The following story originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

With 20 U.S. patents in his name, NASA instrumentation scientist Russell “Buzz” Wincheski ’90, M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’99 is described by NASA as a leader in “the development of multiple eddy current and carbon nanotube-based sensor systems.” For his contributions in the field of physics and his work on such projects as the space shuttle program, Wincheski was recently inducted into the 2022-2023 NASA Inventors Hall of Fame.

And it all started with a William & Mary internship.

Arriving on his motorcycle for an interview at the W&M Alumni Magazine office, Wincheski exudes an unassuming coolness. He goes by his nickname, “Buzz.” One of five children, he says the nickname was given to him by his brother, who couldn’t yet pronounce “Russell” and therefore resorted to “Bus,” eventually evolving into “Buzz” — a fitting nickname for a future NASA employee. With a knack for math and science as a child and a fondness for taking things apart and putting them back together again, Wincheski set his sights on majoring in engineering in college.

Russell “Buzz” Wincheski
Russell “Buzz” Wincheski ’90, M.S. ’96, Ph.D. ’99 (NASA photo by Dan Lockney)

Although he began his college career studying engineering and wrestling for the University of Tennessee, Wincheski and a wrestling teammate, Rob Larmore ’90, decided to transfer to W&M when Tennessee dropped their wrestling program.

“I grew up in Chicago, so I wasn’t really familiar with William & Mary,” Wincheski says, but Larmore was from Virginia Beach. At W&M, Wincheski and Larmore wrestled on the varsity team together and they were roommates throughout their time at the university.

Wincheski had an impressive wrestling career at W&M. He remembers spending many hours in the Blow Hall gymnasium, where matches were held. “I had a lot of fun on the mat and met a lot of friends,” he recalls. “I’m still friends with a lot of people that were on the team.”

The NASA Inventors Hall of Fame isn’t Wincheski’s first such induction, as he is a member of the W&M Athletics Hall of Fame for wrestling. “My senior year, I won the Easterns, the big qualifier for Nationals. I made it to the national tournament three times and competed there. I won some matches, but never placed, so I was never an all-American, but I got pretty close,” he says.

Wincheski says the determination he learned from wrestling was his biggest takeaway from the experience. He quotes his teammate Mark McLaughlin ’88, who always said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else is easy.” Wincheski translated that wrestling determination into his academic experience. He explains, “Trying to cut weight and stay strong and compete at the same time convinced me, ‘All right, I can study for this exam.’”

Because engineering was not offered at W&M, Wincheski jumped into the next closest field: physics. W&M professor Harlan Schone recommended that Wincheski look into the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Through the REU program, Wincheski made the connection with NASA and started interning at the NASA Langley Research Center over the summer after his freshman year.

“I made some connections at NASA and came back to work there all three summers,” Wincheski says. “After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, they offered me a position as a contractor.”

While working as a support service contractor for six years at NASA Langley, Wincheski returned to W&M for a master’s degree in physics. By 1996, he was an official government employee. Wincheski went on to earn his doctorate in solid-state physics from W&M in 1999, encouraged by the late Min Namkung M.S. ’79, Ph.D. ’82, who was his mentor during his first summer at Langley. Wincheski also cites the late W&M physics professor Jack Kossler P ’89, his Ph.D. advisor, as a mentor.

During Wincheski’s early years, Langley was a research center focused on aeronautics, the science of travel through air. “When I first started, it was not a space center. We did a lot of work on the aging aircraft program,” he says. “My first invention happened while working on that program; there was a failure of a fuselage in a plane.”

Since then, he’s remained at Langley and continues inventing new technologies. A flux focusing eddy current probe, on which Wincheski was a contributor, earned an R&D 100 award. This type of probe improves the ability to detect fatigue cracks in high-conductivity material, which increases the efficiency of inspections. “It was one of the 100 biggest inventions of the year,” explains Wincheski.

On a day-to-day basis, Wincheski is in and out of the lab. “I like to get to the lab and the machine shop to build fixtures, take and process data, and write code to analyze data,” he says. “I’m in the lab at least half the day. It’s a lot of moving around. I get a lot of steps in every day.”

He considers his contributions to the space shuttle program to be his most fulfilling project. “I was able to develop and apply technologies to keep the shuttle safe after the 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and make sure that NASA could safely finish the program,” he says. He has also seen his fair share of shuttle launches, which he calls a perk of the job.

Being inducted into the NASA Inventors Hall of Fame, Wincheski explains, “was a surprise,” despite his many years of innovation. “It’s nice to know that the work has a point. It has contributed to something that I’m invested in and that I think a lot of the country is invested in, too.”

W&M remains a part of Wincheski’s life in a variety of ways. He met his wife, Kathy Dewhirst Wincheski ’83, M.Ed. ’85, while they were both working at Green Leafe Cafe. Buzz Wincheski has maintained connections with William & Mary by working with physics students and serving on Ph.D. committees in the physics department. “I still go to the football games,” he says, and he enjoys “just being part of the community.”

His advice for prospective physicists and inventors? “I’d definitely encourage anyone who has the aptitude for physics to pursue it, because within physics, there are lots of opportunities for specialization,” he explains. For inventing, “you just have to pursue it,” he says. “I never did it for the return on the patent, but to find something new and develop it. If it can be applied even in a small way to make someone’s life easier or something safer, it’s very fulfilling.”