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A lesson in leadership, management and teaching

The Formula One Race Team stands behind a vehicle

Alumni Series Where are they now?: Lane Department and Computer Science and Electrical Engineering alumnus Bill Cawthorne

Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources


To say Bill Cawthorne made the most of his time at WVU is an understatement.

In 10 years, the Wellsburg native earned four degrees – two at the undergraduate level in electrical engineering and computer engineering as well as his master’s and doctoral degrees – before heading off to a career with General Motors. 

“I knew from middle school that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I had always been fascinated with electricity, electronics and computers,” Cawthorne said. “I had always been a problem-solver and enjoyed puzzles and finding solutions to problems. Electrical engineering seemed the perfect mix of my interests and passions.” 

Cawthorne made several visits to the Statler College during high school and when competing during the State Math Field Day. The opportunity to see the research being conducted in the College as well as student-led projects helped seal the deal. 

“From those early trips, Morgantown and WVU had a very comfortable and welcoming feel,” Cawthorne said. “I explored other universities, but none quite felt like home as WVU did.” 

A WVU Foundation Scholar and Honors College student, Cawthorne quickly immersed himself in college life, serving as president of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Student Advisory Board and as a teaching assistant in what is now known as the Fundamentals of Engineering program for first-year students.  

It was his involvement in the Formula Lightning team, however, that heavily influenced his future career. 

“This activity was pivotal in my development,” Cawthorne said. “I quickly became the crew chief and program leader. Not only did I gain real-world experience and hone my technical knowledge and skills, but I learned a great deal about leadership, management and teaching.” 

The 15-team competition among select engineering programs from across the nation, promoted wheel-to-wheel competition of electric open-wheel formula race cars. According to Roy Nutter, who served as advisor to the team, competitions were held at venues that included Charlotte Motor Speedway, Indianapolis Raceway Park and Richmond Raceway. 

“Bill came to me and told me we should get out of the hybrid car competition and get moving on electric car racing,” said Nutter, a professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. “He was the spark plug that moved that team. He was the money-raiser, he was the student recruiter, he was the technical knowledge behind the development of that car. He was truly the team leader.” 

“When Bill finished his undergraduate degrees, I think he could not stand to leave the Formula Electric team and he decided to stay and get a master’s degree,” Nutter continued. “Once he finished that degree, he decided a PhD in electrical engineering sounded like a good idea, and it allowed him to continue to develop the Formula Lightning electric racing vehicle and team. His doctoral thesis had to do with a unique electric motor for possible vehicle use.” 

“Dr. Nutter played an important role as a mentor and an advisor to me throughout my 10 years at WVU,” Cawthorne said. “As the advisor to the Formula Lightning team, he provided me not only with technical guidance, but helped me develop into a better leader and helped me learn how to teach other team members.” 

Cawthorne’s time spent working on student projects led to a career with GM. 

“Allison Transmission, which was a division of GM, was developing hybrid buses and trucks. As part of the Allison recruiting activity, they were looking for new hires with experience in electrified vehicles and focused on the Formula Lightning program for part of the candidate pool,” Cawthorne explained. “In 1998, James Sydenstricker, one of my former students from when I was a teaching assistant, and a longtime Formula Lightning team member, was recruited to Allison. The following year when I graduated with my PhD, I worked with James to get an interview with Allison, and thus began my career with GM. 

“So, I can trace the origins of my career to my work on the Formula Lightning student project, which is one of the key reasons I am an advocate for student projects, which includes my involvement and passion for EcoCAR and the WVU EcoCAR team.” 

Cawthorne, who currently works in GM’s Propulsion Systems division as a senior manager, served as team mentor to WVU’s entry into GM’s EcoCAR3 competition. The four-year competition challenged teams to transform a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro into an electrified vehicle. WVU finished second overall in the final year of the competition. Cawthorne will reprise his role in the EcoCAR Mobility Challenge, which will feature the 2019 Chevrolet Blazer as the vehicle platform. 

“Bill was the perfect mentor for GM to select for WVU in the EcoCAR3 competition. His experience as an undergraduate in the Formula Lightning competition gave him experience in student design competitions,” said Andrew Nix, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and EcoCAR3 team advisor. “His years of experience in vehicle electrification at GM were invaluable to our team in building the hybrid Camaro and in developing vehicle controls.   

“As GM mentor, Bill meets weekly with the team leads to help guide us through the GM Vehicle Development Process, which is a process we model in the EcoCAR competition in developing a stock GM vehicle into a hybrid,” Nix explained. “Bill to me is way more than a mentor; he is a critical component to our team and has become a close friend over the past five years. I attribute much of our team’s success and rise in ranking over the past five years to the support Bill has provided the team.” 



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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