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Adam Cain, Senior IT Technologist, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Staff Spotlight: Adam Cain Maintains Materials Machines

Adam Cain joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 2017 as the senior IT technologist. In this role, he offers support for faculty and staff computers, software licensed to the department, new computer purchases, and most anything IT related that is not covered by campus-wide OIT.

“I also have a specialty in IP security cameras,” said Cain.

He exercised this specialty in a previous job before coming to Rocky Top.

“I was the main IT person/systems administrator for a family-owned jeweler in Virginia,” he said. “I supported 15 stores across two states. Here for MSE, I do all the IT things. I enjoy my colleagues and the variety of things to do and problems to solve.”

Cain is originally from Bloomington, Indiana, and graduated from Virginia’s Liberty University in business management information systems & criminal justice. He and wife Shannon moved to Knoxville after living in Roanoke, Virginia, for several years. She is working to complete her PhD dissertation in social work here at UT.

Outside of IT pursuits, he enjoys photography, hiking, anything to do with technology and gadgets, craft beer, and target shooting. His wife is working on completing her PhD dissertation here at UT. They share their home with a pair of furry friends.

“We have a dog who would play fetch all day long,” said Cain. “And a cat who fancies herself the Dark Empress of the Universe.”

Parker, Dean to Serve on National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource Task Force

Under the direction of Congress, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) have announced the creation of the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource (NAIRR) Task Force.

The group, whose goal is to develop an implementation roadmap for a shared national artificial intelligence (AI) research infrastructure, is made up of twelve high-profile people from within the computing and AI fields.

Included in that group are two University of Tennessee alumni from what is now the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Lynne Parker (’83) and Mark Dean (’79). In addition to their shared ties to the department, both later served as interim deans of the Tickle College of Engineering, giving UT a strong connection to the new task force.

Lynne Parker

Lynne Parker

“To investigate their innovative ideas in AI, academic researchers need secure access to powerful computing infrastructure and privacy-preserving data,” said Parker, who is serving as co-chair of the task force in her current role as Director of the National AI Initiative Office at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Increased access to these resources will expand participation in cutting-edge research to a wider and more diverse range of researchers.”

The National AI Initiative Act of 2020 mandated the formation of the new group, with a goal that it would provide guidance for providing increased access to computational resources, high-quality data, educational tools, and user support for AI researchers and students across all scientific disciplines.  The task force recommendations will include “technical capabilities, governance, administration, assessment and requirements for security, privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.”

As part of those efforts, the group is to deliver a report on initial findings in May, 2022, with a final report coming in November of that year.

Mark Dean

Mark Dean

“This project will help align AI priorities and procedures across research, business, and academia,” said Dean. “The report that we come up with and the conclusions that we reach should help guide US policy for the future growth of AI.”

For the agencies involved, the group’s work and findings will help provide dividends, both in terms of research as well as through workforce development.

“America’s economic prosperity hinges on foundational investments in our technological leadership,” Science Advisor to the President and OSTP Director Eric Lander said in a release announcing the task force. “The National AI Research Resource will expand access to the resources and tools that fuel AI research and development, opening opportunities for bright minds from across America to pursue the next breakthroughs in science and technology.”

“NSF is delighted to co-chair the National AI Research Resource Task Force, which has the essential role of envisioning the research infrastructure that will drive future innovations in AI,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan in a released statement. “By bringing together the nation’s foremost experts from academia, industry, and government, we will be able to chart an exciting and compelling path forward, ensuring long-term US competitiveness in all fields of science and engineering and all sectors of our economy.”

In addition to Parker and Dean, other members of the task force and their affiliations are:

  • Erwin Gianchandani, NSF (Co-Chair)
  • Daniela Braga, DefinedCrowd
  • Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for AI
  • Julia Lane, New York University
  • Fei Fei Li, Stanford University
  • Andrew Moore, Google
  • Michael Norman, University of California, San Diego
  • Dan Stanzione, The University of Texas at Austin
  • Frederick Streitz, US Department of Energy
  • Elham Tabassi, National Institute of Standards and Technology

More on the National AI Initiative and NAIRR can be found at

Mench Named Next Dean of Engineering

Matthew Mench stands next to 3D Printer

Matthew Mench has been selected to serve as the next dean and Wayne T. Davis Dean’s Chair of the Tickle College of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He begins July 1.

Mench, a Chancellor’s Professor, the Condra Chair of Excellence, and a professor of mechanical engineering in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, has served as interim dean since March. Mench joined UT in 2010 after serving as an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He became department head of MABE in August 2013 and has served in that role ever since. In 2019, Mench stepped up to serve as interim vice chancellor for research for about a year before returning to MABE.

As dean, he will oversee a rapidly growing college that in little more than a decade has doubled in key areas of overall enrollment, doctoral enrollment, graduation, faculty endowments, and research, and now has several departments ranked in or near the top 30 among public programs of engineering.

“This college, community, and state we serve is a very special place, and I am honored to represent and lead such a tremendous group of faculty, staff and students,” said Mench.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick said Mench brings a distinguished record as a researcher and outstanding success as a department head to his new role.

“Matthew has deep and broad institutional knowledge, a demonstrated commitment to continuing the work of diversity and inclusion in the college, and emphatic support from all of the college’s stakeholders,” he said. “I look forward to working with him and his colleagues to educate future engineers, meet grand challenges in research, and build the workforce of the future.”

Since 2012, the college has celebrated the opening of the Min H. Kao Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building and the John D. Tickle Engineering Building. The soon-to-be-completed 228,000-square-foot Zeanah Engineering Complex will open for classes in August.

Alumni, donors, the State of Tennessee, and corporate partners have been overwhelming in their support, resulting in the naming of the college, the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and other spaces as well as several professorships and four professorships of practice. Improvements and refurbishments have been made to existing student, laboratory, and class spaces, and the college’s successful $200 million fundraising campaign exceeded its initial goal of $150 million.

The college has a number of key corporate and government partnerships, including a strong relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. That collaboration has been responsible for launching doctoral programs in energy science and big data through the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, IACMI—The Composites Institute, the UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs program—with 11 of the 13 current Governor’s Chairs serving in the college—and the newly established UT–Oak Ridge Innovation Institute.

On campus, the college is engaged in high-profile projects with other colleges, including initiatives with the College of Nursing; the Heath Integrated Business and Engineering Program, which it administers jointly with the Haslam College of Business, a societal impact study with the College of Social Work; and projects with the College of Veterinary Medicine and UT Medical Center.

Mench received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Penn State in 1994, 1996, and 2000, respectively. His research interests include electrochemical power storage and conversion systems such as fuel cells, electrolyzers, and batteries. He is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He previously served as an associate editor for the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy and the ASME Journal of Electrochemical Energy Conversion and Storage. In 2020, he was honored by the university as a Chancellor’s Professor.

Three Reddit Robot Logo Heads

Who’s the Jerk? UT Students Help Computers Provide Feedback About Who’s Right, Wrong

Whether in person or via phone, text, email, or other means, most people experience dozens of interactions with others every day. These exchanges can provide moments of humor, excitement, endearment, disappointment, regret, or even anger.

When these outcomes lead to a difference of opinion, some people take to a popular subreddit on the website Reddit to provide detailed backstories to help other Redditors figure out who, exactly, is the “jerk” in the situation.

Now, Assistant Professor Alex Williams and his students from the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science have used machine learning to help answer the question thousands of Redditors have posed.

“What happens in the ‘AITA’ subreddit is that people will upload the context of a conversation or interaction that went sideways, and users will vote on who acted unreasonably—the individual that created the post or another person in the shared narrative,” said Williams. “The model we have built has shown a far better-than-average chance of predicting who the ‘A’ is, or at least who the online community believes it to be.”

Williams’ team collected 13,748 posts and used a variety of machine-learning models to explore whether a post’s outcome could be predicted based on the content of a post or the social media characteristics tied to the individual posting the content. Their technique resulted in a 76 percent prediction success rate, with the data of most importance coming from an unexpected source.

“Social metadata and features extending from the post were a much bigger indicator of how the vote would go than any of the actual language used in the post or the sentiment of the post,” said Williams. “Knowing this doesn’t just help judge how a post would be received, but also helps inform how to write things or not to write them if you want to avoid being seen as the ‘A.’”

The UT-based team noted that their work makes a significant number of assumptions, including that that posts on Reddit are both truthful and voted on by a community of unbiased judges. Williams noted that, in practice, people tend to be less than truthful on the Internet and have biases that affect their decision making and that their findings are a reflection only of this particular Reddit community.

“Providing feedback about how reasonably a person acted in a given situation is an incredibly human-centered task,” said Williams. “We certainly shouldn’t view our techniques as an oracle for determining irrational actions. Even for people, this can still be pretty challenging! That said, our work establishes a frontier for new technologies that hint at nudging us to reconsider whether we may be in the wrong.”

The students on the team were UT’s Ethan Haworth, Justin Langston, Ankush Patel, Joseph West, and Ted Grover from the University of California, Irvine.

Their work was selected for publication by the prestigious Association for The Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s International Conference on Web and Social Media, and will be published in June.

Debalina Ghosh in a laboratory.

Ghosh Develops Greener, Faster-Drying Concrete

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material on the planet, and the second most used material in the world after water.

It’s a composite, with aggregate materials that can be found nearly everywhere. Buildings, roads, and bridge construction projects depend on concrete for its high compressive strength of about 3,000-7,000 psi.

However, concrete accounts for a large percentage of global carbon dioxide emissions due to the way it is made. The 4 billion tons of concrete made each year is responsible for about 8 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, which is more than the entire agricultural industry and the heavily polluting aviation industry.

All of this is on the mind of UT civil engineering doctoral student Debalina Ghosh, studying under Professor John Ma, who teamed up with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and in collaboration with the Precast-Prestressed Concrete Institute.

Precast concrete is a concrete structure like a wall or a slab that is manufactured in a plant and is then transported to the construction site, instead of pouring the concrete in place at the site. She developed a new concrete formula with two main features important to the industry: it quickens the drying time of precast concrete and has a reduced carbon footprint.

Ghosh is still trying to determine the exact carbon footprint of her mix.

“I am working on a life cycle assessment of this concrete,” she said. “This assessment considers the raw material use, energy consumption throughout the manufacturing process and provides a comparative impact on environment.”

The precast system has better quality control and reuses the concrete formwork, making it a more sustainable and cost-effective option than using a form once, as is done on most construction sites.

Precast concrete reuses the formworks and provides cost-effective concrete with better quality control compared to conventional cast-in-place concrete. Ghosh’s concrete has demonstrated qualities that could double production capacity for the precast industry because it gains adequate strength in six hours, compared to several days needed for comparable concrete.

Additionally, Ghosh’s formula uses calcium sulfo-aluminate (CSA) cement, which emits 62 percent less carbon than the industry standard, which is Portland cement. This requires less temperature and grinding during manufacturing.

The drying/hardening of concrete is a chemical reaction that emits carbon dioxide, and in this case, CSA has a faster reaction in an early stage of drying. Additionally, the concrete contains slag, a byproduct material, to replace 60 percent of traditional Portland cement, thus further reducing the overall impact on the environment.

Reducing the drying time also reduces the amount of labor needed so that the condensed placement time is feasible. Additionally, Ghosh evaluated commercially available components including steel, glass, and carbon fibers and came up with a self-compacting mix that maintained its workability for 30 minutes.

Steel fibers sticking out of a broken concrete slab.

She chose steel fibers to increase the flexibility of the concrete, which contributes towards its bending strength, whereas regular concrete will snap if bent. These fibers give it more durability for situations where the concrete could snap.

Leah Buffington

Staff Spotlight: Leah Buffington Makes Sure Every Event is Special

Leah Buffington is the special programs coordinator in the Office of the Dean. In this role, she works to enhance the visibility of the college by creating and implementing inclusive programs for the TCE community. She works closely with the dean to turn the college’s strategic plan into reality, serving as project manager and working closely with partners across campus.

“One of my favorite things to do is partner people with vendors and other campus units,” said Buffington. “I enjoy developing relationships with a variety of vendors and then sharing them with my TCE colleagues. Need a balloon artist? Custom linens? The perfect orange popcorn? Just let me know!”

She is the key campus liaison for members of the TCE Board of Advisors, and organizes biannual TCE Board of Advisors meetings. She also coordinates staff appreciation events, conferences, receptions, dinners, grand openings, ribbon cuttings, town halls, and more.

“I worked as the dean’s assistant to (Dean Emeritus) Wayne Davis for five years before transitioning to my current position,” said Buffington. “I learned so much from being in the dean’s office, and I apply that to my current position. It has helped me have a wider perspective of the college and I am thankful for that.”

Her welcoming demeanor and variety of life experience also help this Waynesboro, Mississippi, native succeed in her TCE role. Before moving to Knoxville in 2012 with her husband Brock, Buffington earned her bachelor’s degree in communication at Mississippi College, Clinton, and her master’s degree in public policy and administration at Mississippi State University, Starkville. She is currently working towards her PhD in higher education administration here at UT, expecting to complete in 2023.

Her accomplishments outside of academia have also found her navigating an array of insightful experiences.

“After college, I lived for one year in Santiago, Chile, as a missionary,” said Buffington. “I taught school and it was a wonderful experience.”

She and Brock and have also dabbled in real estate since moving to Tennessee, but she keeps her time filled more often coordinating her family. The Buffington bunch includes daughters Vanna and Roxie and son Baker. They added Dolly, a Goldendoodle, in December 2020.

“I am busy chasing little ones these days!” laughed Buffington. “When I do have free time, I am in class, reading, writing, or researching for school. My interest areas are women in leadership, organizational leadership, and exploring critical feminist theory.”

She integrates some self-care into her schedule through reading, listening to true crime podcasts, family time, naps, girls’ trips, and enjoying “really good food.”

Buffington brings attention to detail and TLC to her TCE role, exuding the Volunteer Spirit for every program she oversees.

From left, Ozlem Kilic and Jamie Coble.

Kilic and Coble Aspire to Share Mentoring Plans

The Tickle College of Engineering enjoyed a strong presence at the 2021 Aspire Summer Institute for STEM Faculty and Faculty Developers, held June 7–11 via online sessions. Associate Dean Ozlem Kilic and Associate Professor Jamie Coble presented on a planned mentoring program that would offer support for women in PhD studies who are interested in pursuing faculty positions and more.

“This team is committed to developing and implementing the mentoring chain to increase the readiness of our participants to move into leadership roles,” said Coble of the presentation. “Working together, we’ll leverage these existing efforts and identify gaps in available programming to create the mentoring chain from PhD students through faculty leadership.”

Implementation of these developments works in conjunction with Goal 6 of the college’s Diversity Action Plan. The presentation addressed the Aspire Summer Institute’s concentration on improving inclusive professional framework for faculty.

Mingzhou Jin

Mingzhou Jin Earns John D. Tickle Professorship

Mingzhou Jin is the latest TCE faculty member to achieve the designation of John D. Tickle Professor, bestowed in honor of his exemplary scholarly research and publication record, teaching, and service record. The appointment begins August 1, with a potential renewal at five years and continued designation.

Jin is a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the director of the Institute for a Secure & Sustainable Environment.

The professorship was created as a result of the investments made by John D. Tickle, UT alumnus and industrial engineering graduate. Those investments include, among others, investment in the John D. Tickle Engineering Building and the naming of our college.

Lynne Parker stands in front of White House

UT Engineering Professor Dubbed America’s First AI Czar

Lynne Parker has served in high-profile science roles during three consecutive presidential administrations, most recently being named to the position of founding director of the National Artificial Intelligence Office in mid-January.

Parker, who maintains her professorship in the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, was recently dubbed “America’s first AI czar” by the Associated Press for her leadership through the intelligence office.

In that role, she helps lead initiatives that explore AI’s use, safety, and potential to reshape our world.

One of the tasks Parker is charged with is helping the public overcome fears and misconceptions about AI, while also making sure that everyone in society benefits from its use.

“There’s an increased need for education and training so that people know how to use AI tools, they know sort of what the capabilities are of AI so that they don’t treat it as magic,” Parker told the AP. “Making sure that it’s responsible use of AI so that we’re not disadvantaging certain people, we’re not achieving biased outcomes.”

The full interview can be read for free on the Associated Press.

Student using equipment during ACE Training

ACE Readies for In-Person CNC Machining Training

Innovative IACMI, UT training teaches essential manufacturing skills to address US manufacturing workforce gap

Training the next-generation machine tool workforce is continuing this summer through six in-person boot camps to be hosted jointly by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Pellissippi State Community College.

The boot camps, which started in late May and will run through the summer, are part of America’s Cutting Edge (ACE), a highly successful CNC machining training program developed by the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) and UT Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tony Schmitz.

Designed to teach essential machining skills and address the nation’s growing manufacturing workforce gap, ACE kicked off in December 2020. The six-hour online curriculum walks users through the steps necessary to set up for machining a component, up to the point of engaging with the machine. So far, more than 1,400 students from across the nation—including future manufacturing engineers, machine tool designers, entrepreneurs, machinists, and more—have taken the course.

The in-person course this summer will pick up with the on-machine setup. The sixty total participants will learn one step at a time and build on each previous day, ultimately producing the components necessary to create an oscillating air engine by machining and assembling four parts: base (aluminum), piston block (aluminum), valve block (printed polymer), and wheel (steel).

To prepare, UT PhD students Emma Betters, Aaron Cornelius, and Jake Dvorak, along with Schmitz, who is also a joint faculty member at ORNL, hosted a week-long practice session May 10–14 for other UT students.

Tony Schmitz speaks with other IACMI members during ACE training

The biggest obstacle the group faced was developing an in-person curriculum suitable for the wide range of expected backgrounds of participants, from those who have never seen a machine in person to those who run machines daily.

“Trying to create something that works for everyone’s skill levels was a challenge, but we successfully incorporated a mix of instruction including demonstration, lecture, and hands-on tasks that will appeal to a range of learners,” said Betters. “I was happily surprised by how smoothly the training went.”

On-machine training is divided into computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) sessions and machining sessions, with only two participants on a machine at any time, to allow for optimal instructor-participant communication and provide a low-pressure environment for learning and questioning.

Student Removes Sample from CAM Equipment

“A lot of educational material targeted at CNC beginners tends only to provide fixed recommendations on how fast to run tools, or directs users to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations,” said Cornelius. “In the ACE program, Emma and Dr. Schmitz help students understand what’s happening at the actual cutting edge of the tool and how different machining variables affect that. They talk about issues such as how temperature affects tool life and chatter. Then, Jake and I follow with the CAM and machining exercises to provide practical, hands-on application. Even on the first day, we show how changing feed rates and depth for a finish cut gives a better surface finish than a roughing pass.”

Reflecting on her own career path, Betters, who is also research and development associate staff at ORNL, explained that during her undergraduate education she took “Design of Manufacturing,” a required course using manual equipment to go from design to production.

“Design for manufacturability is an under-taught skill, but I found it incredibly gratifying to touch something I made, which is why I learned machining,” said Betters. “I never thought of manufacturing before that, but afterwards it morphed into more for me than I ever imagined.”

Betters says she believes the collaboration between ORNL, IACMI, and UT is responsible for the wide reach of the ACE program, and that this course, which provides both an overview of the science of manufacturing as well as insight into production, has the capacity to be instrumental in the career decisions of participants.

ACE combines the workforce development leadership of IACMI and the research and academic excellence of UT. The program is supported by the US Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program from the Office of Industrial Policy.


David Goddard,, 865-974-0683

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