In Our Own Words:
A conversation with Terry Alford
February 26, 2021 | by Lanelle Strawder
Professor Terry Alford serves as the associate director of the School for Energy of Matter, Transport and Energy — one of the six schools in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He also serves as the program chair for one of the Fulton Schools’ newest graduate programs. With an ASU career spanning more than nearly 25 years, Alford is a highly regarded teacher and mentor, having advised and graduated more than 140 master’s students and 30 doctoral students in materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry and physics.
Alford has a passion for guiding students to become successful scholars and professionals, and embraces opportunities to enhance diversity and multiculturalism during their graduate education experience. He recently answered some questions about his own academic journey and promoting an inclusive environment for students and young faculty.
How did your own academic journey shape your understanding of the world?
I was with my mentor and friend in South Africa visiting their national lab, iThemba Labs. That’s between Cape Town and Stellenbosch. I was with my mentor Regents Professor James Mayer. He was a professor here and at that time I had just started. Between where we were staying and the lab, there was a squatter’s camp. And one day, I thought we were heading to the lab and we rolled into the squatter camp. I’m with this older white guy who looks like he can’t run and he can’t fight and I know I can’t either. And the first thing I thought was I’m never going to see my parents again. I’m never going to see my sisters. In that moment, that’s just how crazy I was thinking.
But when we got there, it turns out that everyone knew Jim. Each time he and his wife were in Cape Town, they would take books into the camp and met with people. They had built a playground there. They had done so many great things inside this camp. From where we were standing, when we approached this place, you could only see the outside. You could not see what was going on inside.
I also taught at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town. And we’d drive by the school and the windows were broken. But I could see students sitting in the chairs in their classrooms. So I asked my colleague, “So what do the students do on a rainy day?” He said, “They just push their desk over.”
That was humbling. Those experiences changed my outlook. You cannot look at the outward appearance or make judgments based on how outwardly attractive or even familiar something is. It took me going inside to see that there were beautiful things being done. It is about changing perspective and looking beyond face value. They also taught me that you can find value in any situation despite the circumstances. That makes me feel in many facets of life there’s still work to be done.
How has diversity in engineering changed since you were a student or early in your own academic career?
One of the great things I’ve seen across the span of my career is an increase in the number of female engineering professors. I can recall never having a female engineering professor during my entire undergraduate and graduate experience and certainly not an African American woman professor. That’s the crazy part. As an undergraduate or graduate student, I never had an African American instructor, neither at North Carolina or Cornell. However, that was some time ago, so I am excited to see that students today do not typically have that same experience.
The evolution I have seen throughout my career has been incredible, especially hearing from my former female graduate students. I’m glad to see the changing face of engineering, but we still have work to do.
When I first came here, there was one African American engineering professor, Albert McHenry who later became the dean of Polytechnic campus. When I think about students, I know that there is power in seeing someone who looks like you in a position of respect. It is an honor to teach students, to pass knowledge that will be absorbed, explored and developed. They would not put you in front of a classroom, give you the responsibility of advising students or the benefit of working with faculty if there were not some level of respect for your ability.
When I first came to. ASU, my mentor Jim told me that I could be a professor. And I told him no way. I said, “No, there’s this guy at Cornell, Mike Thompson — he’s a professor. Dieter Ast, that’s an incredible professor.” That’s what I was thinking. In my mind, I was thinking about individuals who had the greatest minds I’d ever encountered.
Jim looked at me and said, “Hey, I’m not a Mike Thompson. I’m not Dieter Ast. And you don’t have to be one either.”
That was his way of telling me that I could do it. And with that statement, he helped give me the motivation I needed to continue in my own journey toward professorship. And now, in my own way, I can be that example for students and young faculty who also aspire to professorship. Sometimes it takes seeing someone who looks like you and/or believes in you.
Have there been any Black colleagues or mentors in engineering or the sciences who have inspired you? What’s the biggest lesson you learned from them?
ASU Professor Emeritus Albert McHenry would always give me words of encouragement whenever he saw me and I appreciated that. One of the things he always noted was the importance of establishing genuine relationships with your grad students. And the only way you can build a real relationship with someone is to respect them and treat them how you would want to be treated. It is as simple as that and it is something I do with every student I advise. Even in conversations about inclusion, you quickly realize a major part of creating an inclusive environment is first and foremost treating people respectfully and being inviting. If you can do those two things, people will feel more comfortable and you can build trust.
What is your approach to mentorship?
I think of mentoring like a form of bridge building. You do it so that you can help people. You want them to have a good experience. I have always been an advocate for graduate education, and people have heard me say, the graduate school experience is one of the greatest experience one can have in their life. Because that’s when you become a member of this community of scholars, thinkers and intellectuals. And once you become a part of it, you have a responsibility to leave the world a better place, be an example and try to make an impact on individuals lives. I’ve been very fortunate with the graduate students I’ve had the pleasure of advising. It’s has been a unique a diverse group and I fully appreciate the experience of working with each of them.
So how do we get young kids interested in STEM?
Curiosity must be nurtured from an early age. That is a big part of engineering; you must have curiosity. So, it is important to give kids more exposure to engineering and science and the opportunities available to them. If kids only have entertainers or influencers in front of them, it’s more likely that that’s who they’ll aspire to be like. But we can also introduce children early on to concepts and people whose contributions make a difference in the world around us. That’s what engineering is.
I’m very proud of the work groups like National Society of Black Engineers, or NSBE, are doing to expose younger kids to engineering concepts. I know before the pandemic, they worked on projects with junior high kids to increase exposure to engineering. Part of this work is about showing the younger generation that it’s the people they see every day, people who look like them, who are doing the work to keep society operating. And those individuals have educations, careers and skillsets that are attainable for them to achieve as well.
What are some opportunities you see that could help create more diversity in the field of engineering? What can faculty members do to create a more inclusive environment?
I think one of the ways faculty members can increase diversity in the field is by finding ways to have more interaction with junior faculty — making sure they are getting mentorship from senior faculty who can show them the tricks of the trade, so to speak. When we invest in promising faculty, those individuals who bring exciting research and perspectives who we know are on the path to tenure, when we bring them into a supportive environment, we become more attractive to a broader range of young faculty. For example, we are in competition with places like Georgia Tech and Michigan, where there are extremely large African American communities. It can be hard to compete with places like that. That’s why it’s important to create environments where all people feel welcomed and embraced into a community where they both advance their careers and feel supported.