Richard D. Sisson, Jr.
Class of 1969, BS
Rick Sisson, Jr., describes himself as “a ham” in the classroom who “loves to get up and tell stories. I can tell the odd joke because I have a captive audience,” the Virginia Tech metallurgical engineering — now materials science and engineering (MSE) — graduate laughs. However, his style must work because he is a recipient of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s (WPI) Teacher of the Year Award.
But he also believes he emulates his undergraduate Virginia Tech engineering professors. “I had an outstanding experience at Virginia Tech, and my professors had a major impact on me, especially T.P. Floridis. “He was very demanding, very organized, and a great guy. I had six classes from him, and I model my classes today after his style.” While an undergraduate, Sisson was also greatly influenced by other Virginia Tech professors including Chuck Houska, and later in his life by Rich McNitt and Mac Louthan, as well as Purdue’s M.A. Dayananda.
Sisson has had a noteworthy academic career and a short stint in industry since graduating from Virginia Tech in 1969. He earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from Purdue University in 1971 and in 1975, respectively. Although he wanted to teach after earning his doctorate, the first employment opportunity he found was as a research metallurgist for E.I. DuPont at the Savannah River Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina.
At Savannah River, Sisson first met Louthan, a group leader, who would eventually join the Virginia Tech engineering faculty and lure Sisson back to the Blacksburg campus in 1979. But in the interim, Sisson worked for DuPont developing plutonium dioxide that acted as a heat source for nuclear batteries. “Not a lot of people were good at handling these materials,” Sisson recalls. But he enjoyed the challenge and actually was the first to redesign and assemble “with a lot of help,” an electron microscope to allow his laboratory to characterize radioactive material.
In 1976, he had his first stint at WPI located at Worcester, Maine. The native of the Bay State was returning home, at least for three years. WPI had innovative grants that allowed the institute to recruit outstanding young engineers to join its faculty, and Sisson became WPI’s Morgan Distinguished Assistant Professor. After three years, Louthan, also a Virginia Tech alumnus, who “knew everyone in the field,” Sisson says, recruited him back to southwest Virginia. It seemed as if he was on a geographical seesaw, heading up and down the north-south interstates.
While at Virginia Tech, Sisson worked with Louthan and McNitt in their environmental degradation of engineering materials laboratory. “I really enjoyed working with Mac and Rich. We did some good work and had a real good time,” Sisson says.
After two years, and with a wife and two children, Sisson decided he needed to earn more money than was possible on the Hokie faculty at the time. So he moved his family part of the way home again, landing in New Jersey as a staff engineer for Exxon Chemical Co. This time, his wife Glena encouraged him to return to academia since he was spending more than half of each year traveling the world in his Exxon position. He doesn’t deny enjoying his “first-class plane rides” with the oil giant, but with two small children, he agreed with his wife’s wishes.
So, in 1982, “I told my wife my wandering days were over,” and he settled back in at WPI in Worcester, Maine, on the mechanical engineering (ME) faculty. Within five years, he was a full professor, and in 1988, Sisson became the director of WPI’s manufacturing engineering program until 1997. Simultaneously, he served from 1990 until 2004 as the head of the MSE program. His administrative skills landed him a third position during this same time period – interim head of the ME program from 1999 until 2000.
Despite all of his administrative duties, Sisson remained active in research and in teaching throughout his career. He focuses on the applications of thermodynamics and kinetics to materials processing and degradation phenomena in metals and ceramics. He has more than 160 publications and an equal number of technical presentations on topics ranging from synthesis of nanocrystalline ceramics to hydrogen embrittlement of high strength steels to heat treating and quenching of steels and aluminum alloys.
Among his special interests, Sisson is a staunch promoter of the concept of environmentally benign materials processing, an aspect of green engineering. “As a heat treater, we have to rethink everything, all the way back to the decision to use an electric furnace or a gas-fired furnace, whether to quench in oil or water, etc.
“We must have a holistic view of the entire life cycle of materials. And we have to understand that true environmentally benign processing requires an up-front commitment at the start of the design process,” he says.
Sisson has advocated his green engineering strategies through his involvement in the American Society of Metals (ASM) International. Sisson became a fellow of the American Society for Materials (ASM) International in 1993 and an ASM Trustee in 2002. He is currently the vice president of the ASM’s Heat Treat Society, and has written columns about his thoughts on sustainable engineering, trying to involve the greater materials engineering community.
In the area of heat treatment, he is the principal investigator (PI) on the Center for Heat Treating Excellence’s projects “Quenching, Understanding, Controlling, and Optimizing the Process” and “Optimizing the Carburization Process.” He is also a co-PI on the Department of Energy’s funded project “An Integrated Heat Treatment Model for Aluminum Castings.”
He is also a member of WPI’s Metal Processing Institute that has attracted some 130-member companies. For five years (1994-99), he was the director of the National Science Foundation’s Product REALIZATION Consortium. Since July of 2004, as WPI’s George F. Fuller ME Professor, he has served as the director of the manufacturing and materials engineering program, and specifically advises eight of its graduate students and a post doctoral fellow.
Sisson’s green engineering advocacy comes naturally to the outdoor enthusiast. Whenever possible, he spends time kayaking in the salt marshes of Buzzard’s Bay or biking on trails near where he grew up. An athlete during high school, and the son of a physical education teacher, Sisson was a member of the Dartmouth High School track team as a shot putter and a javelin thrower.
Sisson encouraged others to join the track team to his own detriment. “I was the fourth best in the state when I was a sophomore,” he recalls, but then he convinced a friend to join the team who went on to beat him, and leave him with the title of second best at Dartmouth as a high school senior.
Sisson and his wife have two children, Ashton, a veterinarian, and Ted, a former Navy man and now the captain of a private ship and a scuba diving instructor. They also have three grandsons, ages 10, 8, and 6, with whom they spend much of their time.
Class of: 1969
Year Inducted into Academy: 2006