Braden Lusk first came to Rolla in 1996 as a walk-on wide receiver from central Kansas who excelled at math and science in high school but admittedly “had no idea what an engineer was.”
Two decades later –- and 10 years after earning his Ph.D. at Missouri S&T — he’s back at his alma mater as the new chair of the mining and nuclear engineering department, his former academic home. A sought-after academic leader, Lusk, 38, was lured from the University of Kentucky, where he served as director of graduate studies and helped build the school’s explosives research program.
“We had several big opportunities to do some really cool research,” Lusk says of his 10 years at Kentucky. But “the one thing I’ve always said since I left here was that if this job ever came open I would be interested.”
That wasn’t always the case. Back in his pigskin days, it took the prodding of a professor who actively recruited Miner football players — and other varsity athletes yet to decide on a major — to help build a department which at the time was sorely in need of students.
“Being in a sports environment, there’s a certain amount of discipline,” says Dr. John Wilson, a former S&T mining engineering department chair now retired and living in south Texas. “There’s team-building. There are leadership skills …The mining industry likes (people) who can roll up their sleeves and accept a challenge.”
Once he settled on a major, Lusk quickly gravitated toward explosives thanks to a first-year class taught by Dr. Paul Worsey, a native of England known for starting S&T’s popular summer explosives camp as well as co-hosting “The Detonators.” The 2009 Discovery Channel reality TV show paired the straight-talking Brit with Lusk, his former student.
“This crazy guy came in and put on a video of stuff blowing up to classical music,” Lusk recalls of Worsey, who would later serve as his adviser while in graduate school. “He was in the back of the classroom just laughing and having a wonderful time. And I thought, ‘Wow, I guess you can actually get paid to do this.’”
With the help of Wilson, Lusk got a summer job after his first year of college at a salt mine in his hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. He parlayed that experience into a job upon graduation at a Cargill underground salt mine beneath Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio, then transferring to another Cargill position back in Hutchinson.
The work was rewarding, Lusk says. But something was missing.
“Cargill was a wonderful company. But I wasn’t handling any explosives. So that’s when I decided I wanted to go back to (graduate) school.”
As an administrator, Lusk returns to a department with several major initiatives under way. Students who take classes at the century-old Experimental Mine will soon set foot in a new, 15,000-square-foot, $2.4 million home funded through a 50/50 split between state money and private contributions.
That project follows closely behind the newly built Energetics Research Facility, which also opened this fall and is located at the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center.
The building boom comes amid an enrollment surge in mining and explosives engineering, where enrollment has more than doubled since Lusk received his doctorate in 2006.
“It’s that shiny thing,” he says of his discipline, noting the almost-primal fascination we have with fireworks and other combustibles. “We can blow stuff up. It’s a really good lure for getting those kids excited about other aspects of mining.
Have a listen – From the gridiron to the Experimental Mine, Missouri S&T’s Alan Scher Zagier explores the influences and goals of new mining and nuclear engineering department chair Braden Lusk.
On the nuclear side, Lusk has high expectations for what he calls a “critical mass of young energetic faculty who are loaded with talent.” The department is home to a 200-kilowatt research reactor, one of just two dozen found on U.S. college campuses.
Though he comes from a mining background, Lusk is quick to highlight his interest in simultaneously growing S&T’s nuclear engineering program, which he says has seen recent increases in graduate student enrollment thanks in part to more robust funding of fellowships through the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The disciplines are distinct but also closely linked, Lusk notes.
“Each has its own identity,” Lusk says. “We don’t want to shy away from those individual identities, because that’s what drives people wanting to be a part (of those programs). In both of those programs, we still produce engineers.”
At the same time, Lusk acknowledges that the global and industry push for renewable energy and concurrent increase in federal regulations requires a decidedly 21st century approach to his chosen discipline, even as he exudes confidence that well-trained miners will always remain in demand.
“We’re going to have to continue to evolve with the industry,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time when we don’t need mining engineers. … What we need to focus on moving forward is to prepare our engineers to be ready for those challenges.”