2024 Paul Gray Public Service Awardee: Franz-Josef Ulm

A space for community on campus

In a year marked by conflict and tension on campus and in the world, the importance of community-building across the Institute has never been more apparent. And according to his nominators, recipient of the 2024 Paul Gray Award for Public Service Professor Franz-Josef Ulm has been “the one, more than anyone else at MIT, who has reached across the chasm to find common ground with a range of groups with very different perspectives”.

Professor Franz-Josef Ulm

“Over the past 8 months, the students taught us a new meaning of public service at MIT–one that is based on solidarity with human suffering and rooted in a deep sense of moral responsibility that we all belong here at MIT,” reflects Ulm. “Learning from their courage while advancing this sense of belonging has been driving us, faculty, here at MIT through these tumultuous days and nights.”

Six distinct faculty members nominated Ulm, a Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT and Faculty Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub, for this year’s award in honor of his tireless efforts to support the welfare of MIT students while bridging gaps in understanding and trust.

In the early aftermath of October 7, Professor Ulm joined the Unity Faculty group, where he sponsored joint letters and resolutions to bring the community together, and organized biweekly MENA+ lunches to introduce a variety of perspectives from Middle Eastern scholars. As the academic year progressed, he continued to hold lunches, meetings, and listening sessions with students and other constituents experiencing trauma and distress. 

“His consistent support has earned the deepest trust from a range of students and faculty across the spectrum,” his nominators wrote. “Franz was always there, welcoming people, telling stories, supporting those being made to feel isolated or scared by the hostility in their own dorms or working groups, those deeply disoriented and in pain from having family members directly exposed to the ongoing conflicts, and more importantly listening carefully and turning conversation into positive uplifting and more hopeful directions, so all those hurting could have a moment of lightness, camaraderie and sense of belonging.”

In his research and academic work, Ulm focuses on another pressing issue: mitigating the effects of the climate crisis. His research group is looking at the nano- and micro mechanics of porous materials, such as concrete, rocks and bones; the durability mechanics of engineering materials and structures; computational mechanics; and the bio-chemo-poromechanics of high-performance composite materials. 

Ulm’s contributions to nanoscale improvement of concrete and other materials and structures have created pathways for sustainable development of infrastructure and energy resources. He most recently published research on combining cement and carbon black into a energy-storing supercapacitor, which may form the basis for a novel, low-cost energy storage system. He has also participated in research and advocacy for reducing concrete’s carbon footprint and enhancing its resilience, which reduces its direct and indirect impacts on the environment.

Ulm won the Newsmaker award of Engineering News Record for his work on “paving the way for greener concrete” in 2013; he was elected to the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2014 and the National Academy of Engineering in 2022. He has published more than 250 scientific papers in international engineering mechanics, materials science, and biomechanics journals, along with more than 150 papers in refereed conference proceedings. He received his engineering degree from the Technical University Munich in 1990, his Ph.D. from the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in 1994; and his Habilitation Degree from the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan in 1998. 

“Since its beginning, concrete has been an aspirational material. Just look at the Stratton Student Center, which has been my favorite building on campus, long before I spent too many hours on its steps during the 19 days of the student encampment. Designed by the Argentinian architect Eduardo Catalano in the 1960s, it embodies in its top-heaviness the hope of a generation to overcome gravity, while standing strong on the light-flooded community space,” Ulm says. 

“Much like MIT, concrete has to be reinvented by every generation to meet our society’s need for shelter, hospitals, schools and infrastructure. It is now on this student generation to redesign this material and MIT for the challenges and hopes of the 21st century. This is what MIT President Paul Gray left us with: an unshakable belief in our students.”

The PKG Center is proud to present the 2024 Paul Gray Award for Public Service to Professor Ulm, whose advocacy, leadership, and dedication has built bridges across the MIT community and whose research addresses the world’s most pressing issue. His work exemplifies the spirit of the award, which honors faculty members who have gone above and beyond to build a better world. Congratulations, Professor Ulm!

Tags: 2024 PKG Awards, Paul Gray Award, Paul Gray Award 2024, PKG Awards

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