Undergrad research experience inspired award to honor Prof. Larry Bergman

4/17/2023 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Don Leo, B.S. '90, and his wife Jeannine Alexander
Don Leo, B.S. '90, and his wife Jeannine Alexander

Donald J. Leo, B.S. ’90, said his undergraduate experience working on a research project with Professor Larry Bergman was “incredibly impactful” in his life. This year, Leo and his wife Jeannine Alexander decided to recognize that impact. They created the Lawrence Bergman Undergraduate Research Award.

“I was in my junior year at Illinois. Another student, Stuart Pang, and I worked on a project about innovative space propulsion funded by NASA Glenn with nuclear engineering Professor Clifford Singer and Dr. Bergman,” Leo recalled. “When it came time to give a presentation, he specifically wanted me and Stuart to do it. He said, ‘You guys did the work. You should do the presentation.’ In hindsight, that was really important. He wanted us to do the talking to the engineers at NASA and to get the credit. That’s not something every professor would do.”

Leo recalled a one-on-one conversation with Bergman about that same time.

Donald J. Leo with Prof. Larry Bergman
Donald J. Leo with Prof. Larry Bergman in 2014 when Leo received the Distinguished Alumni Award.

“I told him I enjoyed doing research and he said, ‘First thing, you should get a Ph.D.’ A few weeks later I told him I was interested, so I applied a few places and eventually got accepted at the University of Buffalo to work with Dan Inman, largely due to a recommendation from Dr. Bergman.”

Leo completed his master’s degree in ’92 and his doctorate in ’95, then worked in industry for a couple of years. He said he always knew he wanted a career in academia.

Leo has served as the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia since 2013. Prior to joining UGA, he was a faculty member and associate dean in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and a vice president for the Virginia Tech National Capital Region. He also served as a program manager at DARPA in the Defense Sciences Office from 2005 to 2007. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a Member of the American Society for Engineering Education. Leo is the author of the textbook Engineering Analysis of Smart Material Systems.

“I've used that undergraduate research project as an example to my students,” Leo said. “My hope is that undergrad research is as impactful for them as it was for me. If they come away from a project really enjoying research, they may have a completely different career path than they had going in. It was very formative for me.

“The project was so valuable to me because Dr. Bergman was very frank about the work that we were doing,” Leo said. “He always wanted us to get it right and told us when we were wrong. Over time I appreciated that. You learn a lot when people tell you like it is—telling you what you're doing right and telling you what you're doing wrong.”

Bergman’s expertise is in the areas of linear and nonlinear dynamics and vibration and applied stochastic processes. He earned his Ph.D. in applied mechanics, in 1980, from Case Western Reserve University. He joined the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1979, and moved to what is now the Department of Aerospace Engineering in 1983. He retired in 2016 but remains an active professor emeritus. Prior to retirement, he was also affiliated with the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois.

Over the years he has served as visiting and/or guest professor at Rice University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Innsbruck, Austria, Florida Atlantic University, and the National Technical University of Athens.

Leo said Bergman has been a great mentor.

“He wanted to give me a different experience—one I hope the future recipients of this award will also be impacted by. Jeannine and I wanted to do something, and this endowment—even if it’s small—because it’ll go on in perpetuity, we hope it will help recognize Dr. Bergman and his influence on me and my career path. We hope it will help others find their career.

The first recipient of the Lawrence Bergman Undergraduate Research Award is AE senior Zain Jamal, from Morton Grove, Illinois. Jamal was a summer intern in 2021 with the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program coordinated by NASA Illinois Space Grant Consortium and has been an undergraduate researcher in the Saxton-Fox research group during all four of his years at Illinois.

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This story was published April 17, 2023.