- What is one of your favorite pastimes or hobbies?
I really enjoy hiking or just walking around the Georgia Tech campus. It is 400 acres in the heart of Atlanta. It is a beautiful campus, and an opportunity to interact with students. I also enjoy woodworking. I have made a number of pieces in our house.
- What are you most proud of in your professional life?
I have enjoyed all of the positions that I have had throughout my career. Each has been special in its own way and all have provided me with incredible opportunities. I love my current position as president of Georgia Tech. The faculty, staff, and students are incredible. Upon my arrival, we started to focus on developing the “entrepreneurial confidence” in our students. It’s gratifying to see them start out as incredibly bright freshmen, and then through the curriculum, leadership opportunities, and student competitions grow in their problem solving abilities, gaining the confidence to develop solutions to complex problems and start businesses, many times before they graduate. Our graduate students are engaged in research ranging from the discovery of water on Mars to cell manufacturing.
- Do you have any advice for students in middle and high school and/or for their parents
Start charting your path, and get engaged in math and science early on. Don’t work around math and science classes because they seem “hard” at first. We don’t dismiss English or foreign languages because they might seem difficult at first. They’re necessary life skills, and can open up a world of career possibilities. For parents, start looking for summer camps and programs in STEM areas for students, many times offered on university campuses. When a young person has a hands-on experience like building a quadcopter or programming a robot, they get excited and start imagining possibilities for their lives and careers.
- What is one fact about you personally or professionally that your colleagues on the Board would be surprised to learn?
Meat Loaf is my favorite singer. My wife, Val, and I once drove practically all night to watch him perform in another town and still get back in time for work the next day.
- If you could do it all over again, would you? Why or why not?
Absolutely. I have had a great career and would not change a thing. My research area is in heat transfer and thermodynamics, and while I am not able to spend as much time with my research as I would like, I still have a lab and work with graduate students and an occasional undergraduate. It has been a springboard to so many other opportunities. My wife, Val, has been very supportive, if it weren’t for her, I would probably be working in a research lab somewhere and without her there is no way I would be at Georgia Tech.
- What prompted your initial interest in STEM?
I can remember sitting in my neighbor’s back yard with my father in 1959, I think, and looking up into the sky to see Sputnik twinkling as it crossed the sky. I think I was about seven years old. I also remember when I was in fourth grade going to the auditorium at my grade school and watching the launch of Mercury 1 on a black and white TV. I was fortunate enough to be working at NASA at the time of the first and second launch of the Space Shuttle, which was amazing because it was the first “reusable spacecraft.”
- What do you see as promising new frontiers or opportunities in science and engineering? What about future challenges?
The most promising careers are those that bring together different disciplines to approach some of society’s biggest challenges from a fresh perspective. Biomedical engineering is growing, as is cell manufacturing, nanotechnology and customized medicine. Other exciting areas are deep space exploration and the associated research, cybersecurity, and ways to preserve and maximize natural resources. With more than seven billion people on our planet, it is imperative that we keep a global perspective when addressing challenges. While the availability of oil garners a great deal of attention, I personally feel that the biggest global issue is, and will continue to be, fresh water.
- What do you think individuals who are interested in going into a science or science education career should know?
Keep a perspective of lifetime learning, and never lose your ability to be amazed.
- We often talk about careers resembling pathways rather than a linear pipeline. Can you share a couple of seminal moments in your life that shaped or redirected your career path?
There are so many – athletics played an important role in helping to shape who I am. I was very fortunate to be able to play college football and study mechanical engineering. There was one week in 1979 that was incredible, on Monday I was offered a position as a Visiting Research Scientist at NASA-Johnson Space Center, on Wednesday, our third child, Emily (our only girl) was born and on Friday, was offered a faculty position at Texas A&M.
- What do you want people to know about the National Science Foundation?
In the U.S., we take great pride in being at the leading edge of discovery, technology, and innovation. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the NSF. It funds one-fourth of all the basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. I am confident that the research we are funding today will shape the world of tomorrow.
- What would you like people to know about the National Science Board?
The board includes 24 members who bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and diverse perspectives to NSF. I am continually amazed at how thoughtful, intelligent and devoted to science and engineering these people are. I consider it a great privilege to serve on this team.
What is your greatest failure and how did it help you?
I have had many, so that is a hard question. One that sticks out in my mind – I was a tight end/wide receiver at Kansas State in the early 70’s. I started four games as a sophomore and every game as a junior and senior and had a great career and many fond memories of my time there and my teammates. But one of the most vivid memories I have is my senior year when we were at Mississippi State and I dropped what would have probably been a touchdown pass in a close game with seconds to go in the first half. Nothing like making a mistake in front of thousands of cowbell-ringing fans. I think about that occasionally, 40- some years later. It taught me to deal with failure and to not lose faith in myself and most importantly that failure is an event, it does not define who you are.