Alumni Use Engineering, Science Skills to Unravel Crash-Site Mysteries

Tuesday, January 05, 2016
Wolf Technical Alums Articleimage

Wolf Pack: Rose-Hulman alumni make up about one quarter of Wolf Technical Services staff. Team members (left to right) are: Melissa Montgomery, Allison Tharp, Aaron Tolly, Jessica Ellis, and Zach Wagner. "Georgie," a human skeleton model used for biomedical research, is seated in a crashworthy troop seat developed by Wolf engineers.

An inexperienced motorcycle rider was approaching an arching right-hand turn on a tree-lined two-lane highway. Riding about 30 mph on a clear day, the rider underestimated the turn and found himself drifting closer to the centerline, the other side of which was occupied by a large utility truck coming in the opposite direction.

In a terrifying instant, the motorcycle and truck connected like two cymbals, their side-view mirrors breaking and flying off with a loud bang. In a flash, the cycle was down, the rider badly hurt, and the truck had skidded to a stop.

Details of the crash were not provided by an eyewitness. Rather, they were deduced soon after, based upon skid marks, blood stains, gouges in the roadway, and other physical evidence that are the tools of a team of Rose-Hulman alumni working as forensic engineers for Wolf Technical Services, an Indianapolis-based engineering services firm.

"You learn a lot from actually being at the scene," says Jessica Ellis, a 2009 mechanical engineering alumna who later earned a master's degree in optical engineering.

Wolf's specially-trained forensic engineers use their expertise in physics, mathematics, and engineering to analyze and reconstruct motor vehicle and other incidents. Their findings can ensure fair results in court cases, and keep accidents or product failures from recurring.

"It feels good to know that you are helping people," says Melissa Montgomery, a 2013 mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering major who earned a masters degree from Rose-Hulman in 2015 in biomedical engineering. She focuses on injury prevention, including seat belt and child restraint investigations.

Once at a crash site, the engineers get busy collecting evidence. Most cars today come equipped with "black boxes" that record useful technical vehicle and occupant information, notes Allison Tharp, a 2012 optical engineering graduate who specializes in incidents involving reduced visibility.

After all the data is collected, the forensic engineers get busy putting the pieces of the puzzle together to "reverse engineer" the accident. Because their findings will face potential cross examination in court, the scientists must have a firm grasp on their facts.

"You have to be very precise," says Zach Wagner, a 2009 biomedical engineering alumnus who specializes in low-speed incidents and failure analysis of biomedical devices, such as implants. He is also considered a ballistics expert.

In many cases, the results of an accident investigation are a mixture of good and bad news for those involved, Wagner notes. Even Wolf's clients may sometimes not like what they learn.

"The truth is the truth," Wagner says. "Our job is to do the science."