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The Fierce Urgency of NOW – Dr. Fokion N. Egolfopoulos

Dr. Fokion N. Egolfopoulos is the William E. Leonhard Professor in Engineering at the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering of the University of Southern California. He received a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens in 1981 and an MSc in Mechanical Engineering from San Jose State University in 1984. He received a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from the National Technical University of Athens in 1981 and a M.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from San Jose State University in 1984. Subsequently, he received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from University of California at Davis in 1990, after having spent the last two years of his doctoral research at Princeton University. 

A distinguished scientist and Hellene, he spoke to The National Herald about his work, the challenges facing mankind, and the Greek-American community in Los Angeles. 

TNH: What were the events in your life that shaped you?

FE: My parents’ guidance and encouragement, my love for the U.S. culture even before I came here, my tenure as a doctoral student, the passing of my parents, with my happiest moments being when I received the offer from the University of Southern California and when my daughter was born. The effects of these factors/events were multifaceted, but in the end, excitement, sorrow, and happiness helped me equally to grow and mature into who I am today.

The National Herald: What brought you to the United States?

Fokion Egolfopoulos: During my high school years in the mid-1970s, the U.S. was a real superpower, a beacon of prosperity, hope, and opportunity. This influenced me a great deal, and I developed an unparalleled admiration for this country, hoping that one day I could just visit. As an undergraduate student in Greece, I also developed a passion for engineering and science, and I wanted to come to the U.S. to further my education. Life was nice to me. My brother, a Greek Navy officer, went to the States to pursue a graduate degree at the Naval Postgraduate School, and he paved the way and supported me to come to the States and start graduate school. My educational journey in the States began at San Jose State University, continued at the University of California at Davis, and ended at Princeton University. At present, I am an Endowed Chair Professor (William E. Leonhard Professor in Engineering) at the department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering of the University of Southern California.

TNH: Give us an outline of your work and your best achievements.

FE: I had the chance to work on problems that can impact humanity in more than one way. During my doctoral studies, I worked with a well-known professor, initially at the University of California, Davis, and then at Princeton University, on the science of combustion, aiming to improve the efficiency of engines and reduce the attendant emissions. Our civilization is energy-based and, more specifically, fuel-based, given that nearly 80-85% of the world’s power is produced via combustion. The work that I have been doing contributes to the advancement of our understanding of the combustion process and has been implemented in applications by industry and the laboratories of the Department of Defense.  

TNH: Which stages of your education were critical for your work?

FE: My tenure as a doctoral student was the most challenging experience I had. The training was very intense. Regarding my work as a faculty member, balancing teaching, research, and service can be a challenge as it is easy to get fragmented. Lastly, securing research grants is a big challenge, as the competition is fierce. The success rate is frequently around 10-15% among those submitting proposals to the funding agencies.

TNH: How would you describe your career?

FE: I have been receiving positive feedback from the scientific community regarding my contributions as a scholar. Still, I am by nature very hard on myself, and I always try to see my shortcomings and ways to improve myself. I believe that while one should recognize and appreciate what they have achieved, developing an ego or an arrogant attitude is unacceptable and, most importantly, not warranted. Regarding prizes, in the early stages of my career, I received the Silver Medal of the Combustion, which is the highest recognition worldwide for a specific scientific contribution in my field, however, the most critical distinction is my appointment in 2009 as the Editor in Chief of Combustion and Flame, the flagship journal of my field. The journal has flourished during my tenure, and I am about to start my third term in January of 2021. My predecessors were eminent scientists, and thus the bar is very high for me.

TNH: What is the purpose of your work?

 FE: My work relates primarily to research and teaching, and both are particularly important. Educating the next generations is of great importance, and parents trust us with that. It gives me real satisfaction, and it is my greatest honor when students express their gratitude about the classes that I teach, which frequently inspires and encourages them to pursue bigger educational and professional goals. Regarding my research, its importance is underlined by the relevance to climate change and emissions reduction that directly impact human health.

TNH: Scientists say emissions must be cut dramatically if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change. What is your view?

FE: This topic has been highly politicized, however, it is hard to ignore though NASA data covering 1000 AD to the present time, which shows a dramatic rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the last 100 years. Action is required, which must be well-thought and based on scientific and technological evidence. Politicians like to make the news discussing the so-called zero-carbon economy. That is an excellent idea, but the problem is that it may not materialize, and time and resources may be wasted during the critical next 20-30 years. Many studies are pointing to that. What will be feasible and with a high degree of expected success is a notably reduced carbon economy that would mitigate the immediate effects of climate change and allow us to work on the somewhat idealistic target of zero-carbon as the next step.

TNH: The pandemic has also revealed our over-reliance on global trade.

FE: This is true, and we pay the price for that. I understand the dynamics of the world economy, globalization, and how urgent it is for companies to manufacture products in any place in the world where labor is cheaper. That worked for a while, but what happened with COVID-19 revealed that the price could be high. The damage from COVID-19 worldwide is estimated to be of the order of tens of trillions of dollars, maybe up to 20-30 trillion or more. I believe that this cost offsets the ‘savings’ that corporations had by shipping the manufacturing overseas. I am not sure if the world will keep that in mind when COVID19 is over, but I hope that it will as history repeats itself. Intense global trade contributes to over-reliance and excessive traffic between different parts of the world. It is my opinion that we need to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. I know that may not happen as cheaper labor could be found in places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Africa, but it will be a mistake. My father taught me to try my best not to depend on others. Any time I did not follow his advice, I regretted it.  

TNH: Compared to Greece, how different is the U.S. working scene?

FE: I have never worked in Greece as I left after college, and thus my experience is second-hand from what I have been told. The U.S. was a different country 20 years ago. But even today and with all its problems, the U.S. remains strong, and the working environment is healthy and merit-based for most sectors. In Greece, many improvements have been made in recent years, but it may take one more generation to align better with the best practices in the working space of the U.S. and the northern European countries.

TNH: Is the U.S. still rich in opportunities for the best and brightest of its risk-takers?

 FE: Yes, absolutely. Again, and with all its recent problems that point to some kind of decline, the U.S. offers endless opportunities to all ages and, as a result, attracts the best and the brightest in all professions. There is something about the structure of the society and higher education that allows, especially the young ones, to aim high. I do not see that in Europe, where tradition, seniority, and tight control by the states are show-stoppers when it comes to entrepreneurship, innovation, etc. It is of interest to notice that 50-70 years ago, most of the advances were generated in Europe. However, today, the ‘giants’ that have changed the world are all U.S.-made: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Starbucks, Uber, Instagram, Snapchat, Tesla, Space X, and the list goes on … They have been all founded in the U.S. and, in some instances, by college students. Is that a coincidence?

TNH: How strong is the Greek community in LA?

FE: Surprisingly, despite the geographic distance from Greece, the Greek community in Los Angeles is very vibrant and notable for various reasons.  First, the LA weather attracts Europeans, and especially Greeks, and many decided to move here for that reason. Given the affinity of Greeks to business and education, LA and the surrounding areas constitute a major attraction for them. There is also an impressive number of celebrities who are associated with the Greek community.

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