A couple of memorable laboratory disasters, a few disappointing test scores, and Morris Morgan III began to question whether he’d ever really become a chemical engineer.
He and eight other African-American students enrolled in Vanderbilt in 1965, all of them from the segregated South and all of them feeling immense pressure to succeed. Morgan was at a loss on what to do until Professor Thomas Harris — who two decades later became founding chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering — handed him a pamphlet. It was about Norbert Rillieux, a biracial man considered one of the forefathers of chemical engineering after he revolutionized sugar cane processing.
“That taught me, I do belong in this,” Morgan, a chemical engineering professor at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., said Thursday at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center. “Be receptive to advice. I got a lot of tough love here at Vanderbilt from a lot of professors. Just because people are tough on you, don’t take that to say they don’t have your best interests in mind.”
Morgan and his wife, Hampton Professor of Mathematics Carolyn Morgan, also a Vanderbilt graduate, spoke to a noon audience that included Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos and Provost Susan Wente. They were guests of the School of Engineering, and in addition to speaking at the cultural center, Morris Morgan III capped off a full slate of Engineering Day activities with his evening keynote address in Featheringill Hall.
The Morgans were both in Vanderbilt’s class of 1969 and married soon after graduation. While both experienced incidents of racial discrimination here, they said, they made lasting friendships and found support at the university that launched their careers – first in the automotive industry and later in graduate school and academia.
“I was probably one of the first African-American women to take a course in the engineering school, and I came to my statics class every day,” Carolyn Morgan said. “And every day, there was a seat for me pushed off to the side in the front of the classroom.
“I knew that I could address a challenge, and I was going to address it.”
She made an A in that course.
Other Engineering Day events ranged from the helpful to the whimsical to the practical.
The Engineering World Health group organized a medical kit building activity where students soldered integrated circuits, resistors, capacitors and wires to an empty board. The result: ECG simulators that can be used to test machines in developing nations, plus simple heart rate sensors.
“The ECG simulator gives a signal to simulate a patient, so you can hook it up to a machine being used in a low-resource area,” said EWH President Jasmine Shu (BME’17). “They have a lot of donated medical equipment, things that are passed down and shipped over, and they don’t know if it works. This is a safety measure.”
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Theta Tau sponsored a paper airplane contest in Featheringill Hall’s atrium.
It’s impossible to know how far the winning design could have gone. Competitor Eric Zhuang (CS’19) launched it from a stairway landing, and it was stopped by the wall of a second-floor conference space on the other side of the atrium.
“My inspiration for the design was pretty simple,” he said. “It’s the classic design but with one extra fold-in so that it flies almost like a dart. I came up with it in second grade, and it’s steered me true ever since.”
In the Design Studio, students gathered around Dominic Ghilardi (ME’18), who was leading 30-minute workshops on 3D printing.
“Most people came in without knowing what software you need or where you get the files,” he said. “This was to educate people on the general principles of 3D printing so they can come back later with their designs.”
As vice-president of the Design Studio’s executive board, Ghilardi said, he took it upon himself to learn 3D printing and how to use a lot of the other tools so that he could mentor fellow students.
Visitors to Featheringill also got treated to ice cream, combining a variety of flavors and candies themselves and getting help freezing the milky mixture with liquid nitrogen. Disappointment after the liquid nitrogen ran out didn’t last long.
“Hey, it’s still candy,” said Avi Poola (ME’19).
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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