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Professor elected to National Academy of Engineering

Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 09:02

Tufts Professor of Chemical Engineering Maria Flytzani-Stephanopoulos was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

Election to the academy is one of the highest engineering honors, according to the chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering Kyongbum Lee.

“It’s considered to be the most exclusive and prestigious academy [in which] to be inducted,” Lee said. “Typically, it’s done based on achievements in the field.”

The NAE, which consists of more than 2,000 peer-elected members, was created to provide engineering leadership in the United States, according to Dean of the School of Engineering Linda Abriola.

“[NAE’s goal is the] pioneering of new and developing fields of technology [and] making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering,” Abriola said.

Flytzani-Stephanopoulos, who has been a Tufts faculty member for 20 years, focuses her work on catalysts that produce energy and fuels through efficient use of valuable resources.

“The applications ... vary from fuel processing, to [how to] make cheap hydrogen for fuel cells, to fuel conversion to make valuable chemicals,” she said. “There is a potential extension of our work and use of our materials in photo-catalysis or electro-catalysis which deal with renewable energy and green chemical production from CO2 and water.”

Flytzani-Stephanopoulos explained that energy sustainability has always been her passion. She said she is always researching new, efficient and clean ways to produce energy and chemicals. 

“Can we push the catalyst materials to do more for us?” she asked. “That naturally gets us into conservation of resources, into efficient utilization of fuels, into energy sustainability.”

She said that the new research and new technology on which she works has the potential to solve future environmental problems.

“We have an opportunity, not available before, certainly not when I was a student, to look at materials with new tools, to see chemistry in action and to make what we design with unprecedented precision, even at the atomic scale,” Flytzani-Stephanopoulos said. “This is powerful and will lead us to new levels of engineering designs and technological advances. We can then solve some of the old problems with new ways that save money but also protect our environment.”

Abriola emphasized the importance of the contributions Flytzani-Stephanopoulos has made toward sustainability research — one of Tufts’ cross-disciplinary focus areas.

“She has made innovative contributions to the field of catalysis, particularly new insights into the activity of atomic-scale metals as catalysts for fuel conversion processes and ‘green’ production of chemicals,” Abriola said. “She was named to the first Robert and Marcy Haber Endowed Professorship in Energy Sustainability in the School of Engineering for her ground-breaking contributions in clean energy production. We are very fortunate to have her at Tufts.”

Flytzani-Stephanopoulos’ discoveries are the work of tremendous dedication over a long period of time, according to Lee.

“She has to be obviously driven and motivated to keep working and working,” Lee said. “It’s not an overnight success story — it’s really about perseverance, because research sometimes reaches a dead end.”

Before Tufts, Flytzani-Stephanopoulos spent time at MIT and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. She explained that, although she was one of only a few female engineers in the field, she did not feel intimidated.

Lee emphasized the significance of Flytzani-Stephanopoulos’ success amid the gender gap in the field of engineering. 

“Engineering is a pretty male-dominated field, certainly in her generation,” Lee said. “You can count maybe with a pair of hands the number of women in her generation that [were] members of the national academy.”

Flytzani-Stephanopoulos said that she is excited and gracious for her nomination to the NAE.

“I am happy I was nominated and elected by my colleagues, but I also feel humbled to join the cohort of the most talented and accomplished engineers,” she said.

While Flytzani-Stephanopoulos has been rewarded for her research, she explained that it is her students that keep her motivated.

“My tenure at Tufts has been rewarding and I have enjoyed tremendously all parts of it, but more so my continuous interaction with my students. It is they who keep me going,” she said. “The rewards are many, especially the fun of discovering new things and seeing students appreciate what they do.”

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