Alumni Spotlight: Todd Butler, PhD

Todd M. Butler, PhD – Honors Physics, 2010

Todd Butler, Physics Alum

What are you doing now?
Following my tenure at UM-flint, I completed my M.S. and PhD degrees in metallurgical engineering at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. I am currently employed by UES, Inc. and work at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as an on-site contractor in the materials and manufacturing directorate. My current duties include assisting in the analytical characterization of several metal-based AFRL research projects.  This includes the ability to alter the direction of certain aspects of each project. I am actively participating in research related to direct air force related applications. My current goal is to continue to develop into a tenured scientist and remain actively present in the scientific community by disseminating results through conferences and peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’ve also had an interest to potentially return to academia in the future.

How did your University of Michigan-Flint education prepare you for what you are doing now or the career you’ve had?
I owe much of my success today to experiences encountered at UM-Flint, and in particular the honors program. Classes at UM-Flint taught me how to actively think and understand scientific principles. They also provided me with a fundamental understanding of math and science that I found rivaled many other institutions. I was also active in undergraduate research, which taught me how to figure things out (problem solve) and how to properly approach challenges in life. My entire career at UM-Flint more than adequately prepared me for further graduate studies.

Do you have any reflections on your choice of Physics as a major? What do you love about this field?
I am very happy that I chose to learn physics for an undergraduate degree. It was challenging and rewarding at the same time. Interestingly enough, I did not pursue physics for a graduate degree and studied metallurgical and materials engineering instead. However, my time as a physics major provided me with a toolbox of skills for any scientific problem or challenge. The whole idea around physics is to understand the main concepts and be able to apply them to non-ideal problems. This ultimately made my transition to a materials scientist relatively easy. I found that it gave me an edge over other engineering majors and allowed me to think about problems and challenges in a different way.  It also made my graduate classes much easier in comparison to some of the challenging undergraduate physics courses.

Who made the biggest impact on your UM-Flint career?
I would say that two individuals stand out with regards to my experience at UM-Flint. They include both Mojtaba Vaziri, who was my mentor and research advisor, and Maureen Thum, who was my mentor in the honors program. Dr. Vaziri provided a continuous supply of encouragement in both classwork and also scientific research. Through him, I participated in several research conferences as an undergraduate, where I was able to disseminate my own results. I highly value my experience with Dr. Vaziri because he helped shape me into the scientist I am today. In addition, Dr. Thum was definitely the most memorable individual at UM-Flint. She always exhibited a high level of enthusiasm and it was clear that she cared for you. I owe my writing ability to her, since she molded me into a great writer. This has helped me in an immeasurable way as an engineer and scientist who often writes proposals, reports, and peer-reviewed manuscripts.

Describe a firsthand example of an impactful learning experience at UM-Flint.
The most impactful learning experience I can remember is my off-campus study for my senior year in the honors program. We were required to conduct a research project off-site and develop an introductory proposal, conduct the research off-site, and ultimately provide a scientific thesis at the end. I chose to participate in an REU physics program in Alabama, where I worked on a materials science related project with CVD diamond films. This experience opened my eyes to the field of materials science and metallurgy.  Ironically, I ended up at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa for my graduate degrees in metallurgical engineering. I honestly believe that without such an experience at UM-Flint, I would not be where I am today.

Working with a transmission electron microscope (TEM) during graduate school.

Todd Butler working with a transmission electron microscope (TEM) during graduate school.

What does UM-Flint do better than any other university?
UM-Flint provides a personal sense of encouragement and knowledge that other larger institutions don’t necessarily exhibit. I enjoyed the smaller classes and personal lifelong relationships that I was able to develop with key faculty in my major. I think that these attributes ultimately fostered a higher level of learning and thought. I am quite happy with my choice of UM-Flint for my undergraduate career because I was truly prepared for future endeavors.

What advice would you give to an incoming UM-Flint freshman?
I would tell UM-Flint freshman that they chose the right institution. I would also recommend that they learn as much as possible, since the opportunity is there. It is essential to take advantage of the unique opportunities that UM-Flint delivers, both academically and socially. Specific to science majors, I would also recommend talking with faculty and mentors early on and try to actively pursue research all throughout their tenure at UM-Flint. Lastly, I would tell them to take all of the classes they can, since they will be taught by highly experienced faculty that love to teach. One doesn’t truly realize the opportunity for learning until you graduate and look back at all of the topics and courses that you wish you would have pursued as a student.

What advice do you have for graduating seniors entering the job field?
I would advise graduating seniors to hold their heads high and be confident with the degree that you earned at UM-Flint. As a graduate student, I rivaled the skills of many other students that attended top ten big name schools. In my professional career at the Air Force Research Laboratory, I [work] actively with world experts and have the ability to speak at a high level with them. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dream job or dream school, as I know if you worked hard at UM-Flint you will be ready for anything that comes your way!

What are your hopes for the UM-Flint of the future?
I hope that UM-Flint continues a high level of academic preparation for students that I encountered in my experience. I would like to see the institution grow and develop a reputation similar to the Ann Arbor campus.

For more information on the programs that prepared Todd for his successful career as a scientist, visit our Physics and Honors Program websites. To register for an upcoming semester, visit