For months last year, Carl Pressprich worked behind two monitors and a laptop in a solitary cubicle at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the nation’s largest science and energy lab managed for the U.S. Department of Energy. Pressprich engineered a lofty project: writing computer programming code that could one day help protect wireless networks – which control everything from the electric grid to hotel heating and cooling systems – from hackers and terrorists.
“Hackers already have the tools they need to hack into these networks,” Pressprich said. “Because the tools exist and are so readily available, we wanted to focus on a way to identify outsiders so the network can shut out that traffic and prevent it from causing damage.”
Pressprich, a defender on the Albion College lacrosse team who is working toward a career in engineering, worked mostly alone, even as an intern. His only co-worker: a supervisor who provided direction through email because his work often took him out of the office. The project was fulfilling, matched Pressprich’s skills and could become pioneering work in the field of network security.
Yet despite working so closely on the cyberthreats of the future, Pressprich sees his own future on a different path – one that many might consider to be an industry of the past: automobiles. Pressprich wants to be among the legions of young people who write the next chapter for Detroit, just 90 minutes east of Albion and the longtime capital of the American automotive industry.
“Why would I work in Detroit after school? Why would I stay in the auto industry when they’re struggling and companies are going bankrupt?” Pressprich asks. “I see it as a new problem to solve. How do you make new cars more efficient? How do you make them lighter, cheaper, safer? There are just so many different interesting problems to solve with an automobile.”
Pressprich now wants to play defender for Detroit against an uncertain future. The Detroit of today might not seem like the place to focus a promising engineering career. The city, faced with $14 billion in long-term debt, filed for bankruptcy in 2013; an estimated 50 percent of its residents have no jobs; and the city is shrinking, with one-quarter of its inhabitants moving out between 2000 and 2010.
But for up-and-comers willing to take a chance on this Michigan city, opportunities abound: Entrepreneurism is contagious, with tech startups budding and young risk-takers flocking to take advantage of cheap real estate. Even the American auto industry is on the upswing: Americans’ appetite for buying cars is returning, and leaner, more efficient Detroit automakers are even outperforming foreign rivals by some measures for the first time in more than a decade.
Plus, Pressprich sees Detroit as more than just a problem to solve. A Michigan native and the grandson of two electrical engineers who worked in the automotive industry – one at Ford, one at General Motors – Pressprich wants to build a life in his home state and sees the rebuilding of Detroit as a charge for his generation of Michiganders.
“Most of our students are from Michigan, and their passion for and loyalty to the state of Michigan are incredible,” said Dr. Michael Frandsen, interim president of Albion. “They want to build a life here, and they want to invest their talent and their energy into helping Michigan be successful. Detroit has certainly taken a beating, in reality and in perception, and a lot of people want to be part of changing that.”
Pressprich grew up in Ann Arbor as the son of two University of Michigan graduates. His dad is an accountant; his mother trained as a nurse. Among their children, Carl is the one their mother always calls upon to fix the dishwasher or the dryer because of his knack for taking things apart – and putting them back together.
As a boy, Pressprich enjoyed spending time with his maternal grandfather, Laurence Mieras, who worked in product development at Ford. Pressprich calls him a “method-driven man” and said he learns from his grandfather, now 79, just by listening to how he tackles a problem – whether he’s fixing engines or woodworking.
“I don’t have some story where I knew that I was supposed to be an engineer,” Pressprich said. “My whole life has kind of been constant reminders and constant inspiration drawn from my family, drawn from my teachers, drawn from the way I look at the world.”
Pressprich was in high school the first time he picked up a lacrosse stick. Already a football player, he realized that he performed better academically when he had a sport to help balance his time. He went looking for a spring sport – and found lacrosse.
“It’s a really physical sport, really fast-paced,” Pressprich said. “It was a real pressure environment. I loved it.”
Albion lacrosse coach Jake DeCola first met Pressprich while recruiting some of his teammates when Pressprich was a high school junior. DeCola was drawn to Pressprich’s size – 6-foot-1, 210 pounds – and told the high school student about Albion’s dual-degree program: Pressprich could attend Albion for three years, then transfer to an engineering school and finish in five years total with bachelor’s degrees from both Albion and the engineering school.
The Albion program fit Pressprich’s interest in earning a liberal arts education while also building personal relationships with his professors.
Physics professor David G. Seely said he has always been impressed by Pressprich’s ability to balance school obligations with his other interests, which are many and varied.
“Albion tends to attract students who have a lot of outside interests, and Carl’s not an exception,” Seely said. “But often, those students have a hard time balancing all their interests. Carl has always impressed me as being able to balance his schedule and do well in academics while at the same time participating in lacrosse.”
Pressprich learned in March that he had been admitted to his top-choice engineering school. His pick isn’t surprising: Michigan, a school that allows him to stay close to home and has myriad networking contacts in the city where Pressprich hopes to settle.
“My whole life, I’ve wanted to work in the auto industry or at one of the companies that work around Detroit to support the auto industry,” he said. “Detroit has shrunk so much, but there are so many people who are working so hard to make it an amazing city.”
ON LOCATION AT ALBION COLLEGE
The word “Albion” is usually reserved for a poetic, romantic reference to England, and that’s the feeling early settlers of Albion, Mich., including many of English descent, were trying to evoke when they gave their little town its name. The year was 1835, and in the same year, the Michigan Territorial Legislature chartered Albion College.
At first, Albion was a secondary school for pioneer children and American Indians. In 1861, it became one of the first in the Midwest to offer coeducation when the state authorized Albion to confer four-year degrees to both men and women.
Today, Albion is known as a liberal arts college with a focus on providing tangible experiences that help graduates transition to the working world. “Our mission statement talks about the fact that valuable learning takes place in and outside the classroom, on and off the campus,” said Michael L. Frandsen, interim president. “We believe liberal arts is a pathway to a great life and great professional success. For decades, we’ve had programs that are geared toward liberal arts’ pre-professional orientation.
Athletics, too, play a role. Forty percent of students are varsity student-athletes, with many others participating in club or intramural sports.
Frandsen, who arrived at Albion as an assistant professor in 2004, was drawn to the Carl A. Gerstacker Institute for Business and Management, one of several “programs of distinction” — including the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service and the Fritz Shurmur Center for Teacher Development — that offer specialized academic opportunities.
Albion offers 49 majors, concentrations and pre-professional programs, and its teacher education program is considered among the best in the state. The school is also proud that six months after graduation, 94 percent of students report that they are employed, enrolled in an advanced degree program, or taking part in volunteer work, such as AmeriCorps. — A.W.S.