AIAA Member Spotlight – February 2018 Written 13 February 2018
AIAA Profiles AIAA Fellow Dr. Alexander J. Smits
By Lawrence Garrett, AIAA Web Editor
For February 2018, the Institute turns its spotlight to central New Jersey, home of influential professor and internationally respected expert in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Editor-in-Chief of the AIAA Journal, Dr. Alexander J. Smits. An AIAA Fellow, Smits is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, where he conducts fundamental, experimental research in turbulence and fluid mechanics.
Smits grew up in Melbourne, Australia, “wanting to be an airline pilot,” he recalled. Although he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn to fly by the age of 17, through the RAAF Air Training Corps, a future career in aerospace engineering was not on his “radar” due to a lack of available programs in Melbourne at the time. Fortunately, over the years, interest in the Australian aerospace industry has increased, said Smits, with 22 Australian institutes now offering aerospace engineering programs of some kind. Citing an AMT News report, he noted that today the Australian aerospace sector is a $4 billion industry that employs 14,200 people across 892 businesses.
Since aerospace engineering wasn’t much of an option in his formative years, Smits pursued mechanical engineering, receiving his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Melbourne in 1970, followed by several years of graduate work in turbulence. In 1975, Smits earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Melbourne.
After postdoctoral research in the Aeronautics Department at Imperial College and in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne, Smits felt the time was right to “get a real job,” which launched his search for faculty positions in the United States, believing it to be “the most exciting place for conducting research.” He said that with the help of “a great mentor, John Lumley,” he received a teaching opportunity in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University and has “never regretted the decision” to accept it. Smits said that his experiences performing postdoctoral research in turbulence coupled with his early experiences at Princeton – in which he focused on both mechanical and aerospace engineering – provided him with a better understanding of and a stronger interest in “the challenges facing the aerospace industry that relate to fluid mechanics, including high-speed aerodynamics, flow control, [and] drag reduction.”
Smits called teaching “a great inspiration” and a “remarkably rewarding experience” that has provided him with unlimited opportunities to interact with young minds and “learn [his] profession better.” He also advised that teaching is “the best way to learn” and that consequently “the rewards just keep coming,” while noting somewhat jokingly that he’s “never learned to love grading.”
Upon arriving at Princeton, another of Smits’ mentors, Seymour Bogdonoff, offered him the chance to work on high-speed flow research, something he’d not done before. Having accepted the offer, and with AIAA being the “center for such studies,” as Smits explained, he decided in 1981 that he needed to join the Institute. Shortly thereafter, in January 1982, he attended his first AIAA meeting: the Aerospace Sciences Meeting in Reno, NV. Smits said his attendance at this conference, and at others that followed, afforded him chances “to meet and interact with all of the leaders of the high-speed flow area.” He called these opportunities to collaborate “essential in identifying the important problems and [in] shaping my own research interests.”
Smits said that attending AIAA technical meetings has always been one of “the most rewarding” aspects of his AIAA membership. For many research areas, he explained, such as high-speed flow, or flow control, “AIAA meetings are the central resource for learning about progress in the field.” He also noted that while listening to various presentations at AIAA meetings is always valuable, another significant benefit of attending comes through the “wonderful opportunities to interact with leaders in the field, as well as in meeting up with friends and past students.” He added that there is “a definite and positive social aspect to every meeting.”
In addition to attending AIAA conferences and meetings, Smits has been active in other areas of the Institute, having served on the AIAA Fluid Dynamics Technical Committee (1993–1996; 2010–2012), the Institute Development Committee (2005–2007), and as editor of the AIAA Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics series (2012–2017). Smits now serves as Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of the AIAA Journal (AIAAJ), the Institute’s longest-standing journal devoted to the advancement of the science and technology of astronautics and aeronautics.
Smits initially served in the post from January 2015 through December 2017, noting that the opportunity to become Editor-in-Chief of AIAAJ was one he “jumped at.” He described the role as a “deeply rewarding one” because it gives him a “front row seat at the frontiers of research.” Fortunately for the Institute and its members, Smits likes the opportunity and challenge so much that he’s returned for a second consecutive stint and will remain EIC of the journal through December 31, 2020. “Being with the journal has given me the rare opportunity to grow and nurture one of the most outstanding journals in the field, and to serve the AIAA community that has been so generous to me in the past,” said Smits.
In addition to his teaching duties and various AIAA activities, Smits also has been a Founding Partner in several successful private enterprises throughout his career, including iCentral LLC and LightSense.
iCentral, explained Smits, “publishes the website eFluids.com that is a specialty web portal designed to serve as a one-stop web information resource for anyone working in the areas of flow engineering, fluid mechanics research, education and directly related topics.” He said that he remains affiliated with the website, and he retains his enthusiasm for it because he believes in its mission.
Another of Smits’ enterprises, LightSense, a company that uses “femtosecond laser technology” to perform dermatologic procedures, offers complete and fast tattoo removal with no associated pain. He said clinical trials are on tap in 2018, and called the company’s efforts to date very rewarding, explaining that “bringing this company to commercial success will help millions of people around the world in getting rid of their unwanted tattoos.”
Smits has been the recipient of numerous AIAA awards throughout his career, including the 2014 Aerodynamic Measurement Technology Award, the 2007 Pendray Aerospace Literature Award, and the 2004 Fluid Dynamics Awards, all of which he said he’s “very proud to have received.” Smits noted that the 2004 Fluid Dynamics Award will always remain “very special” to him as it was “the first major award” of his career.
Looking ahead, Smits forecasts a number of disruptive technologies on the horizon. He said there is no question in his mind that one of the central challenges facing society “is managing the radical changes to our way of life that will come with advances in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and robotics.”
He predicted that the impact of autonomous vehicles and systems “will be enormous, affecting engineering, medicine, social media, the economy, warfare, and decision making.” Noting that the revolution is already upon us, Smits said the only questions remaining are how to “manage and exploit these transformations in a way that benefits our society and [doesn’t] damage it.”
Smits said he would strongly encourage any student considering a career in aerospace engineering to pursue it. He noted how the field is unique in that it “is filled with opportunities to make a difference to the way we live,” citing flight technology, safety, advances in propulsion systems, flow control, and drag reduction, among many others.
He also suggested that “access to space is entering a new golden age through the vision offered by private companies,” and that aerospace engineers are “uniquely positioned” to explore a number of other fields, such as bio-inspired engineering. The “central players” in these new fields and traditional ones, asserted Smits, are the members of AIAA, particularly when it comes to facilitating collaboration between industry and academia.
In his free time, Smits said playing tennis is one of his favorite activities, and when possible, skiing.
The Institute salutes AIAA Fellow Dr. Alexander J. Smits, thanks him for his many contributions to the Institute, including his outstanding stewardship of the AIAA Journal, and wishes him all the best in the pursuit of his ongoing academic research as he simultaneously serves as an inspiration to many future industry leaders.