Distinguished University Professor Award Recognizes Excellence In Teaching, Research, Service
Whether it’s founding a nationally renowned research center for wind energy or recruiting students for an underwater hockey team, UMass Lowell’s Christopher Niezrecki, professor and department chair of mechanical engineering, has a knack for bringing people together. “A lot of times, faculty work independently. They just need a little spark to figure out how to come together and leverage their abilities to pursue larger efforts,” Niezrecki said. “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 accolade bestowed on a faculty member by UMass Lowell. 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,” said Niezrecki, who has been responsible for 70 research grants and contracts totaling $15.7 million since joining UMass Lowell 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 Distinguished University Professor is selected each year by a faculty committee. Niezrecki was nominated by Mechanical Engineering Associate Prof. Hunter Mack and seven others 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, adding that he is “beyond deserving” of the award for “his leadership during a time of rapid growth and success in the department.”
A native of Orange, Conn., Niezrecki holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He was an assistant professor at the University of Florida for five years before joining UMass Lowell, 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,” said 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 and productive.”
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,” said 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 National Science Foundation-supported industry-university collaboration focused on wind energy.
Meanwhile, Niezrecki began bringing together other 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,” said 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. UMass Lowell’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,” said 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) and Plastics Engineering Prof. Joey Mead (2017). 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 said he’s been able to adapt his teaching and research work to the remote environment. His “next big goal” at UMass Lowell 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 UMass Lowell in 2005 and serves as faculty adviser. “It’s a unique sport, for sure,” said Niezrecki. “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.”
UMass Lowell is a national research university offering its more than 18,000 students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe, www.uml.edu.