In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, U-M ME would like to highlight some of our many incredible Black faculty, students, and alumni.
The impact of these gifted individuals spans various fields and industries and while far from comprehensive, included in the list is the first Black faculty member in the U-M Department of Mechanical Engineering.
U-M ME Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Coordinator
The meaning of Black History Month changes for me each year. What is going on in the world, what I have experienced and who has come into my life the past year has a huge impact on the month’s meaning.
This year I think my favorite quote from Neil Degrasse Tyson sums things up well. He said “...When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they're small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”
When I reflect on this past year, I think about my ancestors. The human beings that are generations behind me. Who sacrificed so I could be here, in a better world. I think about the generations that are ahead of me and the world I am working to make possible for them. I feel honored and empowered because those are my stars.
For me, Martin Luther King Day means standing up for what is right even if it means sacrificing everything. It means speaking for the voiceless and vulnerable sections of our society.
Elijah Kannatey-Asibu, Jr.
Coming to the ME department in January 1983 was a dream come true. Finally, I had the opportunity to undertake basic research in my area of interest at a major institution, while teaching future generations, and encouraging underrepresented students to pursue careers in engineering through outreach. I was initially apprehensive thought about coming, given the fact that there was then no faculty of color in the department that I could look to for mentorship. However, my fears were soon calmed allayed as I found more mentors than I needed in the form of Robert Caddell, Yoram Koren, Joseph Datsko, and David Felbeck.
Black History month to me means celebrating the contributions of Blacks to society, while also recognizing non-Blacks who helped in that process.
It has been a pleasure being part of a department with first-rate researchers and students who are very committed to solving some of the world's most challenging problems. I have had many opportunities for fruitful intellectual exchange and collaboration. As an immigrant, I am also very impressed by the seriousness of the department's commitment to creating an inclusive working environment, in which people with diverse backgrounds and life experiences can feel at home.
Among the things I love about our department are the opportunities it has afforded me to not only grow professionally but also to fulfill my passion for DEI. Black history month gives me the opportunity to reflect on what we have together accomplished as a department in cultivating Blacks in mechanical engineering; celebrate the strides made by Black faculty, staff and students in our discipline; and provides me with encouragement to continue with others in pursuing the Dream.
I came to the University of Michigan in the summer of 2016 for the SROP program, which was the launchpad for my career as a researcher. Before that program, I didn't know I wanted to pursue a PhD, but I fell in love with the feeling of working on challenging problems without a solution. These kind of problems have enabled me to remain at the boundary of my knowledge where I have the opportunity to push past and expand what we know and are able to do. In a similar manner to research, U-M ME has pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and to my learning edge where I've gained knowledge about myself, other people in the department, and the broader world around us. Getting to learn from my colleagues and my advisor with the support of the ME department has helped me grow academically, mentally, and emotionally.
BSE Alumni 2008, MSE Alumni 2012, PhD Alumni 2014
In the eight years that I spent pursuing degrees (BSE, MSE, PhD) in the mechanical engineering department at Michigan, what I remember most vividly are the people who went out of their way to help me along my journey. Individuals like Sue Gow, who always ensured my undergraduate course schedule was accurate, and Bob Curry, who made sure that if nothing else, I knew how to find the edge of a part on the mill. While it goes without stating that Michigan provides one of the best mechanical engineering educations in the world, what can often get overlooked is just how unique that educational experience is. As an undergraduate, I can vividly remember Dr. Noel Perkins standing on top of a desk with a rope during class to demonstrate modes of vibration during my ME440 course. Or my palpable excitement watching Dr. Art Kuo’s passive dynamic walkers during my ME360 course, and the ensuing realization that the human body can be modeled as a dynamic system. In was in Dr. Kuo’s research lab that I had my first real taste of neuromechanics research, an experience that ultimately led me to the HaptiX lab under the guidance of Dr. Brent Gillespie for my doctoral training. Over the course of the five years that I spent in Brent’s lab, I matured from a passionate young student who had no idea what haptics (touch-based) research was into the independent haptics researcher that I am today. Along the way, Brent provided me with the leadership, teaching, and mentoring opportunities that have played a significant role in how I direct my own research lab and instruct my courses.
I would be remised, however, if I did not acknowledge the role Michigan’s commitment to diversity and inclusion played in both my success and the success of others traditionally underrepresented in engineering. Beyond mere platitudes, Michigan put the financial and personnel resources behind any and all diversity-related efforts to ensure their success. As both a student of color and a transfer student, I took advantage of the many programs offered through the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach (CEDO). As a Rackham Merit Fellow, I was provided the financial flexibility to pursue my doctoral thesis on a project that was initially unfunded. In the Mechanical Engineering department, in particular, I worked directly alongside Dr. Steven Skerlos to improve the department’s diversity recruitment and retention efforts. It was through these experiences, and the tireless efforts of individuals like Debby Mitchell, Jean Murabito, Sharon Burch, and Dean Alec Gallimore, that I witnessed the Michigan Difference exemplified. I will forever consider Michigan home, the place where I met my wife, started my family, and started my professional journey. For that, I am eternally grateful. GO BLUE!!!
PhD Alumni 2013
I spent 5 years in the Mechanical Engineering department at the University of Michigan. During that time, I grew from a young and aspiring scientist and engineer to a polished, confident, and humbled academic. Being surrounded by such amazing and talented students, as well as kind, knowledgeable, and friendly administration and staff, made my time in Ann Arbor some of the best years of my life. The academic rigor of the program enabled me to take my critical thinking skills to the next level. In particular, being exposed to such a diverse array of students with an eclectic array of academic backgrounds, broadened my mind and expanded my interest in the field of mechanical engineering. This has served me well as an engineering consultant, as I am able to critically think about problems that are outside of my expertise. However, on a deeper level, the support and sense of community that I received as an underrepresented student was always what I loved the most during my time in the Mechanical Engineering department. I felt this warmth as a prospective undergraduate visiting Ann Arbor in the summer as a researcher in the WuMRC Laboratory. I knew quickly that this was the program for me, and that’s saying a lot as a Jamaican accustomed to warm weather year-round. Then department chair Dr. Karl Grosh was extremely supportive of me and having Dr. Albert Shih as my advisor and committee chair was invaluable. But what sticks out to me the most was a situation where I needed additional funding to attend the International Society of Biomechanics conference in Brussels, Belgium. I approached Dr. Steven Skerlos, who was the department chair at the time, presenting to him my budget and where I was short funding. Dr. Skerlos was extremely supportive and the department provided me with that financial support the exact same day I asked for it. This showed me that the department was serious about its students and valued our professional development opportunities. I still tell this story today as an example as how corporations should in principle approach support of their employees. The way I was treated and the department’s approach to diversity is something that I look for in companies today and it was the framework and motivation for me starting a diversity initiative at my current company. More institutions and organizations need to understand the value of making its employees, in particular, it’s employees from underrepresented backgrounds, feeling like valued team members. This is just a short synopsis of my experiences in the Mechanical Engineering department. It was an amazing experience for me and one that I would not trade for anything.
BSE Alumni 2004
As a young kid from Detroit, MI, I was exposed to mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan through summer experiences in DAPCEP (Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program). Over several years I was exposed to the greatness of U of M and I knew it was where I wanted to pursue my engineering degree. As I matriculated throughout the school, I found two key things that made my experiences in mechanical engineering so amazing: the rigorous curriculum and mentorship. The curriculum taught me skills that have been beneficial to my career even to this day. Strong analytics, root cause analysis, structured problem solving, and systems integration are just a few competencies that helped me to accomplish things like launching new model products at Ford Motor Company or optimizing operations at Tech startups. Ultimately, I wouldn't have progressed through my undergraduate years at U of M without the help from many students and staff. For example, during my freshman year I had a senior mentor, Jason Forton (BSE '00), who gave me the "blueprint" to navigating engineering life and the intricacies of mechanical engineering. Additionally, Dr. Noel Perkins provided me with guidance and personalized leadership which helped me to grow and gain a passion for engineering. Today my leadership and experience are rooted in how the ME department pushed my intellectual limits and drove me to approach areas of my career with the same precision and rigor I developed at U of M. Therefore, I am thankful for the academic accomplishments and personal growth that U of M afforded me. Michael is currently a Director, Manufacturing Operations at MOO, Inc.
Paris R von Lockette
PhD Alumni 1999
In 1993, as a young man from Texas who loved the hot weather, I decided to go north to earn a PhD. My friends thought I wouldn’t survive because they knew two things: 1) that when it dipped below 60F They would find me bundled up in my heavy winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves; and 2) that my conception of a “harsh winter” was woefully misguided. Nonetheless, I found myself in Ann Arbor for the long haul. I’ll be forever grateful to Dr. Arruda, my advisor and mentor who recognized in me a “good skillset” ; to my committee, Drs. Kikuchi, Larson, and Wineman, who helped craft my studies; and to all the excellent faculty whose classes shaped the knowledge I gained. That knowledge, but honestly more so the training in the pursuit of new knowledge, has been the foundation of my successes in academia. I also have to acknowledge the Rackham Graduate school and their graduate fellowship program, without whom the notion of an African – American cohort across the university would have been impossible. And without that cohort my time at UM would not have been as pleasant, or likely as successful. Finally, I will thank Dr. JR Barber, who, I realized only decades later, helped me get past a hint of imposter syndrome (look it up if you do not know what it is) when he spoke a simple yet compelling affirmation when I arrived on campus – “you’ve got the goods”. Now, even though I drive by Penn State’s beaver stadium going to work everyday, I do it with my UM license plate boldly proclaiming “Hail to the victors!”.
PhD Alumni 2012
It's hard to imagine what I'd be doing right now if not for my time at Michigan a decade ago. In 2007 I was looking for a career change -- to shift my professional trajectory, develop new engineering skills and pivot my research focus to a different topic. I was so fortunate to discover University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering, for them to embrace me, and to complete my doctoral studies here. During my first visit to campus I was struck by the research, and was instantly fascinated and invigorated by the groundbreaking work being done in the department in the fields of biomechanics, prosthetics and wearable robotics (amongst many others). Second, I was struck by the culture and community, as well as the inclusive departmental leadership. For me, Michigan Mechanical Engineering became a treasured home, a new chapter in my life and career, and a place where I felt supported and valued. I grew a lot as an engineer, a researcher and a person; and am extremely thankful for the skills, experiences and relationships forged throughout my graduate studies. Fond memories and forever changed.