Steven Ward headshot
By Steven Ward
September 2023

David Wallace has all the power at Mississippi State University. Literally.

Wallace, a Mississippi State assistant clinical professor of electrical engineering, is the manager of the Paul B. Jacob High Voltage Lab at Mississippi State University. The lab — built in 1977 — is the largest university-based high voltage lab in North America.  

As lab manager, Wallace can generate up to 1 million volts of AC and DC voltage, 3 million volts of lightning, and 300,000 amps of lightning current.

He can also generate rain showers and create salt fog conditions, solar radiation, and temperatures ranging from -103 to 347 degrees. 

Not bad for a Lincoln County native and country boy who grew up on the lines of Magnolia Electric. 

A man wearing jeans and a maroon polo leaning on a long stick standing in front of a crowd of students.

When he wasn’t playing church league softball, floating on the Bogue Chitto River, or hauling hay on the family farm, Wallace was a self-described “science nerd.”

“I was always reading and studying everything I could about science. I excelled in math and science throughout school. I would ask for electronic experiment kits and chemistry sets for Christmas. Science fiction always piqued my interest. I loved watching TV shows like “Star Trek,” “Dr. Who,” and “Battlestar Galactica,” Wallace said recently.

Wallace said “Star Trek” got him interested in engineering. 

“I loved the character of Scotty on the show. He was the ship’s engineer and would always work miracles to save the day. I always saw myself in the engineering field, being the one to innovate and create new ideas,” Wallace said.

The electrical side of the engineering came from his uncles. One uncle was an electrician who taught Wallace about the electrical trade while the other was closer to Wallace’s age.

Bright blue beam of electricity arcing on a piece of machinery.

“One day he shocked me with my grandfather’s old telephone and that got me interested in electricity. From there I started studying electricity, which led me to discover Nicholas Telsa. And as they say, the rest is history.”

Inside the lab, Wallace tests electrical industry products to ensure they meet national standard requirements. 

Wallace tests transformers, breakers, cables, insulators, switches, fuses, and crossarms. He also tests wind turbine blades, solar panels, and airplane panels.

Wallace’s work directly impacts the work of electric cooperatives and the linemen who restore power after outages.

“Most of the testing consists of subjecting the various products to high levels of voltage, current, and lightning to ensure they are reliable. I also provide testing services for the safety equipment that the linemen use such as their bucket trucks, rubber gloves, hot sticks, and rubber blankets,” Wallace said. 

A large portion of the products that Wallace tests are components that make up the electrical grid, which feeds electricity to co-op member homes. 

The testing I perform helps the manufacturers of the electrical equipment improve their product which in turn helps ensure that the components perform properly and provide reliable electrical service.

“The testing I perform helps the manufacturers of the electrical equipment improve their product which in turn helps ensure that the components perform properly and provide reliable electrical service. In addition to testing the components, I also work with the electrical utilities in troubleshooting problems that arise in their systems.”

When he isn’t teaching electrical engineering classes or performing tests in the lab, you might catch Wallace on television. Since 2017, Wallace has been featured in approximately 40 episodes of “Strange Evidence” on The Science Channel. The show is like “MythBusters.” 

Bright purple beam of electricity arcing off a metal pole onto another.The episodes with Wallace usually deal with high voltage and lightning phenomena. In those episodes, Wallace tries to recreate, within the High Voltage Lab, what is seen in featured videos to try and prove if what happened was real. He also provides commentary of the science behind the events.

Wallace is currently working on a project involving the protection of electrical equipment from the effect of solar storms and electromagnetic pulses, also known as an EMP. An EMP is a brief burst of electromagnetic energy. Solar storms occur when the Sun emits gigantic bursts of energy in the form of solar flares.

Solar storms and EMPs can affect communications and the electrical grid. 

“In some cases, these events can lead up to disruption in communications — TV, satellite, radio — and cause blackouts. I am working with the electrical industry to develop methods for protecting communication systems and the electrical grid from the effects of solar storms and EMPs,” Wallace said. 

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