Faces: Dream Job

As the face and head of CAVS, Clay Walden has a front row seat to cutting edge research benefiting everything from car makers to national defense

The Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems is a powerhouse in the area of research around moving the automotive industry and other industries forward.

(photo by Russ Houston / © Mississippi State University)

Based at Mississippi State University, CAVS boasts 300 staff members and researchers, including graduate and undergraduate students, working on “solutions to enhance transportation safety, improve vehicle efficiency, increase the productivity of our workforce, and enable a brighter future,” according to Clay Walden, the executive director of the organization.

Walden, who assumed the top leadership role at CAVS in 2017,  is an unabashed booster of the organization and what it has to offer; few know it better. Just ask him to tell you about it.

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“We have a lot of really cool things we’re working on here.” Walden says, extending an invitation to visit. He adds, with a laugh, “You know, the problem is you start talking and it’s like where do you stop?”

Consider just a short list of what he and CAVS are working on:

  • Researchers  have been developing a fuel and energy efficient hybrid “car of the future” that can run 100 miles on a single tank of gas and which utilizes artificial intelligence. On top of that, the project has graduated 30 students who worked on it and went into the workforce ready for the challenges of a changing automotive industry.
  • CAVS has worked on projects to analyze “big data’ – from everything from text files to satellites to social media and more – to keep American troops and civilians safe.
  • CAVS has worked on 3D laser scanning tech, developed high performance materials, and enhancing the efficiency of Mississippi ports and the infrastructure of cities in the state.

But besides what he knows about CAVS – which appears to be everything – a conversation with Walden yields something obvious: he’s a proud Mississippi State alum who put his expertise to work at home.

Walden earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering, then went to work for 12 years, before heading back to Mississippi State in the fall of 2000 to work on his Ph.D., “and decided I wanted to teach and sort of, you know, as a career change, to work within the context of the University,” he says. “And during that period, Nissan made an announcement that they were going to come to Mississippi.  And so as a result of Mississippi’s courtship of the Nissan plant in Canton, the state legislature provided the foundational funding for CAVS.”

When CAVS was set up, beginning in 2001 and 2002, Walden was involved on a project basis, coming on board full time in January 2003. By November of that year, CAVS had opened its research building. “And it was a really exciting period because nobody had ever quite done this before and, you know, ‘How do we do things that are relevant to industry, but yet stay true to things that a university should and ought to be involved in?’  So, you know, it was sort of a blank sheet of paper,” Walden recalls.

For much of his time at CAVS, Walden worked at CAVS industrial outreach organization. Called CAVS Extension, that part of the enterprise is located in Canton, Mississippi across the interstate from the Nissan plant.

“I used to be responsible for that organization for several years, and then moved up here to this position July of last year.  And in addition, we have two other organizations; one is the Institute for Systems Engineering Research, which is located at the Corp of Engineers R&D center called ERDC – it stands for Engineer Research Development Center.  And our last organization that I have responsibility for is I2AT, which is instrumentation in analytics service group for industry, but also for internal services within the university. It’s microscopes and kind of deep looking into materials,” he says.

During his eight years at CAVS Extension, Walden worked to provide technical assistance and professional development training to automotive companies from OEMS to Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers located in Mississippi. The extension service also helped industry by enlisting “the broader, deeper resources of our research organization to help solve problems,” he says.

After all those years on the front lines at CAVS, Walden was asked to step up when the previous executive director, Roger King, retired. Despite all his experience with CAVS, though, Walden admits there was a learning curve.

“In some ways, you know, I kind of knew a lot, but the CAVS Extension activity is kind of all consuming; it’s trying to develop an organization around servicing and providing practical solutions to automotive manufacturers and other manufacturers around the state,” he says. “I’d always kept up with what was happening at the research side, but just the size of our organization here with about 20 full-time research faculty members…these are people who have PhDs, and almost all of them are in engineering, as well as another 20-25 academic faculty, and then we have a lot of research technicians and engineers to kind of support the infrastructure….

“It was a lot to sort of try to get a sense of, and then try to provide the kind of leadership that’s needed to our research organization.  That’s been a major, major emphasis for me since July of last year.”

What’s his job like now? It’s not just automotive.

“With the emphasis around leading our research organization, for me there’s been a lot of need to travel and to visit and listen and try to develop plans around some of our major federal labs, both on the Department of Energy side, as well as on the Department of Defense side,” he says.  “Our research funding draws strongly from the Army… and so just developing relationships in that space has taken a lot of effort. We host people, we travel, we try to get out and understand what the needs are. So traveling, hosting folks from other universities, learning about partnerships…those are types of things we get involved in.”

Along with that, he has budgets, securing new research contracts and his work as a member of the board of directors at the Mississippi Automotive Manufacturers Association. MAMA meets monthly, and Walden heads up the scholarship committee, which awards about a dozen scholarships every year to students in community colleges and universities “who want to work in the automotive industry at institutions within Mississippi,” he says.

Walden has a full plate, but he’s enjoying what he gets to do at CAVS.

“What I like the best about what I do now is the ability to work with people, to develop our people so that we can collectively determine ways we add value to our customers,” he says. “One of the things, from a university standpoint, is seeing the work products of our researchers and faculty from the standpoint of our customer… Certainly we want to do interesting work, but we can’t be satisfied with interesting – we want to move toward useful and then continue to move toward essential.

“That’s sort of true north for the way we think about our partnerships and our customer base, whether it’s the Nissan plant in Canton, or the Toyota plant in Tupelo, or a Tier 1- Tier 2 supplier.”

He might not use the term “dream job,” but for Walden, CAVS checks a lot of the boxes. “I couldn’t have articulated it, but in terms of … connecting university engineering research with practical problem solving as it relates to the automotive industry as well as some of our national security needs with the Department of Defense and the Army – I mean, I really, really like that,” he says. “ And, you know, as engineers, we’ve got to be focused, and are focused, around delivering real solutions and not just theoretical activities.  So the theory is important, but we’ve got to be able to land that theory and root it in solving a real problem.

“So I just really, really love the opportunity to work with others that do that. The talent that we have at CAVS, it’s really fun to work with the engineers and the researchers because they kind of have that same objective.  While I don’t get to do a lot of engineering work any more, but kind of being a support to others as we pull together teams and develop new capabilities, find out areas we need to invest in…those are what I really like to do.  I like really working with people and developing high-performing teams.”

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