Dr. Wesley Harris was one of the first African-American students accepted to UVA and the first African-American member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, a club I joined during my time in grad school. For Black History Month, I wanted to look up his work and share it with other people. I said this would be the engineering equivalent of our law students looking up the case history of our first woman member, Barbara Lynn.
Wesley Harris was born in Richmond in 1941, and was interested in flight from a young age. As a child, he would make model airplanes out of balsa wood or plastic, and he even made self-powered ones that used rubber bands. By fourth grade, he wanted to be a test pilot. Harris was one of seven Black students first admitted to the University of Virginia in 1960. The students were only allowed to study within the School of Engineering and Applied Science. A friend who knew the history told me this was because “practical” engineering work was considered the only suitable field of study for these seven students, and they were barred from the “intellectual” College of Arts and Sciences and other units.
Harris invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at UVA in 1963, which was considered momentous in the history of UVA and, to some, revitalized King’s momentum in the Birmingham campaign. The administration at the time did not really acknowledge the King visit and the then-president of the university did not meet with him. While walking with King and the professor hosting him, Harris heard a loud noise and tried to protect King thinking it was a gun shot, but it turned out to be car engine blowing out. Harris was inducted into Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, and for his senior year (or if you insist on the UVA terminology, “fourth year”) was accepted to live on the Lawn of the Academical Village, the original part of the university grounds designed by Thomas Jefferson. For non-UVA people, living on the Lawn is a BIG deal and basically like an honor society of its own. Lots of people believe Harris was the first Black student to live on the Lawn, but Harris will be one of the first to say he was actually the second and point out that he came after Leroy Willis. Harris graduated with honors in aeronautical engineering in 1964.
Harris went on to graduate school at Princeton, where he earned a master’s and PhD in aerospace and mechanical sciences. He then went back to UVA as a professor, becoming the first African-American professor in the engineering school and the first to receive tenure at UVA. He taught at UVA for two years before moving to Southern University, a historically Black university in Louisiana, and then took a visiting professor position at MIT before joining the aeronautics and astronautics department there full-time.
Dr. Harris’ early research focused on fluid dynamics and the acoustic properties of rotor blades (like helicopter blades). He studied objects moving close to or above the speed of sound and the noise they generate. This is important because excessive noise represents lost efficiency in a rotor. Additionally, if high-speed supersonic/hypersonic vehicles are to become a reality, we need to reduce the noise they generate from shock waves (a common complaint about the Concorde when it used to fly). Dr. Harris worked to replace “semi-empirical” (a term in engineering that often means we’ve found a way to mathematically describe something, but don’t understand the principles well) models of shock waves from helicopter rotors with more theoretically-backed analytical models. This work on helicopters and high-speed air flows earned him a spot as a fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). His work and service have also made him a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering. For professional researchers, becoming a fellow of a scientific society is basically the grown-up version of being in a high school or college honor society, and being a fellow of one of the National Academies is one of the highest honors you can get in STEM fields.
Since around 2000, Dr. Harris has studied the fluid dynamics of sickle cell disease. If you’re aware of sickle cell disease, you may generally think of the problem being the defective hemoglobin sickle cells have that is less efficient at carrying oxygen. However, another problem is that the strange shape of sickle cells can cause them to get stuck and accumulate in smaller blood vessels, causing a “sickle cell crisis”. Dr. Harris and his students have been developing models to better predict what causes the onset of crises, looking at both the movement of the blood cells and the chemical diffusion of oxygen during a crisis.
Like many other STEM professors who reach a certain age, Dr. Harris has also been very active in understanding and improving engineering education. In 1996, he wrote a paper for AIAA titled “Will the last aeronautical engineering turn out the light?”, looking at the evolution of aeronautical engineering curricula since WWII. In the article, he raises a concern that that newer changes are de-emphasizing engineering science fundamentals to focus on specific technology systems companies want students to know, but could quickly become outdated over the course of an engineer’s career.
in 2012, Dr. Harris co-authored “Opportunities and Challenges in Corrosion Education” with the current chair of the materials science department at UVA as part of a program for the National Research Council. The paper argued that knowledge of corrosion is informally handled in many engineering programs and often non-existent. At the undergraduate level, most schools without research faculty do not teach corrosion concepts, and if they do, the topic is rarely covered in required classes and is only given a lecture or two’s worth of time. (UVA gets a positive shout out here for the MSE department’s class on fuel cells, batteries, and corrosion that links them all through a focus on basic electrochemistry.) At the graduate level, the report expressed concern that research funding into corrosion is declining. I think this paper is particularly important in that it partially predicts the conversation developing in engineering circles after the Flint water crisis. Although even after reading through dozens of articles and engineering memos by contractors, I still don’t entirely understand the technical conversations that went on, I think the report’s fear that corrosion engineering wasn’t taught conceptually came into play here. If you were just going off something like a corrosion chart, you might not understand why highly chlorinated water poses a corrosion risk otherwise stable metals and alloys.
Finally, Dr. Harris has been incredibly active in serving the broader scientific and engineering communities. He was dean of the School of Engineering at the University Connecticut from 1985 to 1990 and a member of Princeton’s Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2005. He chaired the National Research Council’s Committee to Assess NASA’s Aeronautic Flight Research capabilities, which concluded that NASA should enhance its research into Earth-based flight in the 2010s in a way to enable a boom similar to how NASA’s work in the 90s enabled modern commercial and military use of drones. In particular, the committee said NASA should test more environmentally friendly aircraft and supersonic passenger aircraft to spur on those fields. At the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Harris serves on the Committee on Grand Challenges for Engineering, defining important issues for engineering to solve. It seems incredibly appropriate that this trailblazing figure for engineering and society in the 20th century now works to identify the challenges we will face in the 21st century. And of course, this was only a summary of what Dr. Harris has done. If you want to see more, you can start at his MIT faculty page.