By Victor Rogers April 16, 2019
McDowell Honored with Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award
David McDowell doesn’t like being put in a box. That’s one of the reasons why, after earning a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he headed south to begin his career at Georgia Tech.
“One thing that I didn’t want was to go to a place where they had a slot for me to fit into: ‘Professor X is retiring; we need to cover this slot. We see you as a potential for that,’” McDowell said. “I wanted to define my own path, and I thought Georgia Tech would allow me to do that.”
He said he wanted a place where he could exert his vision and leadership from an early stage.
“At the time — the late ’70s and early ’80s — Georgia Tech was a great educational institution, but not as highly rated in research as it is today,” he said. “It was approaching the top 20-25 territory, and I could see that people here had fire in their belly to make that happen. So, coming here was a pretty easy decision.”
That was in 1983. Now, 36 years later, McDowell, Regents Professor and Carter N. Paden Jr. Distinguished Chair in Metals Processing, will receive Georgia Tech’s highest award given to a faculty member: the Class of 1934 Distinguished Professor Award.
The award recognizes outstanding achievement in teaching, research, and service. Instituted in 1984 by the Class of 1934 in observance of its 50th reunion, the award is presented to a professor who has made significant long-term contributions that have brought widespread recognition to the professor, to his or her school, and to the Institute.
“For me, this award is really a recognition of my being here,” McDowell said. “It shows that there’s a trace of my contributions.”
He will leave much more than a trace.
Over the course of three and a half decades, McDowell has done groundbreaking research in developing new techniques and methods for measuring, understanding, and modeling the way materials behave and how to use this information to improve the performance of products that benefit everyday life in areas such as transportation and energy production. He has produced more than 500 published papers or book chapters as author or co-author (including more than 335 refereed journal articles), and more than 600 presentations. For 20 years he served as director of the Mechanical Properties Research Laboratory, a major university laboratory in experimental fatigue and fracture research. And, he is the founding executive director of the Institute for Materials, serving as a driver of the development and growth of materials research and education at Tech.
But he is proudest of advising or co-advising more than 30 master’s students and 51 doctoral students through degree completion.
“What has kept me in the academic realm is my love for the development of students, and in particular graduate students, developing them as people and helping them realize their goals and dreams,” McDowell said. “I’m not a ‘grass is greener’ person. Whenever you change universities, you alter the momentum of your own program. So, I made the decision at multiple points that I can get more accomplished in my career staying the course and being consistent with a position at Georgia Tech.”
Passing the Torch
McDowell observed that one advantage of being at Georgia Tech is its culture of going outside the boundaries of departments and schools and “getting the job done.”
“One thing about Tech that’s interesting to me is the interdisciplinary thinking going back to day one since I’ve been here,” he said. “In 1984 I was asked to become associate director of the Mechanical Properties Research Lab, a crosscutting materials research lab. I got to see the importance of fostering collaboration between academic units and colleges and breaking down barriers.”
McDowell pointed out that today it’s relatively easy to have students being shared among departments, and faculty collaborating among departments. In a way, Tech is leading the way in how research and education are conducted across academic disciplines.
“One area that I have always tried to foster with my students and in my own research agenda is thought leadership, new ideas, new directions — but always paying attention to detail and understanding what has gone before you are really key,” he said. “You have to teach the value of understanding the literature and the existing arguments before you move into new things. Georgia Tech does a good job of reinforcing that.”
The challenge is to create an environment where young people with good ideas can find support for their vision and their leadership.
“This is the next generation of leaders at Georgia Tech, and they will be steering us into the future,” he said. “Let’s empower them. I want the same kind of empowerment for them that I had.”