Alumnus Profile: Jason Bowman

As we mark Veterans Day this weekend, AAE wants to extend our heartfelt thanks to all veterans and to those currently serving. We talked with AAE alumnus Jason Bowman about his military experiences and advice for current students.
Purdue AAE alumnus Jason Bowman
Jason Bowman earned his BS and MS from Purdue

As we prepare to mark Veterans Day this weekend, AAE wants to extend our heartfelt thanks to all veterans and to those currently serving. We talked with AAE alumnus Jason Bowman, who earned his BS and MS from Purdue, about his military experiences and advice for current students.

What was the biggest advantage for you in studying AAE at Purdue?

World-class faculty and a curriculum so demanding that even the best students were always seriously challenged. The real world will seem easy, at least at first. Then, you'll realize just how much you don't know and weren't taught at school. Then, your real education begins.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?

I started work at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in 1999. I first worked with DARPA on the Morphing Aircraft Structures program, where I used my aircraft design background to help set design requirements for the program. Then in 2006, I became involved with helping the Air Force define what, if anything, was to come after the MQ-9 Reaper. We introduced tools such as Quality Function Deployment to help them think through initial capability-based requirements. It also became a huge exercise in examining the technology trade space to identify the technologies that needed funding and integrated tests and demonstrations the most. At the end of the effort, we actually authored key sections of the Initial Capabilities Document, something unusual for AFRL at the time. After that ended in 2011, I moved over to the Tactical Offboard Sensing (TOBS) program, very quickly taking over as the overall program manager. TOBS, in a nutshell, is launching small UAVs from larger platforms to give them the ability to see from a standoff and under the weather. TOBS is currently on track to transition to the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship in a couple of years. The things the UAV has to do is nothing short of redefining the state-of-the-art, and the other challenging requirement is to fully integrate the capability with the gunship's weapon systems.

What has been your military experience?

Going back two generations, most of the men on both sides of my family were in the military, mostly the Army. I was in Civil Air Patrol in high school, then in Naval ROTC while at Purdue ('90-'94), and then did a short stint in the Navy in the mid-90s as a Surface Warfare Officer during a time of relative peace. The Cold War had literally just ended, and the War on Terror was still several years away. The nature of my job at AFRL keeps me in close contact with the military. Outside of work, I am a member of Team RWB (Red, White, and Blue), which is a veterans' support group. The most visible thing we do is run at 5k's, 10k's, and marathons in our red shirts while carrying a flag. Some of us are into rucking. But we also attend funerals for veterans who have no family and do bingo nights at the local VA hospital, among other things. The military isn't for everybody, but I'm a big believer in what President Kennedy once said - "ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country". If the military isn't for you, maybe the Peace Corps or Team Rubicon is. Or maybe volunteer in the local community. Helping others succeed is what moves things forward and is essentially the definition of an effective leader.

How did Purdue help you achieve your goals?

First and foremost, you want to learn how to learn, problem solve, and become critical thinkers. You are going to come across technical problems in your career for which you've received no formal technical training, sometimes outside of your discipline. You are going to come across problems for which there is no cookbook. I can teach any engineer from any discipline the math they need to do any job in relatively short order. But what I find the hardest thing to reliably find in many engineers and is the essential ingredient are those things I just mentioned. Purdue certainly isn't unique in its capacity to graduate engineers with these skills, and Purdue doesn't always succeed. But the curriculum is sufficiently complex and demanding that you have every opportunity and then some to graduate with these skills in the top tier of your peer group if you are motivated enough to take advantage of the time there.

How do you stay connected to the University, and why do you believe that’s important?

For a while, I wasn't very connected.  I would occasionally come back for homecoming but just for the football games and maybe the PMO Christmas Show. But recently I've started reaching back to AAE with offers to come back to talk about whatever students and faculty want to talk about. The Friday during homecoming weekend this year, I was able to bring some of my TOBS toys to both classes of AAE 251 and the AIAA meeting to show students what engineering in the real world is like and to answer any questions they might have. I think it's important to help grow the next generation of engineers and leaders and to show students what life outside the bubble of school is like.

What advice do you have to current or future AAE students?

First, this is going to sound counter-intuitive, but the most time you will ever have to learn, as busy are you are now, is while you are at school. Once you graduate, life starts taking over. You'll get into hobbies that will suck up your time. And the one thing that gets most people is getting married and starting a family. Take advantage of the time you have now. Second, please leave school with an understanding of the basics. Good engineers know the 80% answer before whipping out their CFD or finite element code or even a calculator. No kidding, I once came across an engineer who couldn't articulate what the basic function of a horizontal stabilizer is. Always be in a learning mode. Employees who do not grow become irrelevant fairly quickly. Get into a co-op position if you can. It will help focus your time at Purdue and teach you what is and what is not important. Finally, seek balance. Staying up until 3 a.m. on a regular basis because you not only want an "A" but the highest "A" in the class is not a productive use of your time, will burn you out quickly, and ultimately doesn't matter.