James E. Smith is approaching the end of one of the most exciting and fruitful periods in his career. Smith is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University and the director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications.
Since January, he has served as the president of SAE International, one of the world’s largest professional societies, charged with setting industry standards for automotive, aerospace, commercial vehicle and other mobility-related products worldwide. His term will conclude at the end of this year.
Smith grew up in Clendenin. After graduating from Herbert Hoover High School, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from WVU, then took a position with the Department of Energy. After several years, he returned to WVU to pursue his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Upon completion of that degree, he joined the WVU faculty.
After 25 years on the faculty, Smith says that teaching has always been his favorite part of the job, from teaching freshmen the fundamental principles of engineering to mentoring graduate students. He has kept more than busy with research as well, though – serving as the principal or co-principal investigator for 90 research contracts exceeding $16.9 million. He has published over 200 peer-reviewed conference and journal papers, along with numerous articles and white papers on topics such as engine design, dynamics and analysis; engine emissions and alternate fuels; among others. He has been granted 26 U.S. patents and has many others pending.
Serving as the 2009 president of SAE International has been a highlight of his career, said Smith, affording him the opportunity to meet international industry and government leaders, and to interact with students and professionals from all over the globe.
With 121,000 members in more than 100 nations, SAE hosts 23 annual conferences around the world and publishes more than 3,000 technical papers each year, in addition to sponsoring numerous seminars and providing members with access to industrial and academic research.
Only the fourth president to come from academia, Smith been an active member of SAE for more than 27 years, serving on the board of directors from 2005-2008.
In 2007, he was named an SAE Fellow. Fellowship is the highest grade of membership issued by the society, recognizing outstanding engineering and scientific accomplishments resulting in meaningful advances in automotive, aerospace and commercial vehicle technology. SAE also awarded Smith the Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award and the Forest R. McFarland Award for Service.
Six months before his SAE presidential term officially started, Smith began attending Board meetings and conferences and interacting with officials. In January, he officially took office and began traveling the world, visiting factories and research centers, including aerospace, commercial and automotive vehicle plants. During his tenure, he has visited five continents and ten countries, including China, Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Spain, Canada, the UK, Italy and Egypt, with trips planned later this fall to Vietnam, Taiwan and India.
Although Smith noted that there has been both a business and a pleasure side to his travels, he said that the best part, for him, has been working with students and young engineers around the world. For example, Smith was given the opportunity to lecture to more than 400 Chinese students. Although he is not fluent in Chinese, and no formal interpreter was available, the students feverishly worked together to interpret and understand the message Smith presented. “It was inspiring to work with them,” he said.
Smith said that, when speaking around the world, he has tried to focus his message on the importance of innovation and leadership for our future.
“Without innovation, we no longer forge ahead and break new ground, but rather mimic what was already done,” he said. “In the short term, that may yield some success, but in the long term, it dooms us to mediocrity and complacency.”
It has been a challenging and busy year, Smith said, full of travel, speaking appearances and meetings with people all over the world. “It has been an intense intercultural experience,” he said, “and has changed the way I think. My perspective has become much more global in a very real way, and that has been invaluable.”
After his term ends, Smith will return to full-time teaching and research at WVU. He looks forward to sharing the knowledge and experiences he has gained this year with students and others in the university and state, and is eager to get back into the classroom.
“I am and will always be a professor. I need to teach and to continue my research,” said Smith.
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Susan Case, College of Engineering and Mineral Resources