Katherine Benfante M.Eng. ’09 Takes Readers on a Time Travel Adventure
In her debut novel, Scattered, Katherine Benfante M.Eng. ’09 draws on her knowledge of engineering as well as her vivid imagination to create a world where history, science, time travel and romance meet.
Katherine Benfante M.Eng. ’09 could have taken her career in many directions. As a child, she thought about becoming a teacher or an architect. She considered writing, too, after submitting a 60-page novel for a sixth-grade assignment. Racecar engineering was in the mix as well.
“My father was an amateur racecar driver,” she explains. “My mom was his crew chief. We traveled our region of the country in a camper from race to race. After hours, we were allowed to ride our bikes on the track. It was really special. I thought it would be great fun to be a pit engineer.”
Benfante followed that dream to the mechanical engineering program at Montreal’s McGill University. “I even participated in the Formula SAE competition for a year,” she says.
After graduation, Benfante moved to New Jersey to join the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) at Picatinny Arsenal. While working there as a mechanical and systems engineer for M1A1/2 Abrams Army/U.S. Marine Corps tank fire control, her supervisor asked if she would be interested in earning a master’s degree in systems engineering from Stevens. Benfante jumped at the opportunity.
“I had known about Stevens for a long time,” she says, noting that Alexander Calder – Stevens Class of 1919 – is her favorite artist. “And at Picatinny, I met a lot of Stevens-educated engineers. I was impressed by the quality of their work.”
“I appreciated being able to take classes at the arsenal,” Benfante continues. “The professors partnered with the agencies there, integrating hands-on experiences and team projects, and introduced us to the newest developments in the field. It really raised my engineering expertise to a higher level.”
The connections she made with fellow Stevens alumni endured when she moved on to a new role at Picatinny as acquisition/design engineer for the U.S. Navy.
In fact, it was the Stevens connection that helped her develop the story for Scattered, from an idea that had fascinated her since 2009.
“The story is that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford conducted a forerunner to his seminal gold foil experiment, leading to the description of the structure of atoms, in the basement of McGill University’s library,” she explains. “The technical aspects of this kind of research were challenging in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Scientists of the day kept expert craftsmen on hand in the lab to blow specialty glass tubes to support their work. It was easy to imagine that, under such circumstances, an accident could happen.”
Her research for Scattered included reading A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford by Richard Reeves ’60 Hon. D. Eng. ’87. Benfante reached out to Reeves, as well as other Stevens alumni referenced in the biography, including former co-worker Damien Marianucci ’03 M.Eng. ’05, who re-created Rutherford’s gold foil experiment. “He was so generous, even sharing his lab notes with me,” she says.
Ernest Rutherford’s basement laboratory at McGill provided the backdrop for the whirlwind science fiction that is Scattered. The story centers around a fictional account of his daughter and an experiment gone awry. Time travel and romance across very different eras add to the excitement of the tale.
While Scattered is her first novel, Benfante, who also taught engineering at the County College of Morris as well as middle and high school engineering, math and French, has published flash fiction, short stories and writing advice. But this project promises to be the start of a new chapter in her career, one that echoes her sixth-grade ambitions.
A 10,000-word prequel to Scattered is already available online and the basis for a new novel is percolating. “I think this one will be an anti-utopian story about medical advances set in the future,” she says.
Might Castle Point figure prominently in this book? Only time will tell.