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WHEN DEXTER JOHNSON solidified his future in aerospace engineering, thanks to one of William Rae’s courses at UB, he realized nearly all of his youthful obsessions had prepared him for this pivotal moment: his fascination with astronomy, his reading about the Apollo mission, and his pleasure in building models of rockets and jets. “It all came together in aerospace,” he says.
Now Johnson (PhD ’95, MS ’88 & BS ’87, all in engineering) works as an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland helping to test hardware for the space shuttle, and the shuttle’s replacements, the Orion and Ares vehicles—making sure the rockets and their payload will survive the shock, vibration, acoustics and load of their environment on a mission. Rae, he says, brought personal work experience to bear on the subject, made himself approachable for questions and then, as Johnson’s talent began to emerge in class, took a special interest in his student’s future. He was a pivotal mentor. “He opened up to me in particular when I did well in class, and he encouraged me to pursue graduate school. I’ve maintained a relationship with him ever since.”
—David Dorsey with photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89
What do you think is different (both better and worse) for students today compared with when you went to UB?
Do you keep in touch with UB friends today?
Yes. This has been enhanced by having a Facebook account. Since I have been on Facebook, I have reconnected with some friends I had not seen in 20 years or more!Dexter Johnson
I think the expanded capability of the Internet and computing has enhanced technical tools, communication culture and creativity (positive). However, there is a tendency to be proficient in using technology and a lessening of the fundamental understanding of the underlying principles within that technology; e.g., engineers being able to use calculators to produce an answer but not understanding the engineering principles that are needed to solve the problem.
What’s your impression of the university today?
My impression has been broadening in the last year or so since serving on the Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council. I have become well acquainted with the UB 2020 vision and have seen the great strides that have been taken to make that vision a reality. I see the opening of the Downtown Campus, the building of the new engineering building connecting the Ellicott Complex to the Spine, the quality of new faculty and students, all having been indicators of a growing, vibrant and excelling institution. I’m proud to be a UB alumnus.
Last book read? Do you use an e-reader?
“The Pursuit of God” by A.W. Tozer. It is a Christian classic and was very impactful in my life. I don’t use an e-reader … yet.
What do you miss most about your time as a student?
The student associations and activities. I was very active in the UB Gospel Choir and the National Society of Black Engineers. I held lead offices in both organizations. I enjoyed the relationships that were built and the activities we participated in. The university culture is very enjoyable to me.
What advice do you have for current UB students? “If I knew then what I know now…”
Take full advantage of your college experience. Get advice and counsel from several sources and make decisions based on your faith and your heart. Don’t try to succeed on your own—everyone needs help.
Favorite UB class or professor?
William Rae was my best undergraduate professor. He taught mechanical and aerospace engineering courses. I related well to him and did well in his classes. He was instrumental in connecting me with my graduate school adviser, Dan Inman, resulting in my eventual pursuit of engineering graduate degrees. Dr. Inman was my best graduate school professor.
If you could have had one technological advancement/device here now that wasn’t around in the 1990s, what would it be?
Smartphone—it’s like a portable electronic toolbox allowing many tasks to be accomplished with one device (e-mail, phone, Internet, GPS, calendar, organizer, entertainment, etc.).
How did you do your homework and/or research papers before Google or the Internet?
I spent a lot of time at the library looking at journal publications, reference books and conference proceedings. I also used e-mail to contact colleagues and share info electronically.
How did UB influence your life and career?
UB was very instrumental in influencing my career choice to become an aerospace engineer. I was in a program during the summer after my junior year in high school called the Minority Engineering Program. It was a precursor to the Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness for Minorities (BEAM) and was designed to introduce students in underrepresented populations to the field of engineering. I learned about many engineering disciplines but aerospace engineering caught my attention. I then decided to pursue that discipline and consequently attended UB, obtaining a BS in aerospace engineering, and an MS and PhD in mechanical engineering.
In a more personal way, I developed many lifelong relationships with students, faculty and others who have enriched my life substantially. I am currently enhancing my relationships at UB by serving on the Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council.
Would you still select the same major if you had to do it all over again?
David Dorsey is a Rochester-based freelance writer whose credits include Esquire and Fast Company (Dilek Cindoglu, Dexter Johnson, Atif Zafar); Grace Lazzara is a Buffalo-based writer and public relations strategist (Andra Ackerman, Gwen Howard, Bridget Cullen Mandikos); Mara McGinnis, BA ’97, is executive director of communications at Pratt Institute and a New York City-based freelance writer (Randy Asher, Steve Marchese, Rodney Sharman).