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Spring Banquet Recap

Top faculty, students, and alumni were honored at the ISE Banquet on March 31. Among those celebrated were accomplished alumni, a popular professor, and four stellar students.

Hall of Honor

Melvin L. Kirk (BS IE ’87)

Melvin Kirk with John KobzaMelvin Kirk is an award-winning business leader who is renowned for reengineering and transforming business operations at some of America’s most admired corporations, like Merck, General Mills, and General Electric. He expanded his impact by transitioning into technology leadership as the chief information officer and senior vice president and then the chief technology officer at Ryder. Kirk was a member of the 1982 entering class of UT’s Minority Engineering Scholarship Program. He also earned an MBA at the Olin School of Business in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the father of two children, Kennedi and Alexis, and he enjoys outdoor sports and attending concerts, sports, and the arts.

Valerie McKinney, P.E. (BS IE ’92)

Valerie McKinnie receives awardValerie McKinney is a proud Knoxville native. While attending UT, she was a Kodak Scholar and Eastman Chemical co-op student. She earned her professional engineer’s license in 2001. McKinney began her career at Memphis Light, Gas, and Water. She was a certified Tennessee Quality Award examiner and in 1999 was project coordinator for MLGW’s winning application. Since 2018, she has served as MLGW’s manager of performance engineering, overseeing a team of engineers who conduct performance management, project management, and efficiency improvement projects. She enjoys UT football, basketball, and traveling with her husband.

Kirby Faculty Fellow Award: Rupy Sawhney

For 2022, Professor Rupy Sawhney is again honored with the Kenneth E. Kirby Faculty Award, presented annually to a faculty member who displays excellence in teaching, research, and contributions to the mission of the department.

Sawhney is the Heath Faculty Fellow in Business and Engineering and the founder and director of the Center for Advanced Systems Research and Education, which includes a Lean Enterprise Summer Program for visiting international students. He maintains multiple nonprofit and pro bono projects, and previously participated in the Knoxville Mayor’s Council for Disability Initiatives.

“Sawhney continues to be a leader in all areas of faculty activity,” said Department Head John Kobza. “Through his teaching, research, scholarship and outreach activities, he is defining the international paradigm for human-centered operational excellence.”

Through CASRE, Sawhney and his team seek to increase the effectiveness of systems while better integrating engineering with the needs of the people involved.

“The research that we do is to figure out how to design systems that allow you to achieve whatever technical goal that you want to achieve, but at the same time enhance people’s quality of life,” he said.

To further those goals, CASRE presented the Workforce Symposium on Growing and Retaining Talent in April 2022, in partnership with the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and UT’s Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. The symposium provided keynote speakers from across industries—including the president of CMS, the founder of, and the regional leader of Regions Bank—to discuss the types of improvements in workplace systems that Sawhney’s team strives for.

The lean summer program returns in full force following remote presentations during the pandemic. The 2022 program will offer flexibility for attendees.

Outstanding Faculty Member: Floyd Ostrowski

The UT student chapter of the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers selects an outstanding faculty member each year. For 2022, the IISE leadership team chose Assistant Professor of Practice Floyd Ostrowski for his excellent teaching and mentorship.

“He has taught several of our core industrial engineering courses, including work measurement, engineering economics, senior design, and project management,” said Kendall Miller, IISE president and a 2022 graduating senior. “Professor Ostrowski brings a unique and valuable background to our department, from his time in industry to beekeeping. He is engaging, positive, and relates classroom material to different applications.”

Department Head John Kobza echoes the sentiment of the nominating student team.

“During exit surveys I often have students talk about how much they learned from Floyd,” said Kobza. “With his breadth of experience, he is able to present course concepts through real-life problems students are very likely to face in their careers. This engages students and makes his courses relevant for them.”

Ostrowski’s approach shows students practical ways that the Volunteer spirit can be applied to their engineering education and careers.