Graduate student set to earn first dual degrees from WMU and University of Lisbon

Contact: Cindy Wagner

João Pedro Sousa

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Pivoting during the last year of college can be difficult but it can also be exciting and rewarding. And João Pedro Sousa is experiencing just that. His change means he will become the first master’s aerospace engineering student to complete a new dual degree program through an agreement between Western Michigan University and the Instituto Superior Técnico at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, with strong education, research, development and innovation.

Under the agreement between WMU and Instituto Superior Técnico, dual degree programs are offered in aerospace engineering, computer science and industrial engineering. Students who complete the program will obtain two master’s degrees, one from each university. 

“The incomparable employment conditions in the U.S. gave me the confidence that whether I decided to stay in the U.S or return to Portugal after graduation, I would stand out compared with my peers by having dual degrees,” says Sousa, explaining that most Portuguese students choose European opportunities for international studies. “My primary goal is to find employment as a structural engineer in the automotive industry, doing finite element analysis and working with designing and testing software.”

Sousa learned about the dual degree opportunity at his college in Portugal, the first of its kind for University of Lisbon. The opportunity appealed to Sousa in numerous ways, including participating in a program that would advance his professional goals, taking on the challenge of a completely different academic environment, experiencing a large campus segmented from a city and living independently, something that is uncommon for Portuguese students.

For Sousa, the WMU aerospace program also means research with Dr. Pnina Ari-Gur, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, in his area of interest—design optimization and finite element analysis. For his master’s thesis, he is working on improving football helmets in an effort to reduce concussions.

“The best academic experience I have had so far has been the involvement in my thesis research project,” says Sousa. “From day one I had weekly meetings with my advisors, who have given me all the resources available at the University to work. This is something I was not expecting, as in Portugal we don’t have as many tools at our disposal. Not only that but the freedom given to me to direct the project has also been very important.”

“This collaboration between WMU and the University of Lisbon presents great opportunities for both institutions,” says Ari-Gur. “It contributes to the University’s global engagement by facilitating collaboration with students and faculty at Técnico. The interaction between the two institutions, extends beyond the academics and research to international cultural awareness.”

When he completes his academic program, Sousa will use his optional practical training—an authorization that allows international STEM students to work in the U.S. for three years after completing a degree.

“This experience has completely changed the course of my career and professional life, as I have decided to stay in the U.S. after graduation, pursuing employment in the automotive industry, and hopefully using my OPT time and STEM extension to their maximum,” he adds.

Sousa’s interest has always been cars and the automotive industry. Growing up, he developed a passion for Formula 1 cars. His outstanding grades had him placed into aerospace engineering by the process for declaring majors in Portugal. The specific area of design optimization and finite element analysis will allow Sousa to explore an automotive career while in the U.S.

Research thesis

Sousa’s research thesis is titled “Retrofitting the American Football Helmet with Energy-Absorbing Super elastic Nitinol.” For this, Sousa is designing the optimal shape of a Nitinol (metallic alloy) to add-on between the helmet’s shell and foam padding, with the goal of reducing impact accelerations, and thus, mitigating the risk of concussion.

His interdisciplinary thesis committee is guiding the project and adding to the distinctly international experience for Sousa.

  • Dr. Pnina Ari-Gur, WMU professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the laboratory of smart and advanced materials, serves as the committee chair. She is a materials specialist who earned her Ph.D. in materials engineering from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
  • Dr. Jinseok Kim, WMU assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is a finite element analysis specialist. Originally from South Korea, he earned his Ph.D., in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University.
  • Dr. Alessander Santos, WMU professor of physical therapy, is a registered physical therapist in both the United States and Brazil. In addition to physical therapy and kinesiology studies, he earned a Ph.D. in kinesiology from Penn State University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Arizona State University.
  • Dr. Peter Gustafson, WMU professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is a finite element analysis specialist. He earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan.
  • Dr. José Guedes, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Lisbon, is a computational mechanics material optimization and structural optimization researcher.

“With such a broad group and such a vast area of expertise, I couldn’t be more excited for the results my research will provide,” says Sousa.

Follow Sousa on LinkedIn

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