Military career opens doors for Eastern Kentucky engineering student

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 11, 2022) — Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Donovan Dye said he really didn’t know what an engineer did. He knew what a scientist was, of course, but never imagined he would become one.

Fast forward, today, Dye is about to earn an engineering degree at the University of Kentucky, is a member of the Air Force National Guard, and conducts undergraduate research at the Center of applied energy research in the United Kingdom.

In 2016, Dye was at a career crossroads. The McDowell, Kentucky native had a good job. He worked as an automotive technician for Don Jacobs BMW in Lexington.

Yet he dreamed of more.

Dye graduated from South Floyd High School, in McDowell, a small town of 700 in Floyd County, Kentucky, just outside of Prestonsburg. He always liked working with his hands and becoming a BMW technician was appealing.

After graduating from high school, Dye enrolled in an automotive technology program in Illinois in a field that gave him the best chance of entering the BMW-specific competitive program. He was accepted into the program and moved to Orlando, Florida to begin his training.

After completing the program in 2008, Dye accepted his first paid position as a BMW technician in Huntsville, Alabama. Dye left that post in 2012 to return to the Commonwealth. He moved to Springfield, Kentucky and took a similar position with Don Jacobs BMW in Lexington.

“I had been doing the same job for about six or seven years,” Dye said. “Although I loved working on vehicles, problem solving had become monotonous and I really needed a new challenge to do something that would contribute to society in a greater way.”

He placed signs on his bedroom door, listing three paths ahead of him. He knew he had to make a decision and he wanted to stay aware of his opportunities.

The first option was to move and continue working on BMWs in a bigger city with more opportunities. The second option was to join the army. The third option was to go back to school to become an engineer.

His decision to combine the latter two options propelled Dye into a British military life that continues to open doors to new possibilities.

In 2016, Dye joined the Louisville-based Air Force National Guard, poised to become a C-130 aircraft maintainer. He spent the first two months undergoing basic military training in San Antonio, Texas, and did follow-up training in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Wichita Falls, Texas.

Dye’s talent and commitment have earned him several awards and accolades. He received the Commander’s Award for his superior academic achievement, high standards of leadership, teamwork and character. He also volunteered as an airman leader to improve his leadership skills and become less shy.

Things were getting busier in his personal life as well. Immediately after military training, Dye married his best friend, Alex.

Once back in Kentucky, it was time for his next challenge. He enrolled in the BluePlus program at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) with the aim of enrolling in engineering in the UK.

After graduating with an associate degree from the BCTC, he transferred to the chemical engineering department of the UK College of Engineering. Donovan accepted a co-op opportunity at Parker Hannifin O-Ring Division.

In 2019, Donovan and Alex welcomed their first child, Liam.

The new parents received some unexpected news. Donovan’s cooperative stance was eliminated and he found himself scrambling. Zach Fuqua, Director of Career Development at the UK College of Engineering’s Careers and Co-operatives Office, suggested she contact the UK Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) to see if any undergraduate research opportunities were available.

“UK CAER took a chance on me,” says Donovan. “And I’m really glad they did.”

Since the fall of 2019, Donovan has worked for CAER’s Carbon Materials group, working to turn coal into high-value carbon fiber. CAER is one of the few places in the world that can create carbon fiber from coal, and Donovan has been instrumental in that process.

As if this life wasn’t hectic enough, the Army arrived in June 2020. He was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Inherent Resolve for six months.

Once back in Kentucky, he continued his engineering studies and work at CAER.

Donovan continues to work as a C-130 repair and overhaul team leader. He spends at least one weekend a month in Louisville building wheel and tire assemblies, mounting landing gear, and mounting flight control surfaces that allow airplanes to fly.

The Dye family also recently welcomed a new child – Oakleigh, who is now 2 months old. Donovan will graduate in May 2023 with his engineering degree.

“Having kids was really important to me,” he says. “I’ll be the first to admit that my schedule makes it difficult. Alex has been incredibly supportive. Like most students, I lose sleep over homework. But she loses a lot more sleep than me, and I can’t thank her enough for what she means to me and my family.

The CAER team remains impressed with how Donovan handles it all and can do so with such a positive and cheerful attitude.

“Dye is a committed and highly motivated undergraduate research assistant who consistently does excellent work,” said Matt Weisenberger, Associate Director of CAER’s Carbon Materials Group. “I think his military discipline and attention to detail shines through. It is a pleasure to work with Dye.

What the future holds for the Dye family is still being discussed.

“I recently started working on battery research and development at CAER. We test different graphites and manufacture lithium-ion button cells. It’s been very interesting for me,” Donovan said. “I really hope to go to graduate school, get my doctorate and lead a team. I hope my military training and my leadership skills will help me work with a team of people.

Although his background is not traditional, he would not have done it any other way.

“Sometimes I wonder if I had gone straight to engineering school where I would be now,” Donovan said. “But the diversity of knowledge and experience wouldn’t have been there. These opportunities offer me a different perspective. I put things together. I was an operator. All these skills will make me a better engineer and researcher.

Here he is today, taking Eastern Kentucky coal and turning it into carbon fiber and building the batteries of the future. While serving his country.

“You can’t help but be inspired by Dye,” said CAER director Rodney Andrews. “His commitment to his family, his community and our country makes us all proud. We are honored that CAER can play a part in his journey.

The annual UK Veterans Day celebration will take place at 2pm on Friday 11 November. Organized by the Veterans Resource Center, the ceremony will take place at the Cornerstone Esports Theater. Doors open at 1:30 p.m.

All UK faculty, staff and students are welcome to attend as the university honors the sacrifices made and the courage shown by veterans within the UK community. Pins representing the military branches will be distributed and a reception will follow the ceremony. You can find more information here.

Leave a Reply