10-Questions with Paul Hommert ’72

Paul Hommert leaving the village of Hommert in the Alsace-Lorraine region of Eastern France
Paul Hommert leaving the village of Hommert in the Alsace-Lorraine region of Eastern France where his ancestors immigrated from in the 1840s. Photo Credit: Beth Hommert
Critical Thinking, Technological Education, a Global View, and Leadership Foundational to National Security
Concept & interview by: Shekhar Garde, gardes@rpi.edu

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I graduated from RPI in 1972 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering. I grew up on Long Island and since I wanted to do engineering coming out of high school, RPI was a great choice given its reputation and proximity. I also had relatives in upstate New York (Amsterdam) so had spent time in the area growing up.

You have had an impressive career trajectory. Tell us a bit about your journey as a researcher and as a leader.

When I graduated from RPI, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I chose Purdue given its reputation and the offer of support I received. When I graduated with a Ph.D. also in Mechanical Engineering my background in Heat Transfer and Combustion was attractive to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM, which was getting into Energy Research in the mid-seventies. I worked in Energy Research for the first fifteen years of my career, mostly in the area of fossil fuels, including enhanced oil recovery which now some 30 - 40 years later has become a cornerstone of America’s energy resurgence. However, in the late 80’s foreign oil became inexpensive so federally funded research was reduced and I moved inside Sandia to work in the area of science-based stockpile stewardship. This was the major U.S. effort to maintain our nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing. I was on the ground floor of this program which involved major investments in advanced computing and engineering simulation. Simultaneously, with changing research fields I also advanced up the management chain, and in 2000 had the unique opportunity to be one of three Americans who went to the United Kingdom where I had the leadership responsibility for the U.K. nuclear deterrent program in stockpile stewardship. When I returned to the U.S., I worked in leadership roles at both Los Alamos and Sandia, primarily in support of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and related national security technologies.

You have led large, complex, and multidisciplinary organizations. What are the essential qualities of a good leader?

There are so many dimensions to being an effective leader. Three that I would highlight are: Having a vision and sense for the direction that an organization must move, being open, accessible and willing to listen and learn, understanding how to empower others to implement and succeed while ensuring consistency with the organization’s vision.

What was your RPI experience like?

My experience of Rensselaer was wonderful. We all grow up in our college years and the tight knit community that was Rensselaer allowed me to make deep lifelong friendships. I truly believe that the education I received at RPI was fundamental to my professional success. I learned that to succeed at RPI you needed to develop critical thinking skills and be able to quickly discern underlying fundamentals. Those skills would prove invaluable to me in graduate school and later as a researcher and leader. Rensselaer is distinguished by its outstanding students, faculty, and overall ethos that emphasizes rigor and fundamentals. Put simply, it was hard, and that made so many things later in my career easier.

You have significant international experience. Why is international exposure important to today’s students?

I was fortunate in my career to have a significant international experience. That was valuable to me in many ways. It is one of the best ways to accelerate and expand your experience base. Working in an international environment will quickly expose one to different ways of approaching problems while affording you the opportunity to learn from others who have experienced a different educational system, and who often use different processes and methodologies. Also, by stepping outside your own country and organization, you gain a different perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the environment to which you will likely return. All this is even more important today given the strength and diversity of international science and technology.

Is there a particular memory from your RPI days that you wish to share?

I have many fond memories of my time at RPI. Some are of a more personal nature, for example, I met my wife (now of 45 years) in Troy. I also played soccer and ran track at RPI. I view having been a student/athlete as a special part of my overall Rensselaer experience. On the academic side, I vividly remember a senior course I took in Compressible-Fluid Dynamics taught by a Professor Philip Thompson. We used a textbook written by him which to this day sits on my home office shelf. I referred to it many times in the early more technical part of my career. He was a wonderful teacher who inspired me to try and understand a difficult topic. It convinced me that I should go to graduate school because there was so much more to learn.

What do you do for fun?

Like any grandparent I enjoy my grandchildren, especially watching them take on new things. They keep you young. I am a bit of an amateur wine connoisseur and have a wine cellar and a reasonable collection. My wife and I enjoy travel and often integrate that with our love of wine.

You haven’t really retired, in the sense that you are engaged in a lot of intellectual activity. Why is that important? Interesting?

My retirement didn’t change my passion for the importance of National Security and overall science and technology to the future of our country. To the extent that from my experience I can contribute to organizations engaged in one or both of these areas, I welcome the opportunity to do so. Actually, I now have more time to read and think about a range of topics than when I was working full-time. Hopefully, that allows me to be a meaningful contributor to those who would seek my input.

What are you reading these days?

I have pretty eclectic reading tastes but do tend towards non-fiction and biographies in particular. Currently, I’m reading a biography of Nikola Tesla which meshes with my interest in vehicle electrification.

You contribute to Rensselaer in numerous ways. Why is it important to you?

My Rensselaer experience was important to me in so many ways that I feel a sense of obligation to give back. Beyond that, I believe that science and technology excellence are foundational to societal progress. This is especially true as we face new challenges, such as, climate change, resource scarcity, global security, etc. The country needs educational institutions such as RPI to produce the scientists and engineers needed to meet these challenges in the future. In my small way I’d like to help RPI do that.

What is your message to current RPI students?

Make the most of your time at Rensselaer and look for every opportunity to learn. Challenge yourself, it will help you build the confidence you’ll rely upon throughout your career.