By Ed Brennen
Whether it’s founding a nationally renowned research center for wind energy or recruiting students for an underwater hockey team, Mechanical Engineering Prof. and Dept. Chair Christopher Niezrecki
has a knack for bringing people together.
“A lot of times, faculty work in silos. They just need a little spark to figure out how to come together and leverage their independent abilities to pursue larger efforts,” Niezrecki says. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts once you do that.”
Thanks in part to his team-building talents, Niezrecki has been named the 2020 Distinguished University Professor
The annual award is the highest university accolade that can be bestowed on a faculty member. It honors educators who are recognized by their peers for outstanding contributions to teaching, research and service.
“I’m happy and honored to receive this award. It’s nice to be acknowledged and appreciated by the university,” says Niezrecki, who has been responsible for 70 research grants and contracts totaling $15.7 million since joining UML in 2004 — including $7.3 million as principal investigator.
Niezrecki is the founding director of the
Center for Wind Energy, as well as co-director of the Structural Dynamics and Acoustics Systems Laboratory (SDASL
) and the
Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy.
The university professor is selected each year by a faculty committee and serves for three years. Niezrecki was nominated by Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Hunter Mack
and seven co-signers from the Francis College of Engineering
and the Kennedy College of Sciences
“His ability to bring together researchers and identify promising funding opportunities directly impacts the success of early-career faculty members, in addition to raising the profile of the university,” Mack wrote of Niezrecki, who is “beyond deserving” of the award for “his leadership during a time of rapid growth and success in the department.”
A native of Connecticut, Niezrecki holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He was an assistant professor at the University of Florida for five years before joining UML — where he was drawn by the opportunity to collaborate with Peter Avitabile
, now professor emeritus of mechanical engineering.
“I can’t think of anyone who has worked harder and done more to assemble great teams to address significant research projects than Chris,” says Avitabile, who serves as SDASL co-director with Niezrecki. “He doesn’t try to be the focal point and allows everyone to share in the success equally. And he has been instrumental in helping our younger faculty obtain significant and prestigious National Science Foundation awards, helping them become successful, productive faculty.”
While Niezrecki says he’s always been interested in renewable energy, it didn’t become a research focus until about 12 years ago, when he pioneered a vibration analysis technique called “digital image correlation” with the SDASL.
“We saw that we could use this for the inspection of wind turbine blades, and also for inspecting the dynamics of wind turbine rotors,” says Niezrecki, whose ensuing collaborations led to the formation of the Center for Wind Energy in 2009. That led to the creation of WindSTAR
, the country’s only NSF-supported industry-university collaboration focused on wind energy.
Meanwhile, Niezrecki began pulling together the “scattered” renewable energy efforts across campus. In 2015, he organized a UMass Lowell Energy Summit that drew faculty researchers from the areas of wind, solar, nuclear, biofuels and energy storage, as well as related fields such as sustainability, cybersecurity, public policy and economics.
“When I got here, there were only two faculty working in the energy program. Now we have 60 faculty involved in energy work in some capacity,” says Niezrecki, whose team-building extends far beyond the campus: He recently forged a joint research project on energy resiliency with Stony Brook University that received $7.36 million in funding this fall from the Office of Naval Research. UML’s share will be $3.7 million.
“Without people working together, we can’t really accomplish the things that we want to do on a larger scale,” says Niezrecki, who in 2018 received the Roy J. Zuckerberg Endowed Leadership Chair, which is given to one professor in the UMass system every two years to reward “leaders of courage, conviction and selflessness.”
UMass Lowell’s Distinguished University Professors each serve for three years and include 2019 honoree Music Prof. William Moylan, Psychology Prof. Meg Bond (2018), Plastics Engineering Prof. Joey Mead (2017) and History Prof. Robert Forrant (2016).
Niezrecki is the 13th professor to receive the award since it was established in 2008. He will deliver the annual Distinguished University Professor Lecture in the spring.
Although he hasn’t been able to meet face-to-face with students and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic, Niezrecki says he’s been able to adapt his teaching and research work to the remote environment. His “next big goal” at UML is to take the recently formed Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy “from a concept to a functioning institute that has a real impact.”
Niezrecki also looks forward to returning to the Costello Athletic Center pool with the underwater hockey club, which he started at UML in 2005 and serves as faculty advisor.
“It’s a unique sport, for sure,” says Niezrecki, who also started a club team at the University of Florida. “You really need to work together as a team to excel, which I guess goes to my collaborative nature. Successes are sweeter when they’re shared with other people.”