CFA Faculty Recital on Thursday, January 31,
at 8 p.m., at the Tsai Performance Center
Week of 25 January 2002 · Vol. V, No. 20


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Photonics Center's Hubbard wins a Black Engineer of the Year award

By David J. Craig

When James Hubbard talks to young African-American students considering a career in engineering, he offers the same advice once drilled into him: you can't do it alone.


James Hubbard, a BU research associate professor, recently received a Black Engineer of the Year award for his contributions to the field of engineering and for his efforts to help young black engineers. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


As an "angry young black man" studying at MIT in the 1970s, Hubbard says, he thought he could do just that. But somewhere on the road to becoming a prominent engineer, he smartened up.

"When I was teaching at MIT, I sometimes would assign three weeks' worth of work in a week, assuming students would form study groups," says Hubbard, a BU research associate professor, senior systems engineer at the Photonics Center, and the chief technical officer of iProvica, a high-tech company supported by and located at the center. "If a black student in a course like that doesn't join a study group and tries to do all that work on his own, he's going to be at the bottom of his class at the end of the semester. He won't understand why, the professor probably won't give a damn why, and life goes on.

"So I tell students that even if they think their peers don't want them around," he continues, "they've got to find a way, without compromising themselves, to become a part of the engineering community or it won't work."

For his contributions to the engineering field and his efforts mentoring young black students and serving his community, Hubbard will receive the 2002 Black Engineer President's Award, one of about two dozen annual Black Engineer of the Year awards. The awards are sponsored by the Career Communications Group, publisher of U.S. Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine, the Council of Engineering Deans of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Lockheed Martin, and DaimlerChrysler. Hubbard will be honored at a February 26 reception at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.

"Winning an award like this," he says, "is a chance for me to show all the people who have mentored me and taken risks for me over the years that their time was well spent."

Stacked deck
Hubbard, who has been at the Photonics Center since 1995, has spent much of the past 15 years developing a revolutionary sensing technology that receives information not at a single point -- as does a thermometer, or an individual eye of a home burglar alarm -- but all over a large surface.

iProvica now is preparing to launch SmartSkin, a medical product based on the technology. SmartSkin transforms beds, wheelchairs, cribs, shoes, and clothes into noninvasive sensing mechanisms that track and chronicle patient activities and medical indicators such as respiration and temperature.

When Hubbard was growing up in rural Virginia, it did not seem likely that he would contribute to major advances in medicine. His father worked in a tobacco mill until he "couldn't take it anymore and left" for Philadelphia, where he hoped to move the family. But his mother, a civil rights worker who spent almost a year during Hubbard's adolescence in jail on charges related to her activism, moved him and his sister to Baltimore in 1965 after reading about a public high school there designed to prepare students for careers in engineering.

"I always loved opening up machines and appliances around the house to see how they worked, but I didn't even know what engineering was," says Hubbard. "My mother did, and when she realized that there was no future for us in Virginia, she saw my brain as a ticket out."

Hubbard got good grades in high school, but his counselors discouraged him from applying to college, based at least partly, he believes, on the color of his skin. "They said I didn't have what it took," he says. So he enrolled in the Merchant Marine and trained for three years to became a licensed ship engineer, spending a year in Vietnam helping operate large steam and diesel ships.

In 1972, however, "yearning for a broader, more powerful engineering background," he says, he returned to academics. He studied for three years at Morgan State University and then attended MIT, earning bachelor's and master's degrees and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. It was during his first year at MIT, Hubbard says, that he matured.

"I didn't meet many white people growing up on the streets of Baltimore, so when I came to Boston it was like landing on another planet," he says. "I got in an awful lot of trouble my first few weeks at MIT, and I got sent to the department head's office." Herbert Richardson was the head of mechanical engineering at the time, and he saw something in Hubbard. He introduced the testy young student to Wesley Harris, a black professor who became Hubbard's academic advisor.

"Dr. Harris insisted I settle down and made me dot my i's and cross my t's," he says. "He's the epitome of a distinguished scholar, extremely competent, articulate, humble, and he made me want to be like him." From Harris' example, Hubbard says, he also learned to deal with the "subtle, yet effective" racism of some of his peers and professors.

"I grew up where overt racism was everywhere, and I knew how to handle that," Hubbard says. "But to be around the best minds in the world and confront [racism] was really tough. Fortunately, people like Dr. Harris and Dr. Richardson helped me over time to feel a part of engineering."

It takes a village
Hubbard got his big break professionally in the early 1980s, working at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge as part of a small engineering "tiger team" assigned to hot national-security projects for the Department of Defense. There he designed exotic, top-secret tools for Special Forces. He also developed the sensing technology that is the basis for SmartSkin; the government's interest was in its application for military surveillance.

The executive vice president of Draper at the time was Donald Fraser, now also a BU professor, who subsequently helped found and presently directs the Photonics Center. "He ran a lab with 2,500 employees, and when he wanted an engineer to take on a really crazy and high-risk project, he came to me, because he knew I was fearless," Hubbard says. "I was a young guy without a family so I wasn't worried about a project blowing up on me."

In return for his intrepidity and what Hubbard calls a string of unlikely successes, Fraser granted him the "freedom and resources to pursue my dream projects." He followed Fraser to the Photonics Center in 1995, after a three-year stint as executive vice president of the Bedford, Mass., high-tech company Optron Systems. The kind of professional freedom that Fraser allows, Hubbard says, is the sweetest fruit of an intellectual life. "In the end, knowledge means freedom, and that's something people in the black community understand and know is worth striving for."

So today, when he's not brainstorming new products for iProvica, Hubbard looks for opportunities to share his inspiring story with young people -- like a class of fifth-graders in Danville, Va., whom he corresponded with for a semester last year, or young black and female engineers who attend a networking conference he helps organize every two years.

"I'm not really in engineering because I love solving mathematical puzzles," he says. "When I look at something in nature, I want to know why it works the way it does and what was on God's mind when He made it.

"So I've given a lot of thought to what we're supposed to be doing on this earth, and I don't think we're supposed to be chasing a six-figure salary, and I don't think that when the race is over anyone will care if you published 60 papers," he continues. "What I do think is important are our interactions with each other. I might put 200 hundred percent of my time into a research project and have it not pay off, but every single moment I've invested in a student has been rewarding. You can't beat that with a stick."


25 January 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations