Published: Nov. 11, 2019 By

In this Veteran's Day special, Lieutenant Colonel Brodie Hoyer steps out of the lab and into the On CUE recording booth. We cover everything from military activity on campus, his experiences both studying and teaching engineering at West Point and the research he is currently conducting in the Advanced Medical Technologies Laboratory under the guidance of doctor Mark Rentschler. 

Hoyer in Iraq - 2011

Announcer: And now, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, the College of Engineering and Applied Science presents On CUE.

Josh Rhoten: Welcome to this edition of On Cue, I'm Josh Rhoten. Today we're talking to Lieutenant Colonel Brody Hoyer, who's studying at CU Boulder to get his PhD. Hoyer's path to our college is an interesting one. It starts at West Point, where he studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 2003. Since then, he's deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and earned his master's from Stanford in 2013. All which gives him a unique perspective on engineering, leadership and research that I think you'll find interesting.

Rhoten: Cool so thank you. Why don't you just go ahead and start by telling me about your career in military service? A little background about yourself.

Brodie Hoyer: Okay, great. Yeah, sure. So I'm a Colorado native. Grew up in a little town called Akron, which is out northeast towards Nebraska and graduated high school there in 99 and went to the military academy at West Point, graduated from there in 2003. I was commissioned as a lieutenant of engineers. So for most my career, I've been doing combat engineering, which is a little bit different from what a normal conception of engineering is. Mostly doing demolitions, counter demolitions in the contemporary environment. And then a lot of route clearances looking for IED's - improvised explosive devices. But we've also had the opportunity to do some construction, right. So every engineer unit in the army has some some degree of construction capability. So in 2006, I was in Afghanistan. And in addition to looking for IED's, we were also helping build the ring road there from bottom to Bagram to Kabul and Kandahar, which was which was an interesting experience. But yeah, I've had the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan once, Iraq twice and in the states I've served in North Carolina, New York, Texas and Missouri. So I got an opportunity to see kind of the whole country.

Rhoten: Right. And West Point has a long tradition of engineering, a long history of that, too. Right? Was that something you were aware of when you went there?

Hoyer: Correct Yeah. So it started out as it as an academy for artillerists and engineers because those were the most technical branches at that time. And yeah, absolutely. Like when you start reading about the history of West Point, it's that's it's right there. It started out with that. You know, there's always a tie in as an engineer you wear a castle on your collar about your branch insignia. And that castle is based on Pershing Barracks, which was there at West Point. So it's a pretty, pretty stark visual reminder of that heritage.

Rhoten: Well, so you went to Stanford after that, right?

Hoyer: Yes. Yes. So from 2011 to 2013, I had the opportunity to go to Stanford and pursue my master's degree with the intent of going back to West Point to teach, which is an amazing experience.

Rhoten: I was curious if you could tell me what the difference is. Well, there's obviously some really obvious stuff on the face of it, but getting education at Stanford and West Point and now at CU Boulder, it's very different places. Is there something that jumps out to you about engineering at those three institutions or something that's maybe disimilar in those three institutions?

Hoyer: Well, I'd say like as far as similarities. And this is something that I've seen as a commonality across all of places. But, you know, engineering students, engineering faculty at West Point at Stanford here at CU, the kind of common denominator I've seen across the board is just kind of an interest, a passion, an interest and just a love for engineering. And that has been a commonality throughout. And it's always a an encouraging thing. And it's motivating, I guess, to see that passion no matter where you go. You know, we're all we're all kind of passionate nerds, I guess. Right. So that's there's definitely a commonality. I mean, as far as differences, you know, just differences in there's West Point is its own animal because you're you're studying to be an engineer. But at the end of it, you know that you're going to go out with the intent of you're going to go out and lead soldiers to lead in combat or training or whatever it is, you know, whereas, you know, the students I was with at Stanford and the students i'm with here, you know, they're gonna go in academia, they're going to go into business and they're going to continue to pursue that engineering for for whatever reasons that they are choosing to. So, you know, it certainly leads to a difference in mentorship, something that I noticed. So being faculty at West Point, yes, I want these students to be competent, professional grade engineers. But at the end of the day, our common interests where we're looking at is how do I make this young man or woman, a great platoon leader, a great leader of soldiers, you know, a leader of character. So it's it's it's mentorship is the same, but it's different ideas.

Rhoten: It's overlapping goals, but different perspectives. Right?

Hoyer: Right. You want to – we're trying to create young professionals, but it's it's just a question of what profession that is.

Rhoten: Right. Can you tell me how you got to CU Boulder? What brought you here?

Hoyer: Well yeah, so again, being Colorado native I always knew about CU, but I come here for summer camps and the summer experiences as a kid. My dad's a CU law alum from mid-70s. And I always knew that I wanted to come if I had the opportunity. I wanted to come back to Colorado be close to family. Colorado, I have a bias opinion, but it is the greatest state. And so I started looking at programs in the area. School of Mines, CU, programs like that. And just the research interests, the faculty, being able to speak to some of the faculty here at CU before we came in. Just great. And it's a beautiful area. It's a great place to be and live and bring family. And it's all been pretty wonderful.

Rhoten: Can you tell me how – maybe introduce your research question and talk about how your career to this point has sort of influenced or dictated it?

Hoyer: Yeah, definitely. So our group, my lab group is studying polymer surfaces, micropillared surfaces with intent of looking at how those surfaces interact with soft tissue, specifically tissue within the human body. We want to see what the adhesive interactive properties are for those surfaces and see if we can't potentially tune those for different applications, whether that be endoscopy or stints or any number of subjects. It's entirely tangent to anything I've done in the military or anything I've done career wise. It was really a question of I had the opportunity to speak with doctor Rentschler, who's my advisor prior to coming into it. At that time, he was the engineering grad chair, the mech engineering grad chair. We had an opportunity to talk, and the conversation went very well. And it is very apparent right away that I would enjoy working for him. And he had the feeling that I would be a good fit in the lab. And so it is really a question of finding a niche in that research area where I could start working. It was almost more of a personality thing. It was just we I think there was a sense that we could work well together.

Rhoten: And you said you didn't have an experience in this area beforehand?

Hoyer: Yeah this is all new. Yeah. So definitely had that opportunity to study solid mechanics and undergraduate got the basis in it. But I had never gone as deep on that particular topic area as I have before starting this research. So it's been very eye opening and it's been a really good experience.

Rhoten: I know you're only just starting this program and starting to work through some of this stuff, but can you maybe for a layperson, what are some applications or where can we see this work going?

Hoyer: Yeah, absolutely. So our group specifically our primary focus is we're looking at improving the endoscopy procedures. So while one of our research focuses is endoscopy robots, so using using a small robotic endoscope that is more maneuverable and so essentially makes it the procedure not necessarily less painful, but quicker and more effective so that, you know, the chances for having to stop the procedure or not getting full imaging are reduced. And so, you know, a lot of that has to do with how effectively can the robot move within that system. And so a lot of that comes down to, again, those adhesive attractive properties. So we're trying to increase locomotion without making making the vehicles so tractive that it's causing tissue damage. So that's been our primary focus. Another focus is, again, taking those that micro texture and adding it to endoscopy balloons, which is a well-established procedure. Just trying to make it better and more successful.

Rhoten: I'm not going to say you're a nontraditional, but you're definitely not the like, 'I just finished my master's and I'm coming in straight for my PhD all in a row.' What is it like being in doctor Rentschler's group and working with different people, different age groups and kind of coming back to school?

Hoyer: It's great. Yeah, it is definitely a different perspective. You know, being the oldest person in the lab, being the only person in the lab with kids other than the advisors, of course, it definitely adds some stressors outside and there are competing demands that other grad students don't typically have. But again, it's I think what's what's unifying about being in the lab is everyone is studying everyone's researching. We're all moving towards a common goal and we're all trying to help each other towards that goal world, we're all studying our own work or in our own corners of the sandbox to some extent, but we're all trying to get to the same place. And, you know, everyone develops their own expertise and that expertise can help can help somebody else in the lab. We're all willing to help and row together.

Rhoten: You talked about how this is not a specific question that you've thought about before, but is there a way that your military career is prepared you to look at this kind of question, is there a thought process that comes with that?

Hoyer: I don't know if it's necessarily a thought process. I think definitely there is a notion of just being able to, just being able to focus and bear down on a topic.Typically one of the things that the army is very good with developing officers is making generalists. You know, it's  kind of an inch deep and a mile wide. So you have enough general knowledge going in, but then have the ability to figure out where you need to focus and and bear down on that. So not necessarily a specific thought process, but just kind of a way of thinking, I guess.

Rhoten: It's interesting, I guess. Do you have different thought processes than other people in your group, too? Or is that kind of manifest itself in that way? Have you noticed that at all? 

Hoyer: I can't think of anything specific, I wouldn't say that I feel like I think about problems differently. Maybe just a question is having like different life experiences.

Rhoten: Right. One of the things when I talk to other faculty, is about like engineering is a common language. And it's like people from other countries, people from other backgrounds can all do the same sort of things and have math and science as a common language. I guess that's what I'm getting at.

Hoyer: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The physics is the same no matter what speed, no matter what language you speak. So, yeah, definitely.

Rhoten: Can you talk about military activity on the campus and the ROTC and what life is like as a military active duty or going to be an active duty?

Hoyer: So I've been I've been really, really impressed. I had no preconceptions about how active any veterans organizations or ROTC programs or anything be at CU. But I've been really, really impressed with the level of participation, the level of visibility, whether it be Student Veterans Association, Society American Military Engineers. The ROTC program here is phenomenally professional and very active. So it's been really, really impressive to see that, you know, I can't speak for what it's like to be an ROTC student at, you know, at a normal institution outside of an academy. But, you know, I assume that there are those same pressures. It's a very daunting thing to know that, you know, in the next two to three years or one if your a senior, that you're going to be standing in front of soldiers and there's going to be an expectation from the soldiers that you're going to stand up and lead, being at some point, probably the least experienced person in the platoon. You know, it's a really interesting dynamic being that junior platoon leader who may be working with a noncommissioned officer, platoon sergeant, who may have 10 or 15 years of service. And it's an interesting dynamic in that yes, you are the platoon leader and all the responsibility falls on you. But, that platoon sergeant, just by dint of their experience, is going to be taking you under their wing, teaching you the ropes. But again, it's a very daunting proposition to know that that within the next year or two you'll be standing in front of soldiers and be responsible for 40 to 50 lives.

Rhoten: When I talked to people involved with the military here on campus or visiting campus, they talk about the importance of engineering in the future of the military for the US. Can you maybe give me some context about why it's important to have a strong STEM background for military going forward here?

Hoyer: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, you know, if you look at the way we fight from systems that you know are complicated, whether it's an Abrams tank or a helicopter, submarine, you know, Joint Strike Fighter ... anything like that, those are complicated. And it's almost intuitive that it would be helpful to have a STEM background in that. But, you know, even the grunts on the ground, even your average infantry soldier is carrying G.P.S. systems, highly advanced radios, highly advanced optics on their weapons. So not that you have to understand how all of those things work. But if you have a STEM background and understand the fundamentals of how those things work or what could possibly go wrong with them, it is a critical competency for junior leaders because there is there is no system, there is no branch of the military right now that is not just awash in technology.

Rhoten: What's it gonna be like teaching at West Point for you, do you think is going to be exciting to go back there?

Hoyer: I'm very much looking forward to it. So I was able to teach there from 2013 to 2016 and it is just a really rewarding experience. So I think it's the best of both worlds for me because I get to teach engineering which is something I'm really, really passionate about. I just I really enjoy teaching engineering. And then on the flip side of that, being able to have in my in my classroom, junior cadets, future platoon leaders. So it's the mix of teaching and mentoring, engineering and the army leading soldiers, which are two things I'm really passionate about it and I'd like to speak with cadets who are also passionate about it.

Rhoten: So you're in Marc Rentschler's lab. It's an interesting and exciting place. What's it been like studying under him?

Hoyer: So Marc is great. One of the constraints on this program is I have to be done in three years. And that was obviously one of the one of the key points in the conversation when Mark and I were first talking about joining his lab. And that's been great. His understanding of that constraint and his ability to help me to scope a project that is interesting and moves science forward even a little bit, but is also achievable, has been really, really critical to setting my mind at ease, but also helped shepherd me through the progress. And Mark is a he's a very dynamic person and has a lot of great ideas. And it's just his again, getting back to that enthusiasm and that passion. It's very clear he has a huge passion for innovation and a huge passion for engineering that's really infectious whenever you talk to him. He's just kind of exudes confidence and passion. And it's really it's helpful for me as a student in his lab.

Rhoten: I know it's not completely up to you, but what does the future hold for you after you leave CU Boulder?

Hoyer: Yeah, definitely. So after CU Boulder, I'll return to West Point as a senior faculty. And that's a guaranteed three year tour. But every department has a certain number of permanent faculty and that is certainly the hope. So I'll definitely compete for one of those positions. And if I attain one of those, then it'll just be a question of deciding, you know, whether it be personal, family or needs of the army at some point look to retirement.

Rhoten: All right. Thanks for talking you very much. I appreciate the time.

Hoyer: Hey, Josh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

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