#Eweek2023 Spotlight | Gerry Nichols-Pagel

Engineering the air we breathe.

For National Engineers Week 2023, we’re sharing stories from Cushing Terrell’s engineering talent to learn more about how they chose their profession and what makes them tick. 

Who or what inspired you to be an engineer?

I was always drawn to disassembling and understanding how things work. Broken appliances, tools, and toys were typically dismantled and reassembled. They were, usually, functional after the fact.

Who is an engineer you look up to and/or admire? 

Theodore Honey (fictional). He is the hero in the movie No Highway in the Sky. He predicts catastrophic fatigue failure in an airplane and saves lives while epitomizing engineering ethics. His portrayal by James Stewart is in sharp contrast with the stereotypical engineer.

What is your area of expertise and why did you choose it?

I specialize in indoor environmental quality for educational facilities. My parents were both public educators, I’m married to a high school math teacher, and I hold a PhD in mechanical engineering. Educational spaces are an arena where I feel that I can have a significant impact in the achievement of healthy and productive spaces for teaching and learning.

The new Wachholz College Center on the Flathead Valley Community College campus in Kalispell, Montana, is one of the many education projects Gerry has contributed his mechanical engineering and indoor air quality experience to in his 16 years with Cushing Terrell.

Do you have a passion project or initiative you’re working to advance?

I am working with Timothy Walters, an intern in our Missoula office, to develop our own Cushing Terrell indoor air quality monitors. Public water utilities publish annual reports detailing measurements and treatment for more than 100 contaminants. Public restaurants are awarded food safety ratings that are based on more than 50 food safety criteria. Public buildings do not have to monitor or share information about indoor air quality. We are close to having a fully working prototype of a device, with onboard data storage and power, that can collect samples of temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and TVOCs to help with assessments of indoor air quality measures.

Tell us something about the field of engineering that is surprising or not common knowledge.

Mechanical engineering is a broad field. My brother is a mechanical engineer who develops specialty silicone products for medical/surgical applications. My brother-in-law is a mechanical engineer leading the process design for pharmaceutical manufacturing. Some mechanical engineers get to do fun things like design bear resistant containers and then have them tested by actual bears.

What is the most interesting/strangest thing someone has asked you to ‘engineer’?

I was asked to design a tunnel ventilation system for a vehicle tunnel near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The primary purpose of a tunnel ventilation system is to remove heat and smoke in the event of a vehicle fire in order to help people within the tunnel to escape. It was an inclined tunnel in a mountainous area and we ultimately determined that the incline of the tunnel and buoyancy of the products of combustion would result in adequate natural convection for ventilation.

What things can you not help but engineer in your life?

Everything; but the morning feeding of my mules, Salty and Merlin, is a good example. I strive for consistency to avoid 2,000+ pounds of hungry chaos (not the way to get the day off to a good start). I also have a very linear and optimized approach to opening and closing gates, filling hay bags to reduce waste, and having the right mule in the right place at the right time. Safety and efficiency are maximized by continuous process improvement.

What piece of advice would you give a young person interested in becoming an engineer?

Try research, summer jobs, or internships to get practical experience along the way. I thought HVAC design sounded extremely boring but I’ve never had one boring day at Cushing Terrell. I spent 11+ years in school trying to avoid a career in HVAC, only to find out I actually really like working with other engineers and most architects. I wanted to find a career where I could be a life-long learner and where every project is a new challenge.

Gerry at a Glance

  • Mechanical Engineer
  • Living in Kalispell, Montana
  • Defining characteristics: Quiet, linear, tenacious
  • Interests: Skiing, rafting, hiking, biking, hunting, and packing
Gerry and family exploring the the slot canyons of Utah.
Working to fill the freezer with trusty partners, Salty and Merlin.

Read about the other engineers we’ll be highlighting for National Engineers Week 2023!