Research as a team sport
Mike Mann retires from UND after 41 years of bringing together faculty, students, staff
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry S. Truman
Some who worked with Mike Mann during his 41-year career at UND remember this tagline from his emails because it symbolized his approach to conducting research and mentoring students and faculty in a manner likely leave a long-lasting impression on the University.
“I think that quote perfectly sums up Mike’s impact on the College of Engineering & Mines during his time in chemical engineering,” said CEM Dean Brian Tande. “In the later part of his career, he helped build our Institute for Energy Studies and launched several new research initiatives in the college.”
When Mann retired from UND at the end of June, he left a career filled with honors, as well as a quiet legacy of mentoring and building research teams that included everyone from freshman students to senior faculty members from around campus. His research focused on answering practical questions, attracting wide support from North Dakota industry, as well as federal and state agencies.
Mann will continue to serve as a research advisor and on graduate student committees as he transitions from full-time to emeritus faculty status.
“Mike has been one of UND’s most prolific researchers and collaborative research developers,” said Wayne Seames, a UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the ND SUNRISE program in the CEM Department of Chemical Engineering. “Mike leaves as one of UND’s most accomplished and successful scholars, administrators and collaborators.”
Mann’s areas of expertise included multidisciplinary and integrated energy and environmental projects, energy strategies and optimum processes based on thermodynamics and economics, while also considering social, political and regulatory implications.
According to Mann, his research philosophy revolved around assembling teams and then getting the most out of them.
“Research, as I approach it, is a team sport,” he explained. “You can’t accomplish much by yourself, but you can accomplish a lot when you work with other people.
“You recognize their strengths and add value to what they can do,” Mann emphasized. “You encourage them, you empower them, you engage them and you treat them with respect – as equals. Give them credit, but then take responsibility.
Getting the most out of people
“Keep it a civil and collaborative work environment,” he continued. “If you do that, then people rise up in ways that exceed your standards. They do things together as a team and do things that nobody can accomplish by themselves.”
Mann said the most rewarding part of his UND career were the opportunities to educate and mold future engineers and leaders.
“I enjoyed seeing students come in, mentoring them and turning them into good, mature engineers,” he said. “I get a lot of emails from former students, but the one that hit home the most said, ‘You believed in me when nobody else did – not even myself.’ That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with my students, to help them grow, learn and expand.”
It was the same with mentoring new faculty, researchers and research teams.
“When they graduate, get a new grant, earn a Ph.D. or get published in a high-prestige publication, those are the kind of accomplishments I relish the most,” Mann said. “Those I see as the biggest highlights.”
Mann trained the next generations of engineering scholars, including 25 Ph.D. and 34 master’s students under his sponsorship, mentorship and guidance, while serving on 75 graduate student committees from 10 different UND departments.”
Mann grew up on a farm outside of Alsen, N.D., and received bachelor’s degrees in math and chemistry from Mayville State University in 1979. He came to UND where he received his master’s degree in chemical engineering in 1981.
From EERC to engineering
That same year, he went to work as a research engineer at what was known as the Grand Fork Energy Technology Center, then operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. The center was defederalized in 1983 and later became the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC).
Mann was promoted to research manager in 1985 and to senior research manager in 1994. While working at the EERC, he earned a master’s in business administration from UND in 1988 and a Ph.D. in energy engineering in 1997.
Steve Benson, a former EERC associate director, a retired CEM faculty member and now the CEO of Microbeam Technologies Inc., worked with Mann at the EERC and CEM.
“Mike was an extremely organized and diligent researcher,” Benson said. “He had this calm sense about him. In research, things go wrong and things go right. Mike had a great way of navigating through the ups and downs of the R&D world.”
Ed Steadman, EERC vice president for research, recalled traveling with Mann to power plants in western North Dakota.
“Mike was always a great engineer and a consummate professional,” Steadman remembered. “He was the guy behind the scenes you needed to make everything work. He was that quiet, stoic, competent person who was good to work with.”
In 1999, Mann began working full time at CEM. From 2000-2005, he was director of the engineering doctoral program. He chaired the chemical engineering department from 2005-2013 and also served as an associate professor in the department from 1999-2006. He was associate dean for research from 2009-2013 and again from 2021-2022. Mann was executive director of the Institute for Energy Studies from 2014 to 2022.
Dan Laudal, who succeeded Mann as the director of the institute, said, “When I think of Mike, I think of a great mentor, and that’s what he’s meant to me. I give him so much credit for the engineer and leader I’ve become. I’ve tried my best to take some of that into my own career.”
Surojit Gupta, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said, “It was an honor to work with Dr. Mann. He is an excellent mentor and colleague in CEM. He always helped with guidance and support in grant preparation and advised on any issues.”
Prakash Ranganathan, associate professor of electrical engineering, said of Mann, “He is a true energizer who can move people. Mike is like a Wikipedia for those who want to learn lessons on leadership qualities.”
Projects and honors
Mann was the principal investigator on 35 major CEM external grants totaling $13.5 million. He authored more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, 140 conference presentations, and 150+ client and agency reports. He was an named inventor on three UND patents. His work is heavily cited by other researchers.
Seames said Mann is one of the most awarded faculty members in the history the chemical engineering department. His awards include:
- Faculty Scholar Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service (UND’s Professor of the Year Award), 2020.
- Award for Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Research or Creative Works, 2014
- Excellence in Undergraduate Recruitment and Advising, UND. 2013.
- CEM Outstanding Faculty Award, 2013.
- Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, 2009.
- Distinguished Alumni Award, Mayville State University, 2007.
- Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Individual Excellence in Research, 2006.
- CEM Olson Professorship for Excellence in Research, 2003.
- NSF Career Grant, 2001.
- Three papers selected as best papers in international conferences.
Written by Patrick C. Miller / UND Today