$15 million - and a personal touch - accelerate aerospace research, education at CU Boulder

Published: Jan. 23, 2017

Antonella Abuja

Smead Program alumna Antonella Albuja after a hike on the Lake Isabelle Trail.

Antonella Albuja’s doctoral degree in aerospace engineering from CU Boulder just became more valuable, as did the educational, research and career prospects of those who follow her in the Smead Program.

A new gift to the College of Engineering and Applied Science from passionate CU Boulder supporters Ann Smead and her husband Michael Byram is helping to make this possible, and strengthening Colorado’s aerospace economy in the process. With support totaling more than $15 million, including the most recent $10 million gift, the family aims to set CU Boulder apart from its aerospace peers and propel it to the top of national rankings by attracting the best and brightest doctoral students - like Albuja – as well as outstanding young faculty in aerospace engineering.

To celebrate their support, CU Boulder will name the “Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences” in honor of Ann and H.J. “Joe” Smead, a CU Boulder engineering alumnus, industry executive and Ann’s husband prior to his passing in 2003.

Albuja, 27, now working for The Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, California, said she was “blown away” when she learned of the generous support.

“I am a bit speechless after hearing that number,” said Albuja, whose dedication as a student and willingness to grow as a leader make her a shining example of a Smead Scholar. “This provides CU with a tremendous amount of resources and allows CU to grow and continue to be at the top of the field and to attract the best candidates in the graduate school program - and even undergraduates, as the department’s reputation grows.”

Ann Smead and Michael Byram

Michael Byram and Ann Smead

The family created the Smead Fellows Program in 2006 to support the aerospace engineering studies of two new doctoral students annually. The fully endowed program enables students (renamed “Smead Scholars”) the academic freedom to explore their primary research interests while being mentored by world-class faculty and advisors. Smead Scholars also receive professional development training in leadership, project management, grant writing, ethics, and attend prestigious workshops, seminars and lectures around the world throughout their graduate studies.

Bobby Braun, newly appointed dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, former NASA chief technologist and nationally known aerospace leader, described the gifts as “transformational” for the college, the university and the state.

“Ann and Michael know that building a world-class aerospace program requires dedication, vision and the passion of a community of innovators,” Braun said.

The legacy of Joe Smead

Joe Smead grew up in humble circumstances, the oldest son of a single mother who took in laundry to make ends meet. As a young teen, he was determined to attend nearby Gonzaga Preparatory School as an essential stepping stone to a college education.

Knowing the family lacked the means to cover tuition, Smead met with Gonzaga Prep administrators, who recognized his intellect and potential. When asked what he could contribute to his education, Smead pledged all the earnings from his newspaper route: 50 cents a week. The headmaster agreed and he was on his way. Family members say he never forgot that kindness and support, nor the opportunities afforded him by his education.

Joe Smead

Joe Smead

An exceptional student, Smead earned a WWII Navy sponsored scholarship to attend CU, graduating after only 26 months with an electrical engineering degree. Smead initially thought his future lay in academia and, after fulfilling his Navy commitment, went on to attend school in his home state earning a master’s degree from the University of Washington and subsequently, a doctoral degree from Purdue University.

Smead had an outstanding career in industry, becoming president of Kaiser Aerospace & Electronics Corp. in 1974 before purchasing the company. He continued to lead the company as president, CEO and chairman until 1999.

Smead was a founding member of CU Boulder’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences External Advisory Board and remained committed to supporting the college throughout his lifetime.

“Joe had always wanted to teach,” Ann Smead said. “He loved education and learning but he also realized he had to make a living and he was especially drawn to the dynamic aerospace industry.”

Now, Ann Smead and Michael Byram honor his legacy while doing their part to help CU propel the state’s economy and quality of life through engineering innovation.

Smead said the logical place to do that is with CU Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department.

“You can’t have a great department without great people,” she said. “CU’s aerospace team is one of the most energetic, inspiring groups we have seen. The more you are around them their intellect, curiosity and drive to learn and solve problems is just infectious.”

The research happening at CU Boulder also inspires her. CU Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department has a strong national and international reputation. In 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked the campus’s aerospace graduate program No. 5 nationally among public institutions. The Smead support is expected to further propel the department in national and international rankings.

“One of the things I always say about aerospace engineering at CU Boulder, and engineering in general at CU, is that it’s always changing, always evolving, always getting better and continually challenging students and faculty to find the next great idea,” said Smead.

In addition to supporting graduate students within the aerospace department, the most recent gift establishes the Smead Endowed Chair of Space Technology, a position to be held by a National Academy of Engineering faculty member; the Michael M. Byram Distinguished Visiting Professorship; and two Smead Faculty Fellowships for promising mid-career faculty. The A. Richard Seebass Endowed Chair, established by Joe Smead prior to his death and held by Distinguished Professor Dan Scheeres, also falls within the Smead Program.

A personal touch

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Smead Program to students like Albuja is how much Smead and Byram, leaders in their Vail Valley community, care about CU Boulder students.

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“The financial aspect is very helpful but the best part of being a Smead Scholar is my interactions with Ann and Michael,” she said. “They genuinely care about us. Not just as an investment, but as people.”

Byram and Smead talked to Albuja about how she was handling stress during her studies. They were very excited when she got married to Dan Lubey, another Smead Scholar. When Albuja and Lubey bought a condo, Smead and Byram sent a thoughtful housewarming gift.

Ann Smead said it was a joy to see the transformation of Albuja from an extremely shy graduate student to a confident young professional presenting papers around the world.

“Their involvement leaves you feeling like you’re part of something that’s much greater than you,” Albuja said. “They really want to open up doors for you to be able to build your network and succeed in your career so you can actually make a difference.”