU Ergonomics Research Lab
. He is named on two patents for a mobile laboratory technology that measures car-driver comfort based on muscle use and seat position. General Motors
funded the research and has since negotiated a deal for its exclusive use in the U.S.
It is a testament to Neal’s versatility that none of these projects had much to do with the field that he was actually studying—he graduated in 2002 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a research focus in fluid dynamics.
Asked what exactly fluid dynamics means, Neal turns to his “cocktail party explanation”: aerodynamics. He uses terms like “turbulence” and “aero-acoustics” to explain his work.
“Anything that generates turbulence generates a lot of noise just by passing through the air,” he says. “Aero-acoustics is the study of understanding this phenomenon. As engineers, we’re interested in making these things quieter.” Turbulent Travel
With his master’s degree in hand, Neal’s next academic adventures involved travel.
He moved to Paris for six months to work for Valeo
, a French automotive components manufacturer. Neal impressed the company—so much so that he came back home with an agreement for Valeo to fully fund his pursuit of a PhD.
Back at MSU, Neal went to work in the Turbulent Shear Flows Laboratory
, which specializes in automotive applications like passenger compartment air flow, engine bay cooling fans, and mass air flow sensors.
He was soon invited to apply for a short-term post at Stanford University’s Center for Turbulent Research
, where he found that the research he was performing at MSU closely aligned with the simulations and models being studied at Stanford.
“It’s a competitive thing,” he says. “You have to write a proposal to be accepted. But it’s a top university for that kind of research. You’re working with the people that are absolutely the leaders in their field. I felt like a poser!”
These experiences have allowed Neal to establish global connections and learn to forge his own way through school and the real world alike, based on the contacts and relationships he’s built.Learning in Lansing
Now In his fifth year of PhD study, Neal is what those in the trade call ABD: All But Dissertation. With the bulk of the work complete, all that remains is to write a hefty document detailing the research he has done and the conclusions that he has formed as a student.
It is significant to note that the average Ph.D. duration at MSU is seven years. Despite the staggering amount of over-achievement Neal embraces, he still is finishing ahead of the curve; he expects to walk in May of 2009.
And along the way, he also found the time to become an accomplished kayaker and an American Canoe Association
certified kayak instructor.
“I have lived right on the Red Cedar
for ten years, and have always had canoes and kayaks out back,” he says. “I like to go out after work and decompress.”
In a way, kayaking ties together many of the facets that make Doug Neal who he is. There is a direct relation between the fluid dynamics he studies and the water features he finds on a river. His teaching gig gives him the ability to share his passion and connect with other people.
He has even found what he thinks could be his dream job: “My ultimate job would be developing whitewater parks,” he says. “It combines it all: interesting fluid dynamics, safety, engineering feasibility, but most importantly, fun!”
But the common thread for Neal among all his varied activities is education. “T & T educates people about the music,” he says. “Teaching kayaking means a bigger pool of people to enjoy the sport with. It’s really fun to share a passion with somebody.”
And as Neal closes in on his long-time goal of a doctorate, he has begun to navigate the waters leading toward a career. He has had interest from firms both in and out of Michigan, but has no definite plans.
Does Lansing have what it takes to keep someone like Neal around?
“What makes living in Lansing so interesting,” he says, “is having the ability to get involved with music festivals, student radio stations, kayaking groups. You never run out of cool and interesting things to do.”
“Maybe I’m an example of being in a diverse community and taking advantage of it,” he offers.To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Jeff Shoup is a Lansing musician and freelance writer. He has almost been talked into trying whitewater kayaking.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Doug Neal in the Turbulent Shear Flows Lab and 88.9 “The Impact” radio station's studio at MSU
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie