‘Learning to fall’ fuels grad’s performance

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Dean Kernaghan’s portfolio opens with a quote: “You don’t have time to work fast.”

Not only has he heard these words often from his mentor in the Engineering student shop, these are words he tries to live by. “If you do things right and really focus on producing exceptional work, it doesn’t break,” he said.

On June 19, Kernaghan will join more than 300,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2020.

While his family has a history of producing civil engineers, Kernaghan couldn’t resist the allure of projects like electric cars and landing rockets that dominate his chosen area.

“There was this whole cool progression in that industry. That was something I didn’t mind breaking the family lineage for because it is so cool,” he said with a laugh.

In the short term, Kernaghan begins a job working for Tesla’s Battery Module Team. In the long term, he hopes to tackle the world’s energy crisis.

“I’m super fired-up about Tesla. The team I’m on does energy storage. In terms of climate change, the biggest challenge for using renewables is you can’t store the energy somewhere very well. That’s why I’m really looking forward to working with Tesla and what I want to see through in the future.”

Kernaghan first realized the power of engineering in high school, when his robotics team placed in the top 10 at the world championships.

“That was definitely the moment where I was like ‘engineering is what I want to do.’ It’s crazy what you can achieve when you put your mind to it, and work with a lot of great people, as well.”

While he is thrilled to be where he is today, the road there was anything but smooth. Because of some personal and academic troubles, it took him a couple years longer to finish his bachelor’s degree than he originally intended. “Everything bad that could have happened, happened.”

But with the help of Engineering Undergraduate Services, he persevered, culminating in what he jokingly refers to as his “comeback year.” In 2019, he not only held a leadership role on the Western Formula Racing team but also landed an internship at Tesla that led to his current job.

“It was really kind of a cool lesson,” Kernaghan said of experiencing his low points in undergrad. “Learning how to fall down and get back up again is such a valuable lesson, and I’m thankful it happened.”

He gives credit to the Western Formula Racing team, a collective of students who design and build a race car from scratch to drive at competitions, for fostering an environment where its members are encouraged to develop as engineers and as individuals. As a longstanding member of the team, he said that while designing the vehicle is his favorite part of the project, it’s closely followed by seeing how people grow over the course of the season.

“It’s a culture of people who want to improve. You get out from it what you put into it, and that’s usually the case. It’s this sort of self-perseverance, self-drive and motivation that makes people stay.”

His heavy involvement with the formula team played no small part in helping him land his position at Tesla.

During his year as a technical lead for the team, the group accomplished the rare feat, in the span of one year, of transitioning from a combustion engine to an electric vehicle and driving it at competitions. It was after presenting the electric battery design he co-created for their team’s car at a formula design event that he secured his Tesla internship spot.

“Places like Tesla are looking for people who do exceptional work – not necessarily always the No. 1 student in the class, but people who have found opportunities to do awesome work.”