AIAA Member Spotlight – April 2017 Written 14 April 2017

AIAA Profiles Dr. Achille Messac

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications (2008-2017)

Achille-MessacDeciding to stay in warmer climes, the Spotlight remained on the East Coast again this month, spinning around from Greensboro, North Carolina, and landing on Washington, DC, shining its beam on Dr. Achille Messac, an AIAA Fellow, and Dean of Engineering and Architecture at Howard University.

Dr. Messac is a leading authority in the field of Multidisciplinary Design Optimization. He credits his long involvement in the leadership of AIAA and within the aerospace community for preparing him to lead historic transformation in engineering education while maintaining his passion for leading-edge technological conquests.

Dr. Messac received his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. from the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to being a Fellow of AIAA, he is also a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. His membership in both organizations bears out his thought that the “division between aerospace and mechanical engineering can sometimes be more artificial than real.”

Before assuming his role as Dean at Howard University, Dr. Messac served in various leadership capacities across a broad swath of the aerospace community, including positions at Draper Laboratory, Northeastern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Syracuse University, and Mississippi State University. No matter what role he served in, including Department Chair for aerospace, mechanical and nuclear engineering; Faculty Senate President, and Dean, Dr. Messac has always made the “advancement of ‘institutional performance,’ in tandem with promoting the success of faculty, students and colleagues, central to [his] leadership approach.” Earlier in Dr. Messac’s career, he was a Senior Member of the Technical Staff at Draper Laboratory where he led research in the area of multibody dynamics, structural optimization, and Control Structure Integrated Design, in the latter of which he was a pioneer in the early 1980s.

Dr. Messac’s current research involves energy systems design and optimization, including wind and solar energy harvesting. He currently leads the development of advanced design technologies, including physical programming, a methodology intended to bring optimization within the easy reach of industry engineers. In addition to his research, Dr. Messac recently published a one-of-a-kind book entitled “Engineering in Practice with MATLAB: For Engineering Students and Professionals” through Cambridge Press.

Throughout his career, Dr. Messac has served in various positions within AIAA. As an elected member of the AIAA Board of Directors, he served as Director of the Aerospace Structures and Design Group, a role in which he oversaw nine Technical Committees (TC). Under the Institute’s new governance model he has decided to join the AIAA Board of Trustees where he told me that he believes “he will have a greater opportunity to serve AIAA and its members in a more global way.”, Other AIAA positions have included TC chair, conference General Chair, Deputy Director of the Technical Activities Committee, member of the AIAA Publications’ Editorial Board, Associate Editor of the AIAA Journal, and keynote speaker at several AIAA forums. He is a recipient of an AIAA Sustained Service Award and the 2010 AIAA Multidisciplinary Design Optimization Award.

Dr. Messac and I began the interview discussing what inspired him to get into aerospace and if he had any mentors or significant influencers along the way. He responded: “As a boy in Haiti, I recall that the idea of a man on the moon captured my imagination in a complete way. I also recall looking up at the island sky; and stared at a jet as the only part of the sky that was not completely blue. I was transfixed into a state of suspended animation. In my subconscious, I wanted to understand it all. However, around that time, I was also fascinated about all the emerging advances in electronics. So, when I became a student at MIT, I actually started as an electrical engineering major. However, 4 weeks into the semester, my inner passion took over. I transferred to the aerospace program, and never looked back! Well, almost. I also did a minor in avionics.”

Dr. Messac continued, “In terms of mentors, my parents by far influenced me the most. Their love was complete, and their expectations of what I could accomplish were truly unrealistic, I thought! Later as a professional, I had many influencers. Actually, most do not know they were. I must also say that I often intentionally explored going against the prevailing flow. Because I have made many moves geographically and institutionally during my career, AIAA has actually been the stable anchor for me. In a true sense, AIAA is the place where my intellectual imagination grew, where the leadership opportunities constantly came my way, and where I met the most wonderful human beings. I owe a lot to many who have helped me a lot along the way; and I continue to find just as much joy in guiding the next generation. In an interesting way, I would like to add that my own students also very much influenced me.”

In regard to his two favorite career memories thus far, Dr. Messac looked back over the reach of his career, and responded: “I actually prefer to think of those memories in two ways. There are those joyful moments directed toward you: like receiving the NSF CAREER award, receiving the AIAA MDO award, or having my national peers elect me to serve them as AIAA Director. I am eternally grateful for these great honors. There are also some other kinds of memories, in which you had a meaningful role, about positively transforming the lives of your students, your faculty or your colleagues. The latter are truly long lasting. These are a series of micro-memories that form the meaning of a career, too many to mention.”

For students who are pursuing an aerospace degree, or for those students in high school thinking of majoring in aerospace in college, he had this advice: “I would simply tell them that this is a truly exciting career path. They would help defining the new world of aerospace, where aerospace engineers are major partners at the table; where they would literally change the world. I would also tell them to keep learning as much math and physics as possible, even when they might not know all the connections yet between these subjects and the ability to change society. The future would be in their hands.”

I then asked Dr. Messac his thoughts about what colleges and universities can do to better prepare their students for work in the aerospace industry, and what they can do to get underrepresented minorities interested in aerospace and STEM subjects? He replied, “Over the past few decades, the socio-technological world has changed in fundamental ways; and I am concerned that academe has not been meaningfully responsive to this reality. We still teach students in largely intradisciplinary ways. We do not fully appreciate the role of big data in shaping undergraduate education. We are struggling with understanding and teaching the socio-technological context of engineering systems; or even the socio-political context of engineering design. We still think largely of the technical performance of our creations, rather than their performance in the marketplace. Indeed, short-term drone delivery goes well beyond aerospace considerations. We are making timid progress in setting the balance between technical knowledge and soft skills proficiency.”

Dr. Messac added, “In terms of the examination of the role minorities, and women in fact, play in aerospace and STEM fields: This vexing problem calls for vastly new approaches if we are to make a major difference. I personally spent eight years at MIT for my three degrees without ever having had an African American professor; and actually only had one female professor, former Air Force Secretary Dr. Sheila Widnall. Conventional wisdom and understandings have not served us well to this point. Actually, the pertinent evolutions of the past thirty years have been timid at best. I am confident that we can have a truly transformational impact of national scope – if we are willing to challenge conventional wisdom. In that light, Howard University is entering into a partnership with Google that could become a national model. Our nation cannot afford not to capture this significant talent pool!”

When it comes to AIAA’s value to aerospace professionals and the profession at large, Dr. Messac noted, “As I have done myself, I would say to any young aerospace engineer to get involved with AIAA, its people, its programs and its activities in every way possible. That is the single most important professional decision you can make as an emerging aerospace engineer. I have strongly benefited from interactions with students as well as with the leading experts of the field. AIAA can help you stay connected regionally, nationally and internationally — while helping you develop as a professional.”

We concluded our conversation by discussing what Dr. Messac sees ahead in aerospace, especially what we may see over the next 10 to 15 years. He replied, “Aerospace will become more and more integrated with other fields. Aerospace firms will continue to look more and more like creators of systems that happen to behave in aerospace ways, but that have greater and greater proportions of non-traditional aerospace content. Aerospace engineers will need to feel comfortable breaking out of the traditional boundaries of aerospace technology. The aerospace engineer will have ever greater opportunities to think at the system level.”

AIAA congratulates Dr. Achille Messac on his selection as the April 2017 Spotlight subject, and wishes him the best as he continues to lead his students at Howard University. We also thank him for his long legacy of service to AIAA.