Aaron Beese’s sense of adventure has paved the way for a life of adventure within the field of mechanical engineering. While an honors student at AME, Beese helped found AME’s first Human Powered Vehicle team and created a single-wheeled bicycle cargo trailer that accompanied him on a bicycle trip from Virginia to Alaska for his honors thesis.
In 2009, after a year of marriage, Beese and his wife, Laura (Music Education, 2005), quit their jobs and began the adventure of a lifetime: a trek on a semi-recumbent tandem bicycle to the centroid, or geographic center, of every state in the United States. With a few states still to go, they’ve now settled down in Oregon, where Beese is a design engineer for Burley Design.
How did your education at AME help you to be successful in your career?
The biggest contributors were the opportunities I had for hands-on design projects. The Honors College allowed me to create my own thesis project that combined my passions for engineering, cycling, and travel. For this project I designed and built a single-wheeled bicycle cargo trailer, which I then used after graduation to bicycle from Virginia to Alaska. The design and analysis aspect of this project was made possible by the exceptional CAD/FEA courses taught by Dr. Chang, while Billy Mays and the machine shop guys gave extensive guidance during the fabrication of the trailer. The Honors College allowed me to present my work to others and covered all project expenses through their Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.
For my senior capstone project, I was again able to tailor my education according to my interests. AME allowed a group of us to create our own capstone project by starting OU’s first ever team to compete in the ASME Human Powered Vehicle competition. We had an outstanding team of hard-working and creative engineers, and we managed to place first nationally in the utility category as a first-year team. This project was most comprehensive, most challenging and most fun work I did during my undergraduate education. I believe at least two of my former HPV teammates have also found jobs in the bicycle industry.
These two practical projects that encompassed the entire design and production process have been immeasurably helpful in both obtaining engineering work in the bicycle industry and in the daily execution of my job.
Why did you choose OU to pursue your degree?
Having grown up just outside of Norman, I had been a Sooner fan from the beginning. Yet when it came time to choose a university, I was excited by the prospect of living and studying in a new part of the country. In the end, however, the National Scholars Office at OU was extremely effective at recruitment, and the offer OU extends to National Merit Scholars was unbeatable. The years since have given me no reason to doubt that decision, and in fact many of the incredible experiences I have had since graduation would likely have been impossible had I chosen to attend a school that would have left me saddled with a mountain of student debt. Attending a high-value university like OU with great scholarship opportunities opened the door for my bicycle trip to Alaska, my year of working in Nepal for a non-profit designing bridges, and my fifty state bicycle tour with my wife.
Most newlyweds don’t quit their jobs and ride a tandem bike to all 50 states. Tell us about that trip.
The idea to bicycle to the exact geographic center of each of the fifty states evolved slowly. The idea got rolling after I read an article in Backpacker magazine about “highpointing,” which is the goal to hike/climb to the highest point in each of the fifty states. I liked the idea of a journey that would allow me to see all fifty states, yet even though I love hiking and the mountains, I wasn’t sure that highpointing was for me. My first bike tour (Virginia to Alaska after graduation) had shown me that some of the best parts of traveling are the spontaneous and authentic interactions you have with people along the way. This is especially true of bicycle touring, since people often invite you into their homes. I also wasn’t sure that the highest point was necessarily the best way to get a feel for a state I’d never been to, since I knew that Oklahoma’s high point (Black Mesa) was just a few miles from the northwestern most point in the state and looked much more like New Mexico than the rest of Oklahoma. So I came up with the idea of the geographic center—this would force me to go all the way through each state and not merely tap my toe in the corner and check it off the list. It would also give a very precise, if arbitrary destination within each state that would take me to someplace that most people would never think to consider as a “travel destination”.
Shortly after I had the idea for this trip, I met Laura, who would later become my wife. She was excited (and scared) by the trip, and after a year of marriage, working, and saving, we set off on our tandem bicycle. Now, 45 states and 17,000 miles later, we feel like we’ve experienced more together in a few years than many people do in a lifetime. Many times, our quest for the geographic center took us into the lives of the people who lived or worked at the center. In Missouri and Kansas, the center was on a farm that had been in one family for over a century; in both places we met four generations of the family who still lived and worked the farm. Rhode Island was the only state (so far) whose center was indoors: it was inside a small independent music store, where we spent several hour chatting with the owner and his wife. In Delaware, the family living nearest to the center invited us to stay all day so that we could take part in their large family crab bake that evening; in the morning, they took us to the nearby plant where space suits and blimps are made. In the west, many centers were in remote places that took us far off the beaten tourist tracks and into beautiful mountains and deserts. In short—the trip took us to innumerable places that one could never predict or plan for, but were nonetheless interesting and surprising.
You stayed with an OU engineering alum on their farm in Hawaii? What was that like?
Our plan was for a two year journey, with two breaks during the winters. This was both a concession to both climate (didn’t want to ride during the winter), and finances (by working during our breaks, the trip would pay for itself). With all fifty states to choose from, Hawaii was a no-brainer as a place to spend the first winter. A few months before beginning the trip, I saw an alumni profile in the COE Alumni magazine about a PE alumna named Claire Wilson who ran a coffee farm on the big island of Hawaii, having retiring from a career in the petroleum industry. I emailed her out of the blue, telling her about our planned journey and our desire to spend a winter working in Hawaii. If I recall correctly, the first words of her reply were, “Oh, to be young again! Your trip sounds wonderful…” (Not that Claire was “old”: she single-handedly ran a successful coffee, macadamia nut, and vanilla bean farm, all of which required considerable manual labor.) After some correspondence, Claire agreed to employ Laura and me part-time on her farm, picking coffee. She also quite generously allowed us to live in the farm’s original house, where the green coffee beans were also stored in a humidity-controlled store room.
It was both Laura’s and my first time to Hawaii, so to be able to spend four months there, working part-time, snorkeling and exploring part-time, was incredible. Both of our parents were also able to make their first trips to Hawaii to visit us (and the islands), which was a wonderful treat. These months on the big island stand as one of the most special parts of our trip, and it was all made possible by the connections created through the COE alumni publications and the generosity of a fellow alumnus.
How did you land your current job?
Even before meeting, Laura and I both had thought that Oregon sounded like a place we might like to live someday, so when we had to pick a place to spend our second winter break of our bike trip, it was a natural choice. We thought that Eugene might be a good fit, since it seemed to be Oregon’s analog to Norman: similar size and home to the state’s flagship university. At one point I somehow stumbled across a job opening at Burley Design (the leading maker of bicycle trailers, based in Eugene) that stopped me in my tracks because the fit seemed so perfect. Even though the coming bicycle trip meant that I could not accept a job there for two years, I sent them a resume anyway. In a few days, I got a call from the Product Development Manager, and we proceeded to have a long conversation (he had also trekked in Nepal, done an Ironman, and bicycled cross-country), despite my up-front explanation that I could not accept the job due to the forthcoming bicycle trip. We agreed to keep in touch and keep my resume on file, just in case.
We proceeded on our bike trip and did indeed stop in Eugene for our second winter break. A month later I got a call from Burley asking me to interview, even though they had no idea I was already living in Eugene. Long story short, Laura and I loved Eugene and our jobs, so when spring came, we decided to stay in Eugene and finish the remainder of our quest (only 6 states left at that point) piece-wise on our vacations. We have been here nearly three years now, still love Oregon, and just finished up cycling California this summer (now just five states left!)
How have your diverse experiences helped you be better at your job?
I think my diverse experiences have helped me more as a person than as an employee, but they have also helped my resume stand out when applying for jobs and have acted as a great springboard for lively stories during job interviews!
What advice would you give to an AME student who has interests that he or she is trying to tie into engineering?
I think the most important thing is to take a proactive role in shaping your own education. The degree curriculum is a framework, but your education will be much richer if you fill it out and make it your own. Figure out what you’re interested in, decide what you want to do with those interests, create a plan for how you could integrate your interests with your education, and pitch your plan to the appropriate member of the faculty or administration. In my experience, the people at OU were eager to allow students to tailor their studies towards their interests, and if you can propose a plan, they are happy to help you find a way to implement that plan.