Dr. Gary L. Harris was honored recently by the Cornell Graduate School with the inaugural Turner Kittrell Medal of Honor.
According to the Cornell Chronicle, Sara Xayarath Hernández, associate dean for inclusion and student engagement at the Graduate School, presented Harris with the award at the end of Cornell University’s Success Symposium for underrepresented M.S./Ph.D. and Ph.D. students from all graduate fields.
Harris “is responsible for helping Howard maintain its leadership role as the number one producer of on-campus African-American Ph.D.s in the nation,” Hernández said.
Harris studied electrical engineering throughout his Cornell career and since 1980, he has mentored and advised the research theses and dissertations of more than 150 masters and Ph.D. graduates.
The new award, which is named after the first black man and woman to earn doctoral degrees from Cornell University, was established to recognize alumni who have made significant contributions to the advancement of diversity, inclusion, and equity.
“I am just floored by this honor,” Harris said at the event. “I can’t wait to get back to Howard and share this with my colleagues. … I’m accepting it in honor of all the students that I’ve worked with – because, you know, awards are given to individuals but the work that I do is a team effort.”
Harris got to Howard University in 1980, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at Cornell. In August 1980, he and Michael G. Spencer (now the dean of engineering at Morgan State University) became the first blacks to receive doctorates in their field from Cornell.
“While we were in college we were always talking about the community and what we were going to do once we got out and about how engineering related to the community,” Harris told US Black Engineer magazine in 1986, when he and Spencer made USBE‘s cover for their groundbreaking research in microelectronic devices at Howard University.
“Senior year I started wondering what I was going to do when I got out,” Harris told USBE. “I knew I didn’t want to go into industry because I had worked there before and there wasn’t enough freedom to do some of the things I wanted to do. So I stayed on in school and got a master’s in electrical engineering. I decided that since the ultimate things I wanted to was increase my flexibility and to have as many options as possible available to me, I should go ahead and get a PhD. So I was in college about nine years.”
Harris became interested in electronics as a child.
“When I was a little boy I was always fascinated by electronics,” he said. “In junior high school, I started repairing televisions. I got a novice ham license and started studying electronics. Naturally, that led me on to electrical engineering. I wanted to know more.’”
At Howard, Harris, and Spencer assembled full-time researchers as well as graduate students. The program graduated its first Ph.D. in electrical engineering soon after. Their research was sponsored by grants and contracts from the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, IBM, and NASA. The materials they worked on are now used in everyday electronic devices.
Harris is currently professor of electrical engineering and materials science and associate provost for research and graduate studies at Howard University, and director of the Howard Nanoscale Science and Engineering Facility and the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.
Turner Kittrell trailblazers
The Cornell award is named for educators and activists Thomas Wyatt Turner, Ph.D. ’21, and Flemmie Pansy Kittrell, M.A. ’30, Ph.D. ’36, the first African-American man and woman to earn doctoral degrees from Cornell.
“These two individuals are legends on Howard’s campus,” Harris said. “They defined the whole essence of facts and science and engineering and technology, and were the inspirations for literally thousands of people.”
Turner studied botany at Cornell and taught at Howard between 1914 and 1924, and at Hampton from 1924 to 1945. A founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, he fought for justice for blacks throughout his life, particularly within the Catholic Church – and for the admission of black students to Catholic University, where he began his graduate studies. He retired in 1945 due to glaucoma and died in 1978 at age 101.
In 1924 Turner encouraged Kittrell, who had a home economics degree from Hampton, to consider graduate studies at Cornell. The first African-American woman in the country to earn a PhD. in nutrition, she was an example for minorities pursuing a university education and an international pioneer in nutrition and child development. Kittrell was instrumental in creating the federal Head Start Program, and as a Fulbright scholar, she established a home economics college and a nutrition research program at Baroda University in India. Kittrell taught at Howard for almost 30 years. After her retirement in 1973, she was a visiting postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell in the College of Human Ecology. She died in 1980.
Harris has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, edited five books, presented more than 200 papers at conferences, and mentored and advised the research theses and dissertations of more than 150 masters and Ph.D. graduates.
Harris is the associate provost for research and graduate studies at Howard University, professor of electrical engineering, and director of the Howard Nanoscale Science and Engineering Facility in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering College of Engineering, Architecture & Computer Sciences
Dr. Harris’ research interests have focused mainly on the growth and characterization of electronic and optical materials, the fabrication of semiconductor devices with special attention given to wide bandgap and compound semiconductor materials, and applications of nanotechnology. In recent years, his research has expanded to include: Applications of Nanotechnology, Bio-Sensors, Electrical Nano-Bio Interface, Optical Nanosensors, Applications Self-Organized Nanotechniques, Paper MEMs, and Ultra Mechanical Coats/Material