USF Engineering Celebrates Black Heritage Month with Faculty Spotlight

2024 Black Heritage Month

As part of the University of South Florida's celebration of Black Heritage Month this February, the College of Engineering would like to highlight the backgrounds and perspectives of its black faculty members. The faculty members listed below have shared what drew them to the engineering profession, what advice they have for students thinking of becoming engineers and why diversity is so important in the engineering field.

Christopher Alexander

 Christopher Alexander, Ph.D.

Growing up, my favorite subjects were math and science. I became an engineer because I wanted to use math and science to develop new - and improve existing - technologies that better our society.

My research focuses on the detection, mitigation, and prediction of corrosion in civil infrastructure. One of the challenges limiting our progress in understanding the initiation and propagation of corrosion in reinforced concrete structures is the lack of reliable non-destructive techniques to assess corrosion damage and the limited availability of corrosion data as a function of environmental parameters. To overcome this challenge, our research group is developing in-situ measurement techniques to track the ingress of aggressive ions into the concrete over time such that reliable parameters may be obtained and implemented into corrosion prediction models. We are also developing a nondestructive technique to rapidly assess reinforced concrete structures for corrosion using kelvin probes and a technique called electrochemical impedance spectroscopy.

Students considering a career in engineering should take advantage of the many internship and undergraduate research opportunities available. Students should explore the different disciplines within engineering and learn about the problems that need to be solved. Students should determine what problems they are passionate about and imagine innovative ways of overcoming them.

Diversity is important in the engineering profession because it provides an environment where creativity can thrive. People of different cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds see problems from different perspectives. When a diverse group of people work together, they are able to tackle problems from all of those different angles and come up with innovative solutions that blend their perspectives. Diversity not only makes challenging problems solvable but allows people to learn from each other and become more aware of the many faces of the world we live in. 


Frank Pyrtle, Ph.D.

Frank Pyrtle, Ph.D.

I became an engineer because it was a fit for my natural talents and abilities. Starting with my introduction to physical science, I was intrigued by the use of observation, mathematics, and reasoning to understand and explain phenomena.

As an instructor, my focus is teaching and service. The areas in which I teach are the thermal sciences and mathematics. As a licensed professional engineer, my contribution to projects tend to be in the areas of heat transfer, fluid flow, and energy management. 

I tell students that while they are in college, they should take advantage of opportunities to extend and enhance their engineering education. Those opportunities include participation in undergraduate research experience programs, internships, and community service in the areas in which they live and work. Engineers have responsibilities to solve problems and to provide leadership.

Diversity is important to the engineering profession because the development of innovative solutions requires consideration of problems from multiple perspectives. For too long, the profession has not reflected the diversity of people who make up the society that the profession serves.


Henrick Jeanty, Ph.D.

Henrick Jeanty, Ph.D.

When I was in high school in Africa in 1975, a schoolmate brought back a calculator after returning from vacation in France. I asked if I could try it. He let me do so and I remember punching in 4 + 3. The calculator displayed a 7, and that was it! I was hooked. I knew then that I wanted to know how that calculator worked and how to build it. Before that fateful day, I had wanted to become a doctor like my parents. So, I went home, asked my dad where can one learn about calculators. He told me that after I graduate from high school I would need to go to college and learn electrical engineering. That was it. I never looked back at that decision. I was 14.

As an instructor, I do not have research projects of my own. However, I do work on projects with other faculty members who might need professional level programming. On my own, I work on games that can help develop vocabulary and spelling. I am always on the lookout for bright students who might want to work on something like that.

As with any career you might be considering, make sure that you have a PASSION for it. There would be nothing worse for you than to end up in a field that leaves you bored or cold.

I believe diversity is important everywhere. Without inputs from different perspectives, you might miss an opportunity or, worse, do something that is really offensive to some group. Take for instance the fiasco of the Katy Perry Black Shoes. Katy Perry partnered with Global Brands Group and created a pair of shoe designs with protruding eyes, nose and full red lips. Both styles drew comparison to blackface. The backlash was such that Perry had to apologize. Had there been more diversity in the group responsible for the design, there probably would have been someone to point out the issue with the blackface look. Basically, if you do not have representation of diverse groups you do not get diverse ideas. Imagine a company that only has men. How good of a woman's product would they build? Diversity is also useful in education. You want a diverse faculty in order to reach out to a diverse student body. A diverse faculty has a better understanding of different students and can better help them in their pursuit of education.


Michael Maness, Ph.D.

Michael Maness, Ph.D.

As a child, I was always fascinated with travel. I would draw highways on writing pads, play with toy cars, and ride the bus all over town with my grandmother. When I realized that civil engineers created highway and designed transit systems, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer. 

My current research looks at forecasting demand for leisure travel. What makes my approach different is that I concentrate on how people’s interpersonal social networks impact their choice of leisure activities and transportation impacts their access to social resources. Additionally, I am working on forecasting the demand for unmanned aerial systems, including flying shared ride services and drone freight delivery.

The exposure that students get to different instructors and learning styles as well as through their interactions with other students is a great opportunity to experience the open-ended nature of our world. New perspectives and new challenges are critical to your development as an engineer and a member of society.

Engineering is about helping people and the generation of new ideas to solve society’s problems. Diversity helps the engineering profession more effectively explore the idea space and to understand the varying concerns and issues challenging people from all backgrounds.



 Olukemi Akintewe, Ph.D.

Right from an early age, I have been fascinated with product design, processes and manufacturing. In particular, I was and am still interested in products that impact human health and improve lives. My curiosity led me to major in chemical engineering as an undergraduate where i learned about material synthesis, product development and design processes. During my coursework, I learned about polymer science and its application in medicine; this ignited my interest in research and development. Then I decided to pursue biological engineering research projects in graduate school. 

My research areas have been in polymer engineering, tissue engineering and cardiovascular research. As a new instructor teaching undergraduate biomedical engineering laboratory courses, I will be teaching students how to fabricate biological relevant scaffolds for inducing unique cellular responses. The knowledge gained would be transferable to tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and even drug delivery systems.

The field of engineering teaches you how to solve problems and think critically. I would encourage students considering engineering to make sure to take AP math and physics in high school in order to prepare for the engineering coursework. Since there are different disciplines in engineering, potential students should know the different engineering disciplines and select one based on their interests and the desired work environment.

Diversity promotes the generation of different ideas that could help foster creativity and more inventions that would benefit different populations. 


Sylvia Thomas, Ph.D.

Sylvia Thomas, Ph.D.

Dr. Thomas' research and teaching endeavors are in the areas of Advanced Materials for applications in alternative energy sources, sustainable environments, and bio-applications for nano-electro mechanical system (NEMS) devices – nanowires and nanoparticles. Her research explores the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) growth nucleation, film characterization, and device fabrication of III-V and II-IV materials, such as AlN and SiC. Her research is interdisciplinary in nature and fosters collaborations with Chemical and Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, Public Health, Medicine, and the Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Research Center (NNRC).

My passion is to make a difference in the lives of people across the world not only through technology but by being an example of what faith, hard work, and community can help you accomplish. In addition, I wanted to continue a legacy, in remembrance of my father and in honor of my mother, who both devoted their talents to STEM education.

Never stop exploring the possibilities of what you can do as an engineer and the lives you can change. Always lead with your BEST effort. The analytical mindset you gain from an engineering education can help you succeed in any career - e.g. as a doctor, lawyer, pilot, etc.

Diverse talents, ideas, needs, and experiences are the building blocks of all creation and technology. Cultural diversity, particularly under-represented diversity in STEM, has to be embraced and nurtured to address global challenges from different perspectives. Diversity leads to survival and progress.


 Tempestt Neal, Ph.D.

 Tempestt Neal, Ph.D.

I didn’t purposely seek a career in engineering. I enrolled at my undergraduate institution as a music education major; after one semester, I was convinced that I made the wrong decision. I reached out to some of the faculty in the computer science department, and Dr. James Myers, who would become my undergraduate advisor, was very instrumental in my decision to change my major. I chose CS mainly because I was already comfortable working with computers and had an interest in graphic design. It was the next thing that I felt “good at.” Thankfully, it was the best decision I’ve made regarding my education.

I lead the Cyber Identity and Behavior Research Group housed in the CSE department. We work on some pretty cool projects that are all centered on mobile devices. In a nutshell, we extract data from various sensors such as accelerometers to understand human behavior. Smartphones are incredible tools for studying user behavior, having at least 15 sensors that can capture data ranging from location patterns to physical activities. By analyzing this information, we can gain insight about human behavior in different circumstances. One focus of our work is biometric recognition by learning phone usage patterns and then using those patterns to authenticate the current user of the phone. This work eliminates the need for smartphone users to remember log-in information such as passwords and prevents the need to store more sensitive biometric data such as fingerprints or face. Since the user is authenticated according to how they behave, the service works passively in the background without user intervention. Other projects correlate smartphone sensing data with self-reports of emotion or activities, which has proven useful for understanding stress-related behaviors and social integration. Ultimately, what drives our research are two main research questions: (1) How do people behave when affected by certain circumstances? and (2) What are the implications of the observed behaviors?

Engineering is so broad, and that’s what makes the discipline so fun. Anyone slightly interested in engineering should definitely learn more about the field; chat with some STEM professors or watch some online videos about a topic of interest. Don’t assume that you’re not “engineer material” if you are of a certain demographic or not a lover of math. Unfortunately, some aspects of engineering are tied to stereotypes that may intimidate people or push those interested away. In reality, the advancement of engineering is dependent upon groups of diverse opinions. If you think you can have an impact on the discipline, then you absolutely can.   

Diversity is important for all professions. People are molded by their upbringing, the social norms in their communities, opinions of their family members and peers, their dreams and goals, past experiences, etc. When diversity is prioritized and embraced, people are placed in a unique and favorable condition in which everyone can work together, each contributing something unique because we are all unique. Solutions to very complex problems become possible, people grow more accepting of each other and other cultures, increasing the global impact of their work.