YSU Friedman Chair’s Focus Goes Beyond Research

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In just eight short weeks, the Mahoning Valley has made its impression on Eric MacDonald.

MacDonald, hired over the summer to hold the Friedman Chair in Engineering at Youngstown State University, said Tuesday what stands out in his mind is neither the new equipment in the labs of Moser Hall nor the research students conduct.

What stand out about Youngstown, he said, are the foliage and the food.

“I spent a lot of my life in Texas and most everything is kind of brown and thorny. It’s almost paralizingly beautiful here,” he said after he was introduced during a press conference. “And the Italian food is great. Something I had never heard of before was the wedding soup. It was pretty spectacular.”

Winter, he added, is eagerly anticipated in his household, although many have told him that will change by April.

MacDonald’s position was created by a $2.5-million endowment from Morris and Phyllis Friedman. Morris Friedman, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1934, founded United Steel Services in Brookfield in 1968.

“When you sit in that chair, it’s an unbelievable responsibility. If you could even be this much,” said YSU President Jim Tressel to MacDonald, holding his fingers an inch or two apart, “of Morris Friedman, you’ll have a heck of an impact. We know you can do it and we appreciate it.”

For MacDonald, perhaps the biggest appeal of the position is the stability the endowment brings. Running research efforts that require funding from grants is a feast or famine effort. When money runs out, everything stops.

“This endowment allows me to have continuity and keep my inertia with research and keep students employed,” he said, noting the endowment will be used in conjunction with grant monies. “This is a game-changer for me.”

An electrical engineer before he became an educator, MacDonald’s research has dealt with incorporating components such as sensors, wires and other electronics into 3-D printed parts.

“They become satellite components that have propulsion embedded or antennas in the structure or thermal management added,” he explained. “It gives us the ability to have capillaries in three dimensions, have more complex geometries and remove excess heat from structures more efficiently.”

Before he came to YSU, MacDonald was a professor and associate director of the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation at the University of Texas at El Paso. His projects there received almost $16 million in grant funding.

He also serves as deputy editor of the Dutch trade publication Additive Manufacturing, which can bring an extra layer to students’ education he said.

“There’s a confluence between education, publication and research,” he says. “For graduate students to publish their research is crucial to the process of the scientific method. Even for undergrads, they can learn to write a section, improve their writing skills and get something on their resume.”

MacDonald has founded or co-founded several companies, including El Paso Instruments and Printed Device Concepts, both in El Paso. Also on his resume is work for IBM as a microprocessor designer.

Having interdisciplinary experience, YSU Provost Martin Abraham said, is what made MacDonald stand out during the interviews. Beyond just conducting research and working with students, MacDonald has experience in working with businesses and the application of research.

“We couldn’t look for just the best researcher because that doesn’t work at Youngstown State,” the provost said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people out there who have established a solid research reputation, a solid educational background and the right demeanor to be effective in our environment.”

Added Brett Conner, director of advanced manufacturing workforce initiatives and a professor at YSU, “Eric was far and away the best candidate and the best fit for YSU. … To use a football analogy, when you make a draft pick that turns everyone’s head – that’s what has happened here.”

Moving to YSU, MacDonald continued, was “a natural progression.” With industry-renowned organizations such as America Makes and the Youngstown Business Incubator nearby, the area is “ground zero” for additive manufacturing. And, among the advantages he sees is the proximity of related businesses.

El Paso, the westernmost city in Texas, is remote. The closest major city is Albuquerque, N.M., a nearly four-hour drive north, and the closest major city in state, San Antonio, is more than seven.

“Here, I can get to two or three 3-D printing companies in an hour’s drive or a 10-minute walk. That’s a profound difference,” he said.

While MacDonald has been a resident of the Mahoning Valley only two months, his history with the city dates back years. His first introduction was through conferences held at America Makes in downtown and visits to the 3-D printing labs hosted by Conner.

“In this research area, this school is well known. There’s a strong group of high-level researchers. The infrastructure is here,” he said. “The proximity to these national institutes has a profound impact on what you can do.”

Just a few weeks into the school year, MacDonald admitted he’s still adjusting to the university, but becoming increasingly comfortable. A few seniors have impressed him and, by the end of his first semester, he expects to be in full stride with teaching and research.

Among the plans he has for the future of research in the additive manufacturing program at YSU is developing processes for quality control. Beyond the university, MacDonald aims to foster an interest in additive manufacturing with local high schools students. Even bringing them into the labs for half an hour, he said, could spark an interest.

“The research we do can capture the imagination of anyone from a kindergartner to a senator,” he said. “I like to get them early and grow them into master’s and Ph.D. students so they have a longer time of being exposed to this technology and are more adept at designing structures that require a new way of thinking.”

And for Abraham, founding dean of YSU’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, bringing in MacDonald – whom Tressel hailed as “a rock star” at places like America Makes – is an excellent omen for the quality of the program.

“One of the things we were trying to do was raise the stature of the college and the stature of the university,” the provost said of his first days at YSU. “The ability to bring someone of Eric’s stature is validation that we can do that. We still have work to do … but it’s an indication of progress.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.