Magazine Feature / People

Kumosa escaped ‘the plan’ to find balance

photo portrait

Thanks in large part to Maciej Kumosa, electricity travels without interruption over the Rockies and around the world. Photo by Tim Ryan

Maciej Kumosa, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science in the Department of Engineering, grew up with “a plan” in Communist Poland.

“There is a color for Communism and that color is gray,” Kumosa says in his thick, rolling accent. “From the moment you’re born, you can predict your end. You can guess how much money you’ll make and what kind of place you’ll live in.

“It was very well organized. And very boring. I couldn’t take it. I left.”

Kumosa — recipient of DU’s 2006–07 John Evans Award, the University’s highest faculty award — says he realized how dreary Poland was while earning his doctorate in applied mechanics and materials science from the Technical University of Wroclaw during the 1980s.

The National Science Foundation in 1992 offered him a grant to come to the United States for two months and to tour labs all over the country.

“When I returned to Poland, it was dark gray,” he remembers. “I knew I had to get my family out.”

Married with two children, Kumosa accepted an invitation to conduct research at Cambridge University, an experience that changed his life.

“I was 50 yards from where the DNA structure was discovered. I was surrounded by some of the world’s most incredible scientists. People worked 18 to 20 hours a day, nonstop, no vacations. An experience like that changes you,” he says.

But Kumosa believes “life should be balanced,” so he accepted a position at the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology.

“I actually took that position for the fishing,” Kumosa jokes.

He confesses he didn’t catch many fish. Instead, grant money started pouring in and General Electric Aircraft Engines asked Kumosa, an expert in composite materials, to evaluate engine parts for the upcoming Boeing 777 jet.

Next, Kumosa was approached by the Bonneville Power Administration to solve a dire problem: power lines in the Rocky Mountains had dropped to the ground 14 times in 18 months. Not only did this cause concern for anybody near those downed lines, but also for the areas that lost power.

“For utility companies around the world, this was an emergency,” he says. “Nobody knew why the lines were doing this. They came to me to solve it.”

Kumosa ultimately recommended improvements to the insulators that were used to anchor the lines to the towers. His recommendations solved the problem.

Paul Rullkoetter, associate professor of engineering, nominated Kumosa for the John Evans Award and says of his insulator research: “There are approximately 10–50 million of these insulators in service and this number is rapidly increasing. These insulators support, in some cases, the most critical transmission lines around the globe. … The impact of his research on this community is rather obvious.”

But then, in 1996, it was time for the Kumosa family to make another move. This time following Kumosa’s wife, who was headed to Denver for a medical residency. Initially, Kumosa stayed in Oregon with the “two kids, two cats, nine PhD students, and $1.5 million in ongoing research.”

But the gig was up within nine months.

“I could handle everyone but my 12-year-old daughter,” he says with a smile.

He accepted a position with DU, and again the grants and students arrived. Kumosa continues working extensively with insulators. He has also worked on the combustion chamber for the next-generation NASA space shuttle. His charge was to test the composites, simulate myriad events and predict potential problems for NASA.

Kumosa says he recently took a break from research to evaluate where he wanted to go with the “second half” of his life and says he is now going to tackle nanotechnology, write textbooks, review research programs and build new research programs.

“My motto is, ‘Know everything about everything,’ ” Kumosa says. “My mother always taught me that you never know what you may need in life, so you’d better do everything well.”


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