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Grad student Alek Clark peeking through instrumentation in a MABE lab.

‘Lab Dad’ Takes Nontraditional Path to PhD

Alek Clark loved science growing up and thought he would pursue a college degree in the field. He just never imagined the winding road it would take to get there.

Once Clark graduated from high school in North Carolina, he watched several friends bypass college to start work. Clark enrolled at South Piedmont Community College and considered getting a certificate in engineering to work on an assembly line as a technician.

“But the school thing didn’t pan out because I was just burnt out of school,” Clark said. “A lot of my friends were getting jobs and making into the tens of thousands of dollars, and I wanted to have some money as well.”

Clark began a job-hopping process, working at places like Dairy Queen, Harris Teeter, HHGregg, and Circuit City. He became interested in car electronics at Circuity City, and it reinvigorated his passion for engineering.

He moved to a job at Discount Tire, eventually becoming a manager before dropping down to a part-time tech role so he could attend Central Piedmont Community College. After a short stint working for a window tinting and car wrapping company, Clark wanted to enroll at a university to obtain a bachelor of science degree.

His girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, Sarah, had friends who attended the University of Tennessee.

“They were hyping it up as the greatest thing in the world, and then my roommate had a big interest in aerospace engineering. That sounded really cool to me,” Clark said. “I knew I wanted to do engineering, but he was the one who turned me on to aerospace. UT seemed like the perfect fit once I researched it more.”

Clark received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from UT in 2021. The 36-year-old is currently a third-year PhD student working in the lab of B. Ray Thompson Professor Zhili Zhang. Clark’s fellow student lab workers have dubbed him “Lab Dad” because of the age difference.

Clark and another grad student working in a MABE lab.

“Alek has been one of the most dedicated graduate students in my lab. From the moment he joined, his dedications have driven several key projects forward, including thermionics, hypersonic diagnostics and neutron imaging,” Zhang said. “Plus, he’s been a great mentor to new lab members, helping them get up to speed.”

Leaving a Legacy in Engineering

Zhang was immediately impressed with Clark’s enthusiasm and curiosity when he first showed up in Zhang’s office in 2021. Zhang could see his passion, determination, and ability to think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.

“Traditional students may not have that work experience, the management experience, and the life experience that somebody my age has coming back to school,” Clark said. “You learn how to adapt to things more when you are in the work environment. I think that is one of the things that really attracted Dr. Zhang to want me in the lab.”

Along with his technical skills, Clark’s personality and perspective have elevated everyone around him.

“Alek brings a positive and enthusiastic energy to the lab. He has a natural ability to inspire and motivate others,” Zhang said. “Alek’s journey and achievements highlight the value of diverse educational paths, and he continues to set a great example for everyone in the lab and in the department of MABE.”

Clark wants to move overseas once he completes his PhD work and learn more about aerospace in other countries. He’s thought about working in research and development for technology that can be used for space exploration or energy. Academics is another possible career path he’s considered.

“I do like to share my knowledge and have some sort of legacy where I’m helping engineers be better engineers,” Clark said. “I would love to help others apply skills in the right way ethically that benefits humanity as a whole.”

Clark took jobs moving pianos and at a beverage store when he first moved to Knoxville to help pay for his tuition. By his senior year, he saved up enough money from his stipend at the lab to make ends meet. It finally enabled him to put all his energy into his education.

Although Clark’s pathway to a college degree wasn’t linear, it’s one he encourages others to take if they are in a similar situation.

“If you have a passion for an area of study, go back. Don’t be afraid because you are older or have been out of school for a few years,” Clark said. “Some people just take a little bit longer to figure out exactly what they want to do. But those people are usually more driven and motivated once they get on track and figure it out.”


Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683,