Arts and Technology at the Crossroads: Drexel Materials Alumni Pursue their Passions

When Drexel Materials PhD alumna Kristy Jost ’15 was a kid, she and her sister would put on “Barbie Fashion Shows” at their grandparents’ lake house.  “I was also a ‘mad scientist’ and experimented both with a traditional chemistry set as well as with whatever was in the refrigerator,” recalls Jost.

From the age of 12, BS alumnus Howard Benson ‘80 was always in a band playing keyboards.  He would arrange the music and learn much of it by ear.  Benson would also rewire all of the amps, organs, and guitars for his bands.

A love of science and technology coupled with a love of music is what has fueled BS alumnus Neville Vakharia’s ’90 career path.  Vakharia played various instruments in school bands and also had a computer in his home well before most people, which helped develop his analytical and logical mind.

While an emphasis has been placed on the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, an evolving movement has added an “A” to STEM, and, with the addition of the Arts, has generated STEAM.  These five areas are often viewed separately, but when taken together, they inform each other in a combination of creativity, ingenuity, and inventive problem solving.  The diversity of skills honed can bring a new angle to each of these fields, as these Drexel Materials alumni can attest.  They have all found their seemingly diverse interests and experiences in the arts and technology converge in their career paths. 

From Product Development Engineer to Arts Administration Professor

Vakharia speaking
Neville Vakharia

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, Neville Vakharia, current assistant professor and research director in the Arts Administration Graduate Program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University, started his first position post-graduation as a new product development engineer for W.L. Gore & Associates.  “Known for its GORE-TEX® products, the company was an amazing experience that combined engineering and creative thinking,” says Vakharia.  “Because of their empowering corporate culture, I was able to grow in my role in new product development to global product management responsibilities, where I was building an international business based on the products I had developed.”

Vakharia was drawn to Drexel’s engineering program because of the co-op opportunities it allowed.  He came to materials after taking the materials freshman introductory two-day course offered by the department to all interested incoming freshmen.  While he enjoyed his technical job post-graduation, he came to the realization that creative and mission-driven organizations could also benefit from the type of thinking and problem solving he honed as a fundamental part of the engineering and technical world.  “After 10 years of technical work at a global, multi-billion dollar company, I decided to follow my passion and become a marketing director for a theater company,” says Vakharia.  “It was quite a culture shock, but I never looked back and enjoyed my time there,” he added.  Vakharia employed much of his engineering training and problem-solving approach to issues within his new role. “I may have been the only engineer working in theater marketing!” he mused. 

It was around this time that Vakharia also returned to Drexel to pursue a master’s in Arts Administration.  The degree helped to combine his interest in the technical world with his interest in creative organizations.  From the nonprofit cultural sector, he went on to work in the foundation sector and then on to academia, where he teaches a range of courses in management, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, and innovation in the arts, cultural, and creative sector.  He also undertakes research and development projects that investigate the role that technology, innovation, and knowledge play in building sustainable, resilient, and relevant creative sector organizations.  Vakharia serves as an advisor to new creative ventures and social enterprises.  As a professor, he is “able to bring everything I’ve learned into the classroom and into my research projects.”

Music as a Catalyst

Benson in the studio
Howard Benson

Music producer Howard Benson credits his engineering background and the discipline required to be an engineer for his success in the music industry.  His ability to problem solve and think like an engineer has given him a leg up in the business.  Among the first to adopt digital conversion technology in music, Benson understood the way the technology worked and found that the calculus and physics classes he took as an undergraduate came in handy.

Benson’s first position upon receiving his bachelor’s degree was as a Process Engineer at Garrett AiResearch, an aerospace company, in Torrance, California. He then worked in investment casting and for four years in leading edge actuation systems.  Now as a producer, Benson serves as the creative head of music projects.  “I get hired by the artist with the blessing of the record company who fronts the funds to make the record,” says Benson.  “My goal is to deliver an artistically and commercially acceptable song or album that satisfies both the artist and the label.”  His responsibilities include the songs, arrangements, musicians, studio, materials, and budget.

Music has always played an important role in Benson’s life.  While at Drexel, he took a year off to attend the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (now University of the Arts) to study music theory and composition.  At Drexel, he would play his Hammond B3 organ in the basement of his fraternity and practice piano in the lounge at Calhoun Hall. “I once played for hours for WKDU raising money, playing anything the kids yelled out at me. I played frat parties, discos (down the shore), weddings, anything.”

Determined to take a shot at working in the music business, Benson also wanted to be an engineer.  He knew the risks involved in pursuing a career in music and received his engineering education as a back-up plan.  He believes that the arts and technology are very intertwined today.  “If you think about it, a 12-year-old in 1975 would want a guitar for their birthday,” says Benson. “Now a 12-year-old wants the latest software and computer and proceeds to make music completely independent of any musical (and I mean that in the old sense of the word) ability. It is so amazing that you can pull sounds and loops and inspirations from all over the world and build collages of tracks and release them into the ether…and you are rightly considered an artist.” 

Fashionista, PhD

Jost in the lab
Kristy Jost

Knowing that she always wanted to have a creative career, Kristy Jost pursued fashion design first, which had always been a passion.  As an undergraduate fashion design major at Drexel, she developed an interest in smart garments, clothes that incorporate technology into the design.  During her junior year, Jost conducted a joint design and engineering co-op in Drexel’s Shima Seiki Haute Technology Laboratory and the AJ Drexel Nanomaterials Institute, where she learned about carbon nanomaterials, and found a love for materials science and engineering.  Her senior design fashion collection itself was inspired by carbon nanotubes.

While pursuing a PhD in materials science and engineering at Drexel, Jost’s cutting-edge research in fabric supercapacitors garnered her numerous awards including the prestigious Department of Defense NDSEG PhD fellowship.  Jost also had the opportunity to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, rubbing elbows with Nobel laureates in the chemistry field.

Jost completed her PhD in 2015 and, even before graduating, was recruited to 3M as a Senior Product Development Engineer.  “It is my responsibility to develop technologies into commercially available products,” says Jost.  Working with the 3MTM ThinsulateTM Insulation team, her skills are perfectly matched, combining materials science and engineering with an understanding of textiles and apparel design.

Complementary Fields

Benson, Jost, and Vakharia have all fused the arts and technology to suit their own career paths, bringing the best of creativity, design, artistry, and engineering together. “I believe that the arts and technical fields are synergistic and complementary,” says Vakharia, adding, “addressing society’s greatest challenges requires both creative and technical thinking.”

Benson’s advice to students is to follow their passion and to be committed to it, especially if their passion is the arts. Benson especially acknowledges the challenges that a career in the arts presents and advises students to be ready for that path, if they choose it. “If you are going into the arts you had better be OBSESSED with it and willing to sacrifice everything,” he emphasizes.

Vakharia emphasizes the need for incorporating STEAM into all areas of education with a holistic approach.  His advice to prospective students who have an interest in both art and technology is to pursue them both.  “If you want to study something technical, be sure to include creative study, and if you want to study something creative, be sure to include technical study. The world will be a better place because of it.”

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