Simon Ramo Founders Award

2002 Founders Award Acceptance Remarks

Remarks made by Stuart W. Churchill on October 6, 2002 at the National Academy of Engineering 2002 Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.

Dr. Stuart W. Churchill

When Bill Wulf called with the news concerning this award, I was awe-struck, and even more so when I reviewed the list of the previous recipients.

First of all, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to my nominators and to the Awards Committee for this great and unexpected honor. Too many people have contributed to my career to acknowledge individually, so I can only mention a few representative ones, and I will do that within the context of my remarks rather than separately. These remarks will be focused on the characteristics and benefits of an education in engineering, in both the formal and informal sense. I hope that you will indulge me in the choice of a topic that is just as familiar to you as it is to me, and even further in the use of examples from my own career.

Even early in our undergraduate studies we begin to gain an understanding of the insight and power associated with the engineering method of analyzing physical and chemical behavior objectively in mathematical and conceptual terms. This capability distinguishes us from all but scientists, and our willingness, even eagerness, to apply it to practical ends, no matter how complex, distinguishes us somewhat even from them. A second characteristic of engineering, less well known to the general public, is the tradition of exposing our work-in-progress to untrammeled criticism by our peers.

An engineering education influences our daily lives as well as our professional work. As an extreme example, my youngest brother studied engineering while in military service but went to law school after the war. He, who is now a federal district judge, says his engineering education not only helps him in decision-making, but that the term BSE in his biography intimidates attorneys and discourages them from trying to flimflam him. My other brother, who after a few years practice as an engineer, became a businessman in partnership with my father, likewise asserts that his engineering education has been invaluable in his second career.

Growing up in a small agricultural community in Michigan in the depths of the “great depression,” I knew almost nothing about engineering. However, the outside counselor brought in by my high school suggested that, because of my penchant for mathematics and chemistry, I might consider chemical engineering as a field of study in college. My father suggested that I discuss this possibility with the only engineer in our community, expecting that he would discourage me. That young man, embittered by his failure to find a job as an electrical engineer three years after graduation, did his best to discourage me. But with the irrepressibility of youth, I bravely chose to enter the unknown world of engineering.

At the University of Michigan, I was soon inspired to emulate my teachers, particularly Alfred. H. White and George Granger Brown, who related our daily assignments to their work as researchers and consultants, and Donald L. Katz, with whom I did undergraduate research that resulted in my first publication. One of my teachers in mathematics, Clyde E. Love, encouraged me to keep that option open, and I crowded into my curriculum the requirements for a second degree in mathematics. That marginal effort and recognition has had a subtle but lasting effect on my career.

The outbreak of World War II prevented me from following my inclination to go to graduate school and become a teacher, but that unwelcome circumstance proved in the long run to be very fortuitous. Instead of more formal education, I worked for four years for the Shell Oil Co., where because of the critical times, I was given extraordinary responsibilities in tasks that were very satisfying because they were clearly contributing to the national war-effort. The education I received in that environment was perhaps equal in importance to that obtained in school as an undergraduate. Several engineers with a Ph.D., who were working in refinery operations rather than research, became my new role models because they knew so much more than I did about what went on in those huge “black boxes”. This experience further inclined me to do graduate work whether or not I became a teacher.

However, when the war ended, I was diverted once again from that ambition - this time by the challenge of being the only engineer outside of management in a small start-up chemical plant based on an untested new process. That venture was almost too successful, leading the original owners of the Frontier Chemical Company to cash out their capital gains after only one year and thereby void their promise to promote me to partial ownership. That event precipitated my long-deferred plan to return to graduate school. The experiences at Shell Oil and Frontier Chemical continue to serve as a major resource in my teaching after more than half a century – processes and technology change but the principles of engineering design and operation do not. Most current teachers have not had the benefit of such industrial experiences, and this distinction has been a factor in my willingness to participate in the terminal design course 13 years after my nominal retirement.

When I returned to graduate school, my industrial experience and greater maturity somewhat counter-balanced my academic rustiness and the significant changes in the curriculum that had occurred during the intervening 5 years. I was once again greatly inspired by my teachers and eventual colleagues at the University of Michigan, in particular by Robert Roy White and Joseph J. Martin, as well as by those already mentioned. My graduate career was somewhat unique in that I took many advanced courses in physics and chemistry as well as in mathematics, an opportunity and privilege now denied to doctoral candidates owing to contract-based funding. This extensive and high-level course work outside of chemical engineering proved to be an invaluable resource in my subsequent academic career in that it gave me the confidence to expand the boundaries of my research and the courage to interact with colleagues such as Peter Debye, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Ruel V. Churchill, and George Uhlenbeck. The latter once told me that a physicist would know better than to work on the problem we were discussing, but that I would probably succeed because engineers were willing to settle for an approximate, numerical answer. My collaborators when I first became a faculty member, in particular, Myron Tribus, Richard E. Balzhiser, Robert. H. Kadlec, Chiao-min Chu (of Electrical Engineering), and, above all, Cedomir M. Sliepcevich, also greatly contributed to the expansion of my horizons at that stage.

My career in research began at a fortuitous time when funding was readily available, in part from industrial fellowships, in part by means of grants and graduate-student fellowships from the National Science Foundation (a legacy of the first recipient of this award), and in even greater part in the form of contracts with the various agencies of the Department of Defense, who, at that time, imposed very few restrictions on the details of the subject matter. This freedom enticed me to undertake research on a wide variety of topics whose scope frequently broadened even further as we abandoned original objectives to pursue experimentally observed anomalies. That practice had several consequences. A negative one was the warning from my departmental chairman that if I persisted in such diverse work rather than becoming the acknowledged expert on some particular topic, I would never gain national recognition and perhaps not even tenure. However, by that time I had become addicted to exploratory research and failed to heed his advice. A more favorable consequence of this diversity is that I have had a small role in an engineering aspect of most of the major societal problems of the last half-century. New areas of research often pose the requirement of self-study of new science and technology in concert with the graduate students involved. As an example, the onset of my career as a faculty member coincided with the initial appearance of large digital computers. As a direct result, most of my research has involved the numerical solution of models of ever increasing complexity, the development of the required new algorithms, and in almost every case, confirmatory experimental work.

My time for teaching and research was gradually usurped by administrative duties. The offer of a chair that would permit me to devote all of my efforts to these preferred activities prompted me to move to the University of Pennsylvania. That promise materialized under the leadership of Arthur E. Humphrey, Joseph Bordogna, and Eduardo Glandt, although, with my consent, it was violated on occasion. I am grateful for the support of my new colleagues, then and still today after 35 years.

One of the greatest rewards of an academic career is the opportunity to work and learn with graduate students. It has been my good fortune to collaborate with a continual series of truly exceptional ones who were attracted by the opportunity to work on problems of obvious importance to our society, and who were willing to share the risks of exploratory research and accept the burden of carrying out both numerical and experimental work. Because of our close intellectual interaction and the bond of trust that developed, they have become my second family. I will mention only four by name, J. David Hellums and Lawrence B. Evans because they are here today, Warren D. Seider because he has also been my academic colleague for 35 years, and Hiroyuki Ozoe, because we have continued to collaborate during the entire 30 years since he returned to Japan.

My wife Renate has not only been totally supportive and inspiring, but also by virtue of her Editorship of International Chemical Engineering, encouraged me to seek out the literature in other languages. One consequence is that the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure made me a Corresponding Member, presumably in appreciation for my calling attention to the somewhat overlooked German literature in chemical engineering. In the last several years I have had a very gratifying and perhaps unique privilege - my grandson, Stefan C. Zajic, has as an undergraduate collaborated with me in research and become a co-author of several publications.

It is surprising that anyone chooses to study engineering in view of its very low public profile. Yet each autumn all over the country, a remarkable set of young people show up in our classrooms for that purpose. On the mean, they are brighter, better prepared, more analytical, more motivated, more self-disciplined, and have a higher order of integrity than their counterparts in other fields. They are clearly deserving of the experience and benefits of an engineering education. We should never as teachers and employers fail to recognize and appreciate this bounty. And in view of those initial characteristics, we should not take too much credit for their later achievements.

I consider myself most fortunate and privileged to have had the experiences and benefits of an engineering education, not just in the formal sense, but also by virtue of the life-long process described above. I am truly cognizant of and grateful for the contributions that all of my colleagues and collaborators have made to my career. Finally, I am very proud to be an engineer, to be a member of the National Academy of Engineers, and to receive its Founders Award.