As one of UK Paducah’s four chemical engineering professors, students expect to see Jim Smart hard at work in the classroom; yet, it’s understandable when they are surprised to see him sitting next to them as a student.
“I like to learn a foreign language and then visit one of the countries where it’s spoken,” says Smart. “I’m taking Spanish because we’re going to Spain this summer. Four years ago I learned how to speak Chinese and my wife and I went to China for three weeks. I’ve found that it makes all the difference in the world if you speak a little of the language. People warm up to you and share their culture with you.”
Smart’s inquisitive nature has helped him forge a non-linear career path lined with unique opportunities and interesting detours. After graduating from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1974, Smart took positions with Ashland Oil and Great Lakes Chemical before spending the next 16 years with IBM.
“At IBM, I had the chance to work on the technical side as well as in management. I was in charge of chemical distribution at IBM—overseeing the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemicals used to make printed circuit cards. I was also head of an emergency response team with 50 trained employees under me. Whenever there was a chemical spill, leaking valve or gas release, we cleaned it up,” he recalls.
Although Smart’s IBM career was on the rise, he was in a rut.
“I felt my brain was turning to mush,” he grins. “I liked the challenge of higher education so I thought I would get my Ph.D.”
Smart went back to school and earned his Ph.D. from The University at Texas in Austin in 1997. Upon graduating, he took a teaching role there while he planned his next move. One year later, he heard about a new engineering program about to be launched at a University of Kentucky campus in Paducah. Smart was intrigued.
“When I heard about the proposal for UK Paducah, I wanted to get in on the ground floor,” he says. “I thought it was very exciting. As it turned out, I was the first professor they hired.”
Now in his 15th year with the program, Smart appreciates the opportunities to connect with students made possible by the small class sizes.
“Every class we offer has an experimental component. Students taking my fluid mechanics class will do fluid mechanics experiments during the semester—not two years later when they’ve forgotten most of the material. It enhances learning and we wouldn’t be able to do that in classes of 40 or 50 students,” he affirms.
Smart also values the flexibility UK Paducah professors have in their research areas. While his primary field of research is the use of membranes for water purification, Smart’s curiosity has taken him off the beaten path at times, most recently leading him to investigate estimating time of death using body temperature.
“I was going to high schools for outreach visits and I wanted to show the students interesting engineering applications. At the time, the television show C.S.I. was taking off, so I thought perhaps forensics would be one way to connect engineering to the students’ interests. They were fascinated. After that, I started making contact with physicians and learning about estimating time of death using temperature taken from the eyeball rather than the torso,” he explains.
While Smart has written academic papers on his findings, he has no plans to become a coroner or medical examiner.
“The project was fun, but it’s time to wrap it up and continue developing membranes that can purify groundwater contaminated by spilled chemicals,” he confirms.
Looking ahead, Smart is as enthusiastic as ever about the direction of the program.
“Paducah is a wonderful place to live and study,” he says. “We have an incredible performing arts center, as well as our own symphony, and downtown Paducah has a rich art district. That provides the context for this program where a student can obtain an engineering degree from the University of Kentucky for a total of $30,000. It’s a great deal any way you look at it.”