Lionel Pittman is an overachiever who attributes much of his success to two breaks. Two very bad breaks.
“When I was ten years old, all I thought about was being an astronaut – until I broke a leg in two places. The breaks were so bad that my mom suggested I ought to think about doing something other than being an astronaut, like designing spacecraft. She told me about engineering. And from that time on, all I wanted to be was an engineer.”
So at just 10 years old, Pittman had a focus. He hit the books, tinkered with computers, got hooked on LEGOs and fell in love with science and math.
Those interests took him down a technology path to a dual degree program in which he earned a bachelor’s in physics from Moorehouse College in Atlanta, and a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering from Michigan. “I loved my Michigan experience – North Campus, the Duderstadt library (my favorite place to be), Big 10 Burrito (open all night… a great place to get a burrito after an all-nighter).”
He fondly remembers his first game against Appalachia State. “We were ranked number five; we lost and it was called one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports – that’s one unfortunate thing about Michigan I’ll never forget.”
Pittman also got into the National Society of Black Engineers and put in long hours tutoring young kids and teens in math. He said that it “was a great feeling, seeing them succeed and knowing that I helped.”
“Tomorrow I want to be better than I am today. That’s what I want to do every day… every single day.”
“Lionel? He’s simply a great human being,” said Professor Alec Gallimore, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Michigan Engineering’s associate dean for research and graduate education. “Smart, a sober attitude, mature, wise beyond his years, someone of the highest integrity… I don’t know where to stop.” Gallimore, who is also the director of Michigan Engineering’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory, was influential in Pittman’s decision to pursue graduate school.
Currently, Pittman is an aerospace engineering doctoral candidate at Notre Dame, where he’s making a mark as a researcher in the turbo machinery laboratory. And once again he’s making a difference in the community, mentoring and tutoring teens and children at the Robinson Community Learning Center, where he coaches its LEGO Robotics Team for middle- and high-school age kids.
Pittman doesn’t seem to have an off switch. Studying, working in the lab, tutoring, mentoring, coaching – that would be enough to fill most people’s days. But he manages to find a lot of time for friends, grueling tennis sets, wailing on his alto sax and getting deep into issues with a discussion group called Wabruda.
“Wabruda is Swahili for ‘brothers.’ Most of the members are African American. We talk about all kinds of things – there aren’t any boundaries.” One of the things they discussed was finding a stress reliever, and decided to try out ballroom dancing. “It turned out to be a good group event. I liked it and I can hold my own – I mean, I can make the girl look good.”
It appears that Pittman will be doing good things for people long after he graduates from Notre Dame. “I want to work in industry to get some practical experience,” he said. “Then I want to teach at the high-school level. I think I can make a big difference that way. And that, in turn, will make me a better person. Tomorrow I want to be better than I am today. That’s what I want to do every day… every single day.”