National Academy honors U engineering profs with prestigious membership

Brad Ellingson

When professor Frank Bates tells his mother what he does for a living, she doesn’t understand.

But when Bates – head of the University’s chemical engineering and materials science department – attends the ceremony for inductees into the National Academy of Engineering on Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C., he will bring his mother so she can finally understand what he does.

“My mom is the one I’m going to get to that,” Bates said. “She’s been trying to figure out what I’ve been doing with my life for a long time.”

Bates and two other chemical engineering and materials science professors – Edward Cussler and Kenneth Keller – were elected among 74 new members to the National Academy of Engineering on Feb. 15.

“You only get in when somebody dies,” Bates said. “This is a funny old club in a way, but it’s a constant membership and lifetime membership.”

While the NAE is not an agency of the federal government, it sometimes advises the federal government and conducts its own research.

The NAE has 1,857 active members, and only current members can elect new ones.

All professors were elected into the NAE as members of the chemical engineering division, but all bring different areas of research to the academy.

Bates was nominated for his contributions to polymer blends, but he also works with large molecules.

“Part of the beauty of being at the University is you can keep learning, even when you’re considered to be an expert in the field,” Bates said.

Cussler said his research focuses on the purification of chemicals, which he compared to turning crude oil into gasoline, or beer into whiskey. He said getting into the NAE has been a goal for many years.

“It’s been an ambition for 25 years, so I was absolutely elated,” Cussler said. “To have three of us at once was even better.”

Keller’s research applies quantitative engineering analysis to artificial organ design and public policy. He said the camaraderie in the department is important.

Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology, said the chemical engineering and materials science department now has seven active members in the academy and one professor emeritus.

“This is the highest honor that you can achieve in engineering,” Davis said. “Getting three people in the academy in one year is a great reflection of the quality that the Institute of Technology has.”

Bates said the selection process is highly competitive, with many more NAE nominees being turned away than elected.

According to the NAE’s Web site, the academy recognizes engineers who have made “important contributions to engineering theory and practice” and demonstrated “unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.”

While all three professors have different research areas, each emphasized the importance of teaching.

“I hope (the award) makes me a better teacher,” Cussler said.

Because election into the NAE reflects the University in a positive way, Keller said, he hopes the department can continue its success.

“This is a departmental honor in many ways,” Keller said. “We feel it’s our obligation to continue it.”