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School of Engineering’s first Ph.D. graduate turns from protégé to professor

Dr. Tate Fonville stands with Mechanical Engineering Professor Dr. Ephriam Zegeye (from left), Department Head Dr. Howie Fang, and School of Engineering Dean Dr. Mark Horstemeyer (right) after his successful dissertation defense last month.

Dr. Tate Fonville, who became the Liberty University School of Engineering’s (LUSE) first Ph.D. graduate in May and recently began his new role as an assistant professor in mechanical engineering, sees a world of potential for the department as it experiences a tremendous growth spurt.

“I believe that God wants to fulfill a vision and a mission for His Kingdom here on Earth through our university,” Fonville said. “Ultimately, that was the purpose of Liberty University, to be God’s university, to be used as a tool for God to affect and enact change throughout all the nations of the world. I am super excited to be here and be a part of it.”

Fonville, the School of Engineering’s first Ph.D. graduate, stands in his regalia under the same Scripture where he and the first class of graduate students were photographed upon their arrival in 2019.

There are now 30 Ph.D. students — focusing on everything from mechanical and industrial engineering to thermofluids and computational materials — enrolled in Liberty’s engineering program. After celebrating its first master’s graduates this year, the school now has 15 residential and approximately 50 online master’s degree students.

“We are still developing and growing the program, and we wanted to hire someone who has the vision and could carry it through for us,” School of Engineering Dean Dr. Mark Horstemeyer said of Fonville. “The students love him. Everyone loves him.”

Fonville, who previously studied under Horstemeyer at Mississippi State University, said he has gained invaluable insight from the faith-based instruction he received from his professors at Liberty, who personally mentored him.

“The faculty and the professors that I know are all joyful, and they love doing their job,” he said. “They prioritize connections, and they prioritize just knowing people and pouring into the students. So the university is growing, but the professors have maintained that Christian aspect of sharing the love that they have in their hearts with students and with everyone around them.”

One of his goals, he said, is to follow their example, “to maintain that original vision that (Liberty founder Jerry) Falwell Sr. had, with the renewed fire that I can bring in as a younger faculty member.”

In addition to teaching four classes in the fall, Fonville will be advising master’s and Ph.D. research students at the Center for Engineering Research & Education (CERE) in nearby Bedford County, as well as directing and serving as a faculty advisor for the school’s nine student competition teams, ranging from racecars (including Formula SAE, Baja, and human-powered vehicles) to robots, rockets, and rollercoasters.

“CERE is overflowing now, so we’ve got students being trained on some of the most advanced state-of-the art equipment in research and science that you can imagine,” Fonville said. “We’ve got students who are broadening their scope and their ability to go and be effective at top institutions and be a Christian at national laboratories.”

As a Ph.D. student, Fonville did much of his research on concussion-reducing helmet designs, which he has collaborated on with Horstemeyer for the past three years. In early June, he successfully defended his dissertation on “Modeling and Simulating Brain Damage from Football Helmet Impacts.”

Through his dissertation research, Fonville has helped to advance Dr. Horstemeyer’s football helmet technology. (Photo by Ellie Richardson)

Fonville is the lead engineer for Genesis Helmets — which produced prototypes for last year’s NFL Helmet Challenge — and recently represented that company in optimizing an aviator helmet used by the United States Army with replaceable foam liners. In drop testing, the helmet showed a greater than 40-percent improvement over their baseline model in reducing impact damage to the brain.

“They wanted a 40-percent reduction in the G (gravitational force) levels, and they were able to get that based on (Fonville’s) design optimization,” Horstemeyer said. “They thought the reading was a mistake because they said the 40 percent was a dream number.”

“We really blew it out of the water,” Fonville added.

The Genesis Helmet lining is in competition with two other companies to receive a $2 million grant toward furthering the research and producing the helmet for the military.

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