February 26, 2021
As Engineers Week falls during Black History Month, I am reflecting on the accomplishments of Black engineers. There are many Black women and men who have advanced engineering and improved our lives through their intellect, discovery, and perseverance, but I would like to highlight five who, in my mind, have made significant contributions through engineering.
Dr. Lilia Abron is the first African American woman in the nation to receive a doctorate in chemical engineering. For me personally, it was an honor to follow in her footsteps and become the fifth. Abron was inspired by the environmental science book titled “Silent Spring” and decided to use her skills to launch an environmental engineering firm with a focus on sustainability. PEER Consultants, PC, helped clean up Boston Harbor and worked with the Department of Defense on hazardous waste removal in the United States. In South Africa, the company built energy-efficient homes. PEER Consultants was an early adopter of sustainable building practices in underdeveloped nations. Abron dedicated her career and her company to the notion that sustainability initiatives can rapidly advance the condition of impoverished people all over the world.
Etosha Cave ’06
Engineering and Entrepreneurship
Climate change is one of the top challenges humanity faces, and it’s going to take people with knowledge, perseverance, and an entrepreneurial spirit to create the solutions needed today. Fortunately, these qualities are found in Dr. Etosha Cave, who, as most of you know, was a member of Olin’s first graduating class in 2006.
Cave is the founder of the startup Opus 12, which she launched while pursuing her PhD at Stanford. Opus 12 is using metal catalysts, water, and renewable electricity to convert CO2 into needed chemical products. The device being developed by Cave and her team can be attached to any site producing CO2 and utilizes polymer electrolyte membrane electrolysis, which converts the gas output into cost-competitive chemicals and fuels while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The genius of Cave’s technology is that it incentivizes producers of greenhouse gases, such as energy plants, factories, and even landfill owners, to utilize the technology with the benefit of selling the sought-after by-products for a considerable profit.
Opus 12 has received grants from NASA, the NSF, and the U.S. Department of Energy, and it was one of six clean energy startups to be incubated in the first cohort of the prestigious Cyclotron Road program at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.
Mark E. Dean
Engineering That Created the Tools We Use Every Day
I remember writing and editing my papers on a typewriter, but thanks to Dr. Mark Dean and his part in creating the personal computer, that inefficient way of working is a thing of the past.
A straight-A student and a star athlete in high school, Dean studied electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee, where he graduated at the top of his class. He was sought after by the big tech firms and chose to work at IBM as an engineer just as computers were moving from punch cards to screen-based output and display. Early on in his tenure, Dean and his colleague Dennis Moeller developed the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) system bus that is ubiquitous in computers to this day. Every time we plug in a printer, external hard drive, or monitor, we are experiencing Dean’s contribution to our lives and work. While working at IBM, he completed his master’s at Florida Atlantic University and then led the team that developed the first IBM personal computer and developed the color monitor. After receiving his PhD at Stanford, Dean created the first gigahertz chip, which computer developers thought was impossible to achieve. I am proud to say that Mark Dean and I are fellow members of the National Academy of Engineering.
Lisa P. Jackson
Engineering in Public Service
A fellow New Orleanian, Lisa Jackson, was named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Obama and was the first African American person to serve in this position.
After attending Tulane University, she earned her master’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University. Driven to apply her engineering skills and knowledge to improve the lives of others, she began her journey at the EPA as a staff-level scientist and moved up through the ranks. As EPA administrator, she focused on improving the lives and health of people affected by toxic chemicals and pollution. She enacted reformations of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to create tougher regulations regarding toxic chemicals that are especially present in the lives of the poor and people of color.
In 2009, as EPA administrator, she declared carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases a threat to public health, which initiated the federal campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Her work at the EPA landed her on TIME magazine’s 2010 and 2011 list of “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Today, Jackson is the vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives at Apple, where she oversees Apple’s efforts to minimize its impact on the environment.
Engineering in Sound
I met James West in 2018, and I was inspired by his commitment to opening doors for others. James West attended Temple University before joining Bell Labs. At Bell, he was part of a team that developed a microphone small and sensitive enough that it is now installed in virtually all our everyday consumer electronic devices, from telephones to baby monitors.
West’s name is now attached to more than 250 patents. In 1998, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering; shortly thereafter, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2006, West received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest award for technological innovation.
After retiring from Bell Labs, West turned to teaching. In 2002, he joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where he dedicated himself to mentoring and expanding opportunities for minorities and women in science, technology, and engineering.
While I am honoring these engineers in the spirit of Black History Month, every engineer, regardless of race or background, can take pride in the accomplishments of these five extraordinary people.