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It’s not often a lightbulb moment involves a real lightbulb. 

But that’s exactly what happened to Vernon Hartsock. 

When he was 5, his father handed him a lightbulb, two wires and a battery. When Hartsock, the kind of kid who took everything apart to see how it worked, connected everything, the device burned bright - as did his ambition for a career in technology.  

Decades later, after multiple academic degrees, teaching posts and tech positions, Hartsock is the acting project director for the Purple Line. Hartsock also has two other roles – one as chief engineer at the MDOT Maryland Transit Administration, and the other as Professor Vern, the nerdy and funny lab coat-clad creation who explains the agency’s technology on “Commuter Connections” broadcasts. 

“He’s a big kid at heart,” said Dave Wilson, chief of equipment engineering at MDOT MTA. 

Hartsock, who has been at the MTA almost 29 years, began appearing as Professor Vern in 2018 and has addressed topics ranging from transit apps and railway signals to pervious pavement and regenerative braking. The latter is part of a project he spearheaded that recently won an MDOT Environmental Excellence Award.   

The energy storage and lighting project at the West Cold Spring Traction Power Substation was named a People’s Choice Award winner in the sustainability category. 

The West Cold Spring project involved the installation of more energy-efficient lights across the MTA, as well as the creation of a Wayside Energy Storage system. The system uses supercapacitors to store energy from braking trains at the Metro SubwayLink station and then repurposes it to assist accelerating trains.  

“It’s really cool to be on the front edge of the technology curve,” said Zachariah Panneton, principal systems engineer at the MTA. 

Wayside saves the agency $55,000 a year in energy costs. When the new lighting is factored in, the total annual saving is $760,000. 

“The MTA project resulted in brighter, safer experiences for Metro and light rail attendants and patrons, while also increasing the sustainability of the transit system by reducing costs, energy consumption and waste and by providing power support to reduce interruptions and increase equipment life,” said Sandy Hertz, assistant director of MDOT’s Office of Environment.  

“This is a terrific example of the type of project that MDOT seeks to promote each year through our Environmental Excellence Awards,” she added. “The awards celebrate MDOT teams and individuals for their notable achievement in environmental compliance and sustainable practices.” 

Hartsock remembers when the Earth Day concept began and is grateful anytime MTA takes part in a “green” project. He first broached the Wayside energy storage idea about 10 years ago. The project began three years ago, and he hopes the technology can be used at other Metro stations in the future. 

“I’m extremely proud of the project,” Hartsock said, “I always had confidence that this was going to be a real showcase opportunity and it has been very successful. I’m very, very, very proud of the achievement of my team.” 

To get a taste of how Professor Vern describes the project, consider that the  video clip begins with a dream sequence where his secret identity as a vampire is discovered by MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn. When the sequence ends, a robot greets Administrator Quinn with “trick-or-treat,” before the “real” Professor Vern launches into an explanation of the Wayside system. Not surprisingly, the episode was filmed for Halloween. Another episode wove in technology from Star Trek. Hartsock is a huge fan.   

Tammi Bolden, manager of systems and equipment engineering at MTA, compared Hartsock to Captain Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” - someone firmly in charge who’ll guide the ship through any challenges. “He was the leader of the ship,” Bolden said. “He knows all the ins-and-outs of the ship … He knows everything.” 

Hartsock, she said, is also always upbeat.  

“Even when things were going awry or downhill,” she said, “he always had something positive to say about the situation.” 

As an engineering supervisor, Hartsock’s been involved in many projects in addition to Wayside, including the replacement and repair of trains and buses, building passenger stations and maintenance facilities and developing the requirements for apps. 

When he isn’t working, he enjoys golf, home remodeling and RV camping (when not impacted by COVID-19). Of course, he’s also always keeping up the latest technology. 

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