Charles E. Bakis
Class of 1984, MS; Class of 1988, Ph.D.
“Growing up, my father was a dedicated ‘motor head’, buying, fixing up, and selling anything that ran on wheels,” said Charles “Chuck” Bakis. “Watching and helping my dad work, I too became interested in mechanics and learned it wasn’t about magic, but rather about the work.”
When he was 15 years old, the most celebrated velodrome in modern American cycling history became a second home to Bakis. The Trexlertown Velodrome, a 333-meter cycling track constructed from a cornfield, now known as the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, was located in Lehigh Valley and in close proximity to Bakis’ home. The track sponsored races for high schoolers and became a springboard for him to advance onto amateur racing.
In the classroom, Bakis felt the pressure of being a first generation to attend college and put his nose to the books.
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, one hour north of Philadelphia, Bakis grew up around both sets of grandparents. They had embarked on a new life when they moved from the old world of Greece in the early 1900s and knew what hard work was all about. His father’s parents ran a shoe repair shop during the Great Depression and later turned to floral design. His mother’s father was in the painting business.
As a youngster, Bakis was an extra hand around the family’s flower shop and worked his way up the ranks sweeping floors, then selling potted petunias and hyacinths to customers around Easter and Mother’s Day. When in high school, he was promoted to running the manual cash register, which meant ‘doing the math’ in his head. Eventually, he became a driver, delivering mostly to the outskirts of town because he knew these areas best, due to his cycling hobby.
But his parents considered his fascination with bicycles, motorcycles, and cars a hobby; they wanted more than a technical vocation for their son. During his tenth grade year in high school, Bakis’ neighbor and academic counselor also advocated for him to choose the college prep track.
“The die was cast. My days in high school were filled with numbers; calculus, and trigonometry instead of grease and wrenches,” said Bakis, today a Distinguished Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics.
Wanting to stay close to his family, Bakis and his sister ventured a short distance to local universities. Bakis accepted early admission to Lehigh University to study engineering. He enrolled in mechanical engineering, instead of pursing his initial inclination to becomean auto mechanic, and naturally excelled.
A freshman at Lehigh University and a Category II cyclist racer, Bakis’ focus was strictly bicycles and books. During the week, he’d ride alone and on weekends he was competing with professionals. He clocked 200 to 250 miles per week during the summer, and, with snow tires, 150 miles per week in the winter months. Despite his love of the open road, his first priority was attending class and his studies.
In his senior year, Bakis weighed the idea of attending graduate school, while applying for jobs in the corporate realm. “Of course, mechanical engineering was an easy choice for me. I liked it all and couldn’t seem to choose a specialization,” said Bakis of the many mechanical engineering disciplines. “I thought graduate school or practical experience would help me figure out the path to take.” He went as far as to take the GREs, the GMAT, as well as the Engineering and Training Exam, and applied to several graduate school programs.
In 1981, and with his bachelor’s degree in hand, Bakis found that the job market was thriving and RCA Corporation, the manufacturer of the first electronic turntable, offered him a unique opportunity, which allowed new staff engineers to explore five different RCA divisions and then choose a permanent position within one. Bakis worked on applied research, satellites, television picture tubes, and radar systems in a series of five-week stints.
Bakis was captivated with design work on communications satellites and chose to work at the RCA Astro-Electronics Division in Hightstown, New Jersey, positioning communications hardware in the satellite to assure specific mass properties. Although it was interesting work at first, it became more mundane as time passed. Bakis noticed those around him with masters and doctoral degrees were working on the “fun stuff,” such as fiber-reinforced plastic, a new type of composite material in the aerospace field. And so he spent some time at the library and found Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware were two universities with faculty working on the research, design, testing, and analysis of these innovative materials. Ironically, much later in 2013, Bakis was elected as president of the American Society for Composites.
In August 1982, Bakis took a leave of absence from RCA and chose to pursue a master’s in engineering mechanics at Virginia Tech. He was so impressed with the caliber of the engineering program at Tech that in 1984, after obtaining his master’s, Bakis decided to stay on and further his education, giving up his position at RCA, earning his doctoral degree four years later.
Wayne Stinchcomb and Kenneth Reifsnider, both faculty members at the college, were advisors and mentors to Bakis. They were “perfect scholars and gentleman,” and demonstrated to him the “good life of being part of the college community,” Bakis recalled.
In 1988, upon completion of his academic education, Bakis interviewed for a few government research jobs, but accepted an assistant professor position in the College of Engineering at Penn State University. Bakis immediately thrived in the academic environment, both in the teaching and research realms. Prior to his arrival at State College, a colleague, H. Thomas Hahn, had established a laboratory at Penn State for manufacturing composites. The facility allowed him the opportunity to produce and test specimens, a step up from his student days when he had to wait for samples to be delivered to the lab.
Today, Bakis’ work spans manufacturing, testing, and analysis. His research focuses on the development of lightweight composite materials, energy absorbing composites for crash-worthy vehicles, nano reinforced composites, and thermomechanical behavior and durability of composites used in civil construction.
As the co-principal investigator on the Graduate Automotive Technology Education Center, a program within the Vehicle and Safety Program at Penn State, Bakis and his students have designed and manufactured ultra-high speed composite flywheel energy storage systems for hybrid electric vehicles. He also chaired an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics-sponsored task group to establish the first-ever flywheel rotor safety and longevity standard, specifically the area of material test methods.
Another significant research area Bakis has put his mark on is flexible composites with adjustable shape and stiffness. With Defense Advanced Research Project Agency and National Science Foundation funding, he advised Mike Philen, then a doctoral candidate at Penn State. Together with their colleagues, they developed composites that could instantaneously change stiffness by a factor of 50.
“As a faculty member who was once a student, I greatly appreciate Dr. Bakis’ caring mentorship and advisement, positive attitude, professionalism, and commitment to excellence in his work,” said Philen who is now a Virginia Tech Associate Professor of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
Balancing his role as professor and researcher, Bakis has advised or co-advised 34 master’s students and 16 doctoral students; published over 140 refereed journal and conference papers; and has been the principal or co-principal investigator of 90 externally funded projects.
Bakis continues to be about the “work,” as he steadfastly remains a prominent fixture in the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department at Penn State and in professional organizations. Since 2003, he has served as the editor-in-chief of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Journal for Composites Construction.
In 2010, his peers recognized him with the Outstanding Research Award in the American Society for Composites. He is also a Fellow of the American Society for Composites, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the International Institute for Fiber Reinforced Polymers in Construction. He co-chairs committees of the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American Concrete Institute dealing with the measurement of properties of composites used as reinforcements in concrete.
“Chuck is an outstanding ambassador for Virginia Tech. He has made significant research contributions to the application of composites in infrastructure applications, and impacted the profession through his work with the American Society for Composites, ASTM, and the Journal of Composites for Construction. I am proud to be able to count him among the alumni of the engineering mechanics program,” said Scott Case, professor, engineering science and mechanics program chair, and nominator of Bakis’ recommendation into Virginia Tech’s Academy of Engineering Excellence.
Class of: 1984, 1988
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015