National Academy of Engineers inductee appointed Chief Scientist of Manufacturing Directorate

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — Dr. Richard Vaia, who was recently appointed Chief Scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Branch, has received one of the highest honors accorded to an engineer. On Oct. 4, 2020, Vaia was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

The NAE is part of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Vaia was elected to the Academy on the basis of his research in aerospace applications of polymeric nanomaterials and for his technical leadership in materials for national defense applications. News of his induction coincided with AFRL Commander Brig. Gen. Heather L. Pringle’s announcement of his appointment as Chief Scientist of Materials and Manufacturing (RX).

“Without a doubt, Dr. Vaia will make huge contributions to RX with his leadership, unmatched expertise and dedication to AFRL,” said Pringle in her announcement. “AFRL is very fortunate to have so many outstanding people, and we could not succeed without incredible leaders like Dr. Vaia.”

Vaia had been serving as acting chief since March 2020, when his predecessor, Dr. Timothy Bunning, took on the role of AFRL’s Chief Technology Officer. Bunning expressed his delight on hearing the news of his colleague’s induction into the NAE.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving, someone so technically deep, yet strategic at the same time,” said Bunning. “He has been the international technical thought leader in advancing a class of materials fundamental to the aerospace community. His recognition is a reflection of Rich and his teammates and the strong mission- and application-centric environment that is AFRL. Being inducted is truly at the pinnacle of the scientific food chain (Nobel Prize aside) and I couldn’t be happier for Rich and the larger AFRL community.”

Because the discipline of engineering is heavily focused on industry and academia, very few NAE members are from government organizations such as the Department of Defense. Among the 2,287 domestic NAE members, 56 percent are from academia, 36 percent from private industry, and 8 percent from government and non-profit organizations.

Only the third AFRL researcher to become a member, Vaia describes the experience as “incredibly humbling.”

He explained that the Academy’s members come from all branches of engineering from all across the United States and several foreign countries, so they represent a broad span of specialties, encompassing many different fields within the discipline. “In my field, materials and manufacturing,” he said, “only about six or seven are elected every year, and a couple of those are usually international folks.”

Vaia emphasized that his induction into the Academy does not honor him so much as it does AFRL. “The fact that AFRL has people being recognized by the National Academies points to the quality of what the Lab is doing and what it can do to lead science and technology innovation and ensure a technologically superior US Air Force and Space Force.”

“It’s one thing to talk about individual success,” he added, “but what’s really important is being surrounded by high-quality and talented folks that embody Air Force core values. The challenges we face are extreme, and success is only achieved by this collective expertise. AFRL is truly an amazing in this regard — an unparalleled collection of world-class scientists and engineers, with in-depth knowledge across innumerable areas, collaborating toward game-changing innovations for National Air, Space and Cyber superiority. That is engineering in a nutshell — teams solving the unsolvable problems.”

He went on to say that receiving this honor should serve as a reminder of AFRL’s value. “Such recognition is based on a national-level, independent assessment of AFRL capability by leaders who strive to inspire current and future engineers to solve national and societal needs. What this means to me is that solutions will not only come from industry and academia, but will also come from AFRL’s scientists and engineers.”

According to the NAE website, becoming a member of the Academy is one of the highest professional honors an engineer can attain. NAE membership is awarded to those have made outstanding contributions to engineering research, practice, or education, as well as pioneering new and developing fields of technology.

Vaia’s research has covered the chemistry, physics and processing of nanomaterials for multifunctional structures, coatings, inks, flexible electronics, optical devices and autonomous concepts. He has published more than 220 articles, is co-inventor on 16 patents and has given more than 150 plenary, keynote and invited talks at national and international scientific venues.

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Dr. Richard A. Vaia, Chief Scientist at AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering Class of 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo)