Faculty Feature: Anthony Waas, Richard A. Auhll Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering

Chair of Aerospace Engineering Anthony Waas discusses his career in aerospace structures and his vision for his newest leadership role

Dr. Waas arrived at the University of Michigan as an assistant professor in the fall of 1988. Since then, he’s climbed the ranks to full Professor, directed UM’s Composite Structures Laboratory, and chaired the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Washington. As an accomplished researcher and an experienced leader, Professor Waas has the vision to direct the University of Michigan’s Department of Aerospace Engineering to new heights. The source of this vision: his experiences as a student, researcher, and professor.

Anthony Waas, Richard A. Auhll Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering

A career in lightweight aerostructures

As an undergrad at the Imperial College in London, Dr. Waas had access to The Composites Centre, one of the first college programs in composites, worldwide. After a class in the subject spurred his interest, he resolved to continue his composites studies at Caltech in his graduate degree. In Pasadena, Waas had the opportunity to work with NASA’s Advanced Composites Technology (ACT) Program, for which he studied the effects of cutouts and discontinuities in composite parts on their strength. Although his post-Ph.D. sights were set on a research position at NASA Langley Research Center, the University of Michigan offered Waas an assistant professorship. Although the University of Michigan was not where he initially expected to start a career, Professor Waas relates that he was quickly persuaded to stay:

“I ended up here, at Michigan and what kept me here even longer was the students. I was lucky to get some really strong graduate students in 1988 – my first batch – and they kept me very excited and they were excited, so it was a good chemistry between myself and the students. The rest is history: I decided, I’ll stay in academia and be in that field.”

Although it was his students who initially kept Waas in Michigan Aerospace, the prospect of groundbreaking research was a long-term motivator: “As I matured in my field, and got to know the field better, I realized there are many, many applications [of composite materials]. It was a field I felt would be a game changer for aerospace because of the ability to do unconventional designs and make things lighter.”

I ended up here, at Michigan and what kept me here even longer was the students. I was lucky to get some really strong graduate students in 1988 – my first batch – and they kept me very excited and they were excited, so it was a good chemistry between myself and the students. The rest is history: I decided, I’ll stay in academia and be in that field.

Anthony Waas, Department Chair of Aerospace Engineering

Composites, though heavily used in aerospace applications, are also valuable to other fields. Waas cites biomechanics as an example; when muscle transitions to bone, it forms a composite that is stronger than either organic material, individually. Waas stresses that if students have an interest in composites, there is monumental opportunity for them at the University of Michigan due to its strengths in chemistry, aerospace, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering:

“If you want to do research in composites and applications to aerospace, civil, and mechanical…this is the place to be because you have amazingly strong and well-respected faculty who are very strong in their own fields. And so the opportunities to collaborate are excellent here at Michigan.”

For students who want to get involved in specialized fields such as composites, Waas recommends getting involved in student project teams that utilize these materials. From there, he says, students gain access to faculty advisors who conduct research in areas of interest. A world of research opportunities opens to undergraduate students, and eventually, Waas recommends finding a professor who is willing to support the students’ academic ambitions, creating a partnership that will provide the student with mentors and opportunities in their rewarding career of technology development.

Professor Waas highly recommends engaging with the wealth of knowledge available in the Department’s faculty: “The work my colleagues are doing here is first-rate, and students should make use of that. The students have a great opportunity because they have experts at their fingertips here, so they should really take advantage of that: talk to them, learn what they’re doing for research, and get excited about it.”

Broadening opportunities for students

Waas reflects that when he was a student and young researcher, nearly all of his work with composite structures was experimental. However, he explains that as industry relies more and more heavily on computational tools such CAD, FEA, and specialized modeling tools, academia needs to reflect that progress. Now, his research is “50% experimental, 50% computational.” Aerospace applications are also rapidly evolving; autonomous aerial systems (UAS) and space exploration demand innovation from specialized professionals. As a result, it is Professor Waas’ goal to provide students with the opportunity to explore their interests in sub-disciplines such as software and data science while working toward the Bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering:

“I want to allow undergraduates to have the opportunity to explore their interests in a much better way than we have right now, where the curriculum, I would say, is a little bit constrained. We need to teach our students the fundamentals but then, we need to also teach them how to apply those fundamentals to solve real engineering problems the way industry is doing it right now. So, it’s a dynamic process.”

Another area of growth that the Chair has recognized is the Department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Aerospace engineering is historically one of the least diverse disciplines; according to UM’s Rackham Graduate School, only 11% of aerospace engineering master’s students is women, and the numbers for underrepresented minorities in engineering are even lower. Professor Waas is aware of this fact, citing his philosophy that “to build community, you need to be proactive.” In order to do so, he has restructured the department’s DEI committee, led by Aerospace Engineering Professor Ken Powell. He will be working with this committee comprised of faculty, staff, and students to create initiatives that will help foster a more inclusive aerospace engineering community at the University of Michigan. Already, he knows that these efforts will include raising awareness about the field’s lack of diversity; actively recruiting diverse, qualified researchers for graduate programs and professorships; and creating a climate that will allow those new members of the community to succeed. For Professor Waas, who had no female colleagues in 1988, these efforts are critical in not just improving the campus climate, but also the discipline as a whole:

“Engineering is an attractive field for a broad class of individuals: women and underrepresented minorities. That’s what’s reflected in the workplace of the future. So I think that it’s important for our department to embrace that fact and to position ourselves to be academically excellent, but at the same time to embrace what the College and what the university marks as diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. So it’s not just inviting more women and more underrepresented minorities to come to our department, but it’s also making sure that they have the resources to succeed. Both ends of the equation need to be worked out.”

Coming full circle

Even with three years at the University of Washington, the University of Michigan’s Department of Aerospace Engineering has been Professor Waas’ home for thirty years. Now that he is leading the department, Waas expresses gratitude for the opportunity to give back to his long-time community:

“It’s really an honor for me to be the Chair here, because this is where I started my own career and I know quite a few people, but there’s lots of new people in the department as well, and this is certainly the oldest but also one of the strongest aerospace departments: both undergraduate and graduate. So for me, the excitement is that I think as Chair I can shape and influence the future trajectory of the department in all facets – in research, in teaching, in curriculum, in service – all aspects. That’s exciting to me. We have an excellent set of faculty, staff members, and students and so I think the future for this department is exciting. It has a bright future, and we want to work with the College’s goals to make this department better.”


Michigan Aerospace logo

Michigan Aerospace Engineering

Communications Team