Meet NAE President C.D. Mote, Jr.

For Dan Mote, engineering is fundamentally about creating things—and the possibilities are endless.  By responding to a real-life need from a local business man as a Berkeley grad student, Dr. Mote launched a research career that would eventually earn him international recognition and an election to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1988. Mote holds several patents in the United States, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.  As a faculty professor at Berkeley for 31 years and later as President of the University of Maryland, Mote has mentored 58 Ph.D. students.  As he begins a six-year term as NAE president, Mote shares a little bit about what brought him here and his future plans for the NAE. 

You’re an expert in gyroscopic systems.  How did that come about? 

As a grad student at Berkeley, a man who owned a company in Stockton, CA came to me with a problem. His company manufactured pencil slats, which are pieces of wood half the thickness of a pencil, 1 pencil long and 8 pencils wide.  The slats are sold to pencil manufacturers worldwide.  But with the tools he was using, he could only cut 9 pencil slats from a block of cedar, and he wasting a lot of expensive wood.  He asked me to figure out how to make saw blades operate more efficiently.  A circular saw blade is actually a gyroscopic system.  I developed a stability theory for saw blades that enabled predicting when much thinner plates cold be utilized while maintaining cutting accuracy and saw stability.  With the new blades, the company was able to get 12 slats from the same sized block of cedar.  I took it from there and began working on other gyroscopic systems.

Your bio also credits you with expertise in the biomechanics of snow skiing.  Is that also a gyroscopic challenge?

Not really.  In fact, my contribution to snow skiing came about quite differently.  When I was an assistant professor at Berkeley, a student came to me and said, “I’m an A+ student and I’ve already passed my exams, and I would like you to be an advisor to me on a snow skiing project.”  I turned him down, because I thought others would consider it frivolous and neither of us would do well.  The student went to other professors, all of whom said “no” for the same reason.  He came back to me and asked:  What drove you to be an engineering professor in the first place?  I answered that I wanted to find out how things work, and how to make them more effective, safer, and more productive.  He pointed out that snow skiing satisfied all those issues.  So I relented and we began working on studying how a ski turns, for example how it sheers the surface, compacts the snow and other complications.  The idea was that if you understand how it turns, you could design them “better”.

A funny thing happened as we started working on the project. We were inundated with mail—not asking why a ski turns, but rather on why do people get hurt at such a high rate.  At the time, worldwide injury rate was 7 injuries per 1,000 skiers per day.  After he finished his degree, we took up working on the injury problem for many years.  It was really a great “systems engineering” problem—covering multiple facets such as the design of the equipment, instructions given to skiers at ski shops, compatibility of boots and bindings, slope maintenance, and many other issues.  Over time, with the creation of standards organizations and a professional society, the worldwide injury rate dropped down to 2 injuries per 1,000 skiers per day.

At the University of Maryland, you focused on closing the achievement gap.  Is that an important theme in your career?

Closing the achievement gap is about reaching out to disadvantage populations to give them a chance to lift themselves.  I love doing it actually.  My proudest moments are seeing how people’s lives are transformed through some relatively modest things you can do to help them.  It’s a wonderful way to spend your time.

You’ve served on dozens of committees at the National Research Council. What has been the value of that service for you?

For me the potential of the Academies to have significant impact is the draw for me. This is my 25th year as an NAE member, and I began to get involved with NRC committees around 1990.  I have great respect for the Academies.  Even though they’re relatively small, they are greatly respected, and most importantly, their work makes a difference in the lives of people in the United States and abroad.  When you read the 1863 charter of Abraham Lincoln, you’ll see that it wasn’t about glorifying the members, but rather about serving government, and that’s what I find exciting.  It’s a bonus that you get to meet and interact with the extraordinary people brought together by the Academies in its role as a convener.

The NAE just held a Grand Challenges of Engineering international meeting in the UK, and the next one is in China in 2015.  What are your hopes for this program?

Grand Challenges for Engineering is a great program. It essentially lays out the grand challenges that engineering should address in this century, and it’s a tremendous hook for engineering and for the Academies.  A lot of people around the world are now picking up the idea because it’s so attractive.  Here in the United States, the universities Duke, USC, and Olin College were the leaders in launching their NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Programs. Several universities have picked up on that, and now, in about a dozen schools and soon in dozens more, you can undertake a course of study based upon the Grand Challenges of Engineering.  There’s even a reverse Rhodes Scholar program (called the Vest scholarships) where people outside the United States can apply to do a year’s worth of study at a U.S. university on an issue related to the Grand Challenges.

The NAE will stay behind this program, for it also opens up important international connections.  The London meeting was the first time that three Academies (NAE, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering) collaborated on a major summit.  We see it as the first step towards addressing challenges that fall outside of countries but inside the world, for example, clean water, climate change, pandemics.   The U.S. Academies were created to serve the United States, just as all national academies are created to serve their countries, but most of the big problems today are global and no one is responsible for them.  To me, this program helps bring the Academies into the important global domain going forward.

You just invited the PC members to join you in September for the US Frontiers of Engineering program to see new ideas from young researchers.  What are your goals for that program?

The U.S. Frontiers of Engineering is about 25 years old, and it is an established great success.  It followed the Frontiers of Science program, so it wasn’t the first program of its kind, but it has captivated engineers, both young and old, across the United States.  They’re all young, excited, talented and assertive. The forum is a place where they present ideas and forge lasting relationships.  They continue as a loosely knit fraternity.  One of my goals is to create an even closer group.  We invited alumni of the program to the Global Grand Challenges meeting in London, and the response was overwhelming. I was very pleased to see that they were very engaged at the meeting, much to the surprise of the British and Chinese.  We’ve also spawned five bilateral FOE programs with China, Japan, India, Germany, and the EU—which, in turn, creates a new stepping stone to the international dimensions of the Grand Challenges of Engineering.

Two Circle members (John McDonnell and Peter O’Donnell) helped start the Frontiers of Engineering Education programs.  What worries you about education today?

We’re in a transition period right now.  The change is big and is happening fast, and it’s driven by great need.  The change comes through MOOC’s –massive open online courses, such as Coursera.  These are currently free and very attractive to today’s students who are accustomed to communicating through digital media. Stanford has one with more than 100,000 students. Cost of education is a big issue today. We don’t know where this is going, but it raises a lot of questions about the future of education And MOOCs will be part of it.

Another big shift that has not received enough attention is the education needs caused by the rate of change of people’s jobs.  The rate of job turnover in a person’s career is rising all the time.  Employers are increasingly looking for people who can step right into the work without training.  They don’t want to invest in training, because they do not expect long service.  The educational system is pressed to step in and train people for entirely new positions.  The question is whether traditional universities will take on this challenge to train engineers for new specialties on an ongoing basis.  Right now, there is no educational enterprise that can fill that void at the scale needed.

What issues would you like to tackle at the NAE?

A big issue for me is the visibility of engineering–and to help people understand what engineering means.  We’re the National Academy of Engineering, not of Engineers.  If you’re a computer scientist or a meteorologist NAE member, you don’t describe yourself as an engineer, and yet, people from these and many other disciplines are highly valued members of NAE.  Many people just don’t call themselves engineers.  What do engineers do?  Well, look around you.  Everything you see that isn’t dug out of the ground or growing is engineering.  It’s so apparent, it’s hard to see. Another big mistake is thinking engineering all about math.  Engineering is fundamentally about creation.  That’s what’s important.  The range of activity in engineering is enormous, which is another reason people are confused about what it is.

Next year is NAE’s 50th.  What plans do you have in mind?

Next year is the NAE’s 50th anniversary, marking our founding in October 1964.  We’ll be kicking off the year’s celebration at the NAE Annual Meeting in October 2013.  We have several things planned, including a video competition, and the creation of a series of essays about the historical and future nexus between engineering, people, and country. We plan to celebrate all of that at the next NAE Annual Meeting in October 2014.

How do you see the Presidents’ Circle role with the NAE?

The Presidents’ Circle is a great organization.  The members are savvy and have a big vision about the world.  They also have a sense of how science, engineering, and medicine fit into the world, and why they are very important.  The members give us a valuable calibration of our ideas.  If your idea doesn’t resonate with them, you should proceed cautiously.  If it does, then there is support to move ahead.

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From 1998 to 2010, Mote served as UMD president and Glenn L. Martin Institute Professor of Engineering. Under his leadership, UMD research funding increased by more than 150 percent and the university greatly expanded partnerships with corporate and federal laboratories

Mote was elected to the NAE in 1988 “for analysis of the mechanics of complex dynamic systems, providing results of great practical importance in vibrations and biomechanics,” and served as NAE treasurer and a member of the Research Council’s Governing Board Executive Committee. At the Research Council, Mote served on dozens of committees including as chair of the Committee on Global Science and Technology Strategies and Their Effect on U.S. National Security; and co-chair of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable and the Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Workforce Needs for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base.

Mote received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, where he served on the faculty for 31 years and held positions as chair of the department of mechanical engineering, president of the UC Berkeley Foundation, and vice chancellor. He has received three honorary doctorates and the Berkeley Citation, an award from the university similar to an honorary doctorate.