2022 MMAE Distinguished Alumni Lecture by Lewis Thigpen—Overcoming Challenges to Success in a Changing World




John T. Rettaliata Engineering Center, Room 104 10 West 32nd Street Chicago, IL 60616

Armour College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering will welcome Lewis Thigpen, a Professor Emeritus in the mechanical engineering department at Howard University, to present a lecture, “Overcoming Challenges to Success in a Changing World.” Thigpen is the recipient of the 2022 MMAE Distinguished Alumni Award. 

The seminar will take place on Friday, April 8, 2022, from 3:30-4:30 p.m. in RE-104. Contact Elena Magnus at magnus@iit.edu for the seminar details.


African-American author, Lewis Thigpen, discusses his memoir, Born and Raised in Sawdust: My Journey around the World in Eighty Years, published by AuthorHouse on October 21, 2019. He shares his progression from early childhood in the 1940’s on a small family farm in rural Gadsden County, Florida, during the Jim Crow era into an engineer, scientist, academic, and a university administrator. Florida’s Jim Crow laws were shackles of oppression for people of color that lasted more than 100 years. Throughout his presentation, Thigpen demonstrates how curiosity, creativity, and a desire to put what he had learned into practice helped him plan his own path to success. And in between, Thigpen presents his perspective as a Black man navigating the ingrained racism in America and the power structures of some of the most well-known scientific institutions in the United States. By reflecting on his own life, Thigpen provides thoughtful insight on how race, limited resources, politics, and technology developments in a changing world permeates every segment of our society today.


Lewis Thigpen graduated from Howard University in 1964 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering (magna cum laude). He continued his education at Illinois Institute of Technology, earning his master’s degree in mechanics in 1967 and Ph.D. in 1970. After obtaining his Ph.D., Thigpen worked for nearly four years at Sandia Corporation (now Sandia National Laboratories) as a member of the technical staff, two years as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Lowell Technological Institute (now University of Massachusetts Lowell), and nearly 14 years as a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

He returned to academia in 1988 as professor and chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Howard University, leading the department for over 16 years. Ten years after returning to Howard he spent a one year sabbatical at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. As department chair at Howard, he instituted transformative change in the curriculum for both the undergraduate and graduate programs and implemented various award programs to recognize student and faculty accomplishments. Thigpen was also a major proponent of diversity, equity, and inclusion, hiring the first female mechanical engineering faculty member, Sonya T. Smith, in 1995.

Under Thigpen’s leadership, the department received a $70.6 million in-kind gift from the Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education (PACE) in 2004, the largest in Howard’s history. It was also during his tenure as department chair that the first African-American male and female mechanical engineering Ph.D. students graduated from Howard University in 1993 and 1995, respectfully. Among the many awards received throughout his career were the 2019 Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award, the Howard University 2008 Faculty Senate Inspirational Interdisciplinary Project Award, the XCaliber (shorthand for exceptional, high-caliber work) Award from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for Excellence in Technology-Assisted Teaching and Learning for a Global Team (2007), a Professional Achievement Award from Illinois Institute of Technology (2006), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International 2003 Dedicated Service Award, elected fellow of ASME in 1998 for pioneering work in computational earth penetration mechanic in 1972, the 1991–1992 Teacher of the Year Award from the Student Chapter of ASME, and the Sundstrand Aerospace Corporation 1990 Educational Outreach Award in recognition of his extraordinary effort and assistance to the development of outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

As for his other professional endeavors, Thigpen was the first African American to serve as chair for the ASME National Department Heads Committee and two terms as chair for the ASME Committee on Engineering Accreditation. He also served as the ASME Mid-Atlantic Region III Department Heads Committee Chair and as a board member for the ASME Center for Education Board of Directors over a period of 10 years. On a broader scale, Thigpen has served on advisory committees for the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Massachusetts Higher Education Coordinating Council, multiple universities, and has authored and co-authored more than 70 articles in engineering, science, and education and co-authored a U.S. patent titled “An Ice Penetrating Sonobuoy.” Thigpen’s latest work is his autobiography, Born and Raised in Sawdust: My Journey around the World in Eighty Years. He is currently writing a book on the history of mechanical engineering at Howard University.

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