Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. Pioneering Astronaut and President of the Harris Foundation, Named WPI’s 2015 Commencement Speaker

Honorary Degrees Will Also Be Awarded to Ellen S. Dunlap, President of the American Antiquarian Society, and Judith Nitsch'75, Founding Principal of Nitsch Engineering
April 24, 2015

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) announced today that Bernard A. Harris, Jr., M.D., an astronaut who became the first African American to walk in space and who went on to become the founder and president of the Harris Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to "empower individuals, in particular minorities and others who are economically and/or socially disadvantaged, to recognize their potential and pursue their dreams," will deliver the address at the university's 147th commencement exercises on Saturday, May 16. WPI will also bestow upon Harris an honorary doctor of science degree.

Additional honorary degrees will be awarded to Ellen S. Dunlap, president of the American Antiquarian Society, and Judith Nitsch'75, founding principal of Nitsch Engineering.

"Dr. Bernard Harris is an inspiration—not only because he is a medical doctor, researcher, astronaut, and entrepreneur, but because he works so diligently to help others realize their potential," said WPI President Laurie A. Leshin. "Not one to rest on his laurels, Dr. Harris empowers members of underrepresented populations by providing them with opportunities for engagement, particularly in the STEM disciplines. He is no stranger to WPI, and this summer will mark the sixth time the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp will be offered on this campus. Undoubtedly, Harris's words—as well as his personal and professional experiences and his commitment to hard work, excellence, and helping others—will inspire our graduates as they leave this university to apply theory to practice in order to make a positive impact on people's lives and upon our world. It will be an honor to bestow upon him an honorary doctorate of science degree."

Leshin also commended the two other honorary degree recipients, noting, "For 23 years, Ellen Dunlap has led the American Antiquarian Society and has played an important role in preserving this nation’s history; and since her graduation from WPI in 1975, Judy Nitsch has blazed trails—as a female engineer, a leader in sustainability, and a champion of this university."

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Bernard Harris was selected into the NASA corps of astronauts in January 1990 and was a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-55/Spacelab D-2 in 1993. In 1995, as payload commander on Space Shuttle Discovery STS-63, he served on the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program, becoming the "First African American to walk in Space." A veteran astronaut for over 19 years, he has logged more than 438 hours and traveled over 7.2 million miles in space.

Prior to becoming an astronaut, Harris completed a residency in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic. His medical research included a National Research Council Fellowship in endocrinology at the NASA Ames Research Center, and training as a flight surgeon at the USAF Brooks Aerospace School of Medicine. At NASA, Harris conducted research in musculoskeletal physiology and disuse osteoporosis, and as head of the Exercise Countermeasure Project, he conducted clinical investigations of space adaptation and developed in-flight medical devices to extend astronauts' stays in space.

Harris retired from NASA in April 1996, and went on to establish the Harris Foundation in 1998, a nonprofit organization that supports math/science education and crime prevention programs for America's youth, providing opportunities to underrepresented students, including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, first generation to college, and those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. The Harris Foundation has partnered with NASA, the National Science Foundation, and ExxonMobil. Of the participants in the Harris Foundation’s signature program, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, 98 percent graduate from high school and attend college, and among these students, 75 percent pursue STEM degrees.

Currently, Harris is also chief executive officer and Managing Partner of Vesalius Ventures, Inc., a venture capital firm that invests in early to mid-stage healthcare technologies and companies. He also holds several faculty appointments, including associate professor in internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine; he is the author and co-author of numerous scientific publications. Harris also serves on the boards of the National Math and Science Initiative, Houston Angel Network, Houston Technology Center, and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, as well as the Board of Scientific Counselors. In addition, he serves as a director of a number of investment funds, including The Endowment Fund, Salient Absolute Return Fund, Salient MLP & Energy Infrastructure Fund, Salient Midstream & MLP Fund, and Salient MF Trust; and the Board of Trustees of Babson Capital Global Short Duration High Yield Fund and Babson Capital Funds Trust.

Previously, Harris served as vice president and chief scientist of SPACEHAB, Inc., an innovative space commercialization company, where he directed the company’s space science business. He also served as vice president of business development for Space Media, Inc., an informatics company, establishing an e-commerce initiative that is now part of the United Nations’ education program. Harris was a senior consultant for NASA Aerospace Safety Panel, as well as a member of the NASA Biological and Physical Sciences Committee, the Council for the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Deafness, Texas Tech's University Board of Regents, Texas Higher Education Coalition, Texas Commission on a Representative Student Body and Communications Disorders, and a number of committees for the National Academies Institute of Medicine.

Harris is the recipient of numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from Stony Brook University, Morehouse School of Medicine, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the University of Hartford, as well as the NASA Space Flight Medal, a NASA Award of Merit, and the 2000 Horatio Alger Award. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians. He is also a licensed private pilot and certified scuba diver.

He holds a bachelor of science in biology from the University of Houston, a master of medical science from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a master of business administration from the University of Houston Clear Lake, and a doctor of medicine from Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

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Ellen S. Dunlap will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Dunlap has served as president of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) since 1992. The AAS is a learned society and a major independent research library housing the largest and most accessible collection of print materials, music, and graphic arts material related to all aspects of American history and culture before the twentieth century. Last July, on behalf of the AAS, Dunlap accepted a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony.

In addition to her leadership at the AAS, Dunlap has served as chair of Mass Humanities; the Independent Research Libraries Association; the Archives, Manuscripts, and Special Collections program of the Research Libraries Group; and the Worcester Cultural Coalition; and as a member of the board of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation; ESTC/North America; Rare Books School, University of Virginia; the Massachusetts Center for the Book; the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries; and the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia.

Prior to joining the AAS, Dunlap held positions of director of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, and research librarian at what is now the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, where she earned both her BA and MLS.

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Judith Nitsch '75, P.E., WPI trustee emerita, will receive an honorary doctor of engineering degree. She is the founding principal and chairman of the board of Nitsch Engineering Inc. in Boston, which was named one of Inc. magazine's 500 fastest-growing companies within its first five years of existence and has been on the Boston Business Journal’s list of the top 25 engineering firms in Massachusetts since 2011. Today, Nitsch Engineering is known for its work on projects in 18 states and five countries, and consulting work on environmentally responsible, LEED-certified developments.

After graduating from WPI, and prior to establishing Nitsch Engineering, she quickly established herself as a capable engineer: at Schofield Brothers, she made history as the firm's first woman vice president, and went on to join its board of directors; and at Allen & Demurjian she rapidly rose to stockholder and partner, adding her name to the firm's title. Among her other accomplishments, Nitsch was the youngest and first woman president of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section/ASCE, has served as president of American Council of Engineering Companies of Massachusetts, and was president of the Society of Women Engineers/Boston Section. She currently serves on the board of directors of CREW Network (Commercial Real Estate Women), and was the 2014 president of the national organization. She has also won honors as an exemplary manager and an innovative designer, and received an honorary doctor of science from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2010.

The first alumna elected to the WPI Board of Trustees, Nitsch served for 23 years, all of them as a member of the board's Facilities and Campus Infrastructure Committee, which she chaired for 16 years. Nitsch is also among WPI's most dedicated volunteers and most generous supporters; she has participated in the WPI Trustee/Student Mentor/Mentee program since its inception 18 years ago. She was an early champion of energy efficient campus buildings; and the Nitsch/Magliozzi Green Roof atop East Residence Hall and the Nitsch/Magliozzi Entrance to the Sports & Recreation Center are named for her and her late husband, Tony Magliozzi, in recognition of their contributions to sustainable design in those campus projects.