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Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at VCU, said, "The mission of VCU resonates with my own life story and academic journey." (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Provost reflects on career journey in light of prestigious engineering award

Fotis Sotiropoulos said “never in his wildest dreams” did he think he would one day win the Fluids Engineering Award, joining researchers he idolized.

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With the Acropolis and other classical ancient Greek ruins just a short walk from Fotis Sotiropoulos’ childhood home in Athens, it’s easy to understand why he wanted to be an archaeologist early on. But after discovering his love of mathematics in high school, the path he chose was mechanical engineering, a field that has served him well.

So well in fact, that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recently bestowed Sotiropoulos, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, with the prestigious Fluids Engineering Award, honoring outstanding contributions to the engineering profession, particularly the field of fluids engineering through research, practice and/or teaching.

“It is a great pleasure for me to congratulate Provost Sotiropoulos on this prestigious honor,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “He has demonstrated tremendous skills as a thoughtful leader at VCU, a talented and accomplished engineer, and a person with a wonderful heart. This award recognizes his years of exceptional contributions to the field of fluids engineering. We are all exceptionally proud of him and pleased by how this reflects so well on VCU.”

Sotiropoulos was “beyond humbled” when he learned he was being honored.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think when I started my career that one day I would receive this award,” Sotiropoulos said. “The names of past award recipients comprise the pantheon of many scientific giants in my field of research, individuals I idolized and read their books and papers as a young aspiring researcher. In fact, some of my most important mentors have received this award, like my very first Ph.D. adviser, my postdoctoral supervisor and the person who offered me my very first job when I graduated with my Ph.D.”

The award means a lot to Sotiropoulos, but it’s not only about him, he said.

“I could not have accomplished this without the contributions of so many brilliant students, postdocs and collaborators I had the privilege to mentor and work with during my career,” he said. “This award belongs to all of them as much as it belongs to me.”

A modest but loving, caring beginning

Sotiropoulos was born into a family of humble economic means. There were times when his family struggled to make ends meet. However, he never felt like he was going without. His life felt rich and full because of the loving, caring environment his parents and grandparents provided.

“My parents were both working multiple jobs to support us so for the most part I was raised by my maternal grandparents,” he said. “My parents, maternal grandparents and two siblings (brother and sister) all lived together in a small apartment in Athens.”

Sotiropoulos grew up playing soccer with his friends at the foothills of the Acropolis. He would play and go for walks at Pnyx hill, where the concept of Athenian democracy was born and practiced. Those types of experiences made an impression on him.

“This rich ancestral legacy naturally filled me with pride but also with a strong sense of responsibility and purpose about what I need to do in my own life to contribute and make a difference,” he said.

One of his greatest inspirations was his mother. A painter and bronze engraving artist, she never went to college but was passionate about art, literature, philosophy and the value of education, Sotiropoulos said.

“Once a month she would come home with a box filled with books about world literature, philosophy, the history of science and the wonders of technology. And she was quite clear that I had to read everything in the box until the next box arrived,” he said. “She is the one who ignited my passion for reading and pursuit for knowledge.”

She wanted her son to “go to America to be a university professor,” Sotiropoulos said.

“So, in many ways, she decided for me early on, and I am fortunate for this. She passed when I was only 13 years old but only after she made an indelible mark in my life forever shaping my personality and future,” he said.   

He also credits Greece’s public education system for playing a large role in his life’s work.

“Public education in Greece is essentially free but to get admitted to a university you had to pass a very competitive national exam,” he said. “So my early childhood and teen years were all about studying and preparing to be able to seize the opportunity for free public education as my family did not have the means to pay for a private college. In hindsight, I never had to work harder, more persistently and with greater focus in my life than the last two years of my high school education, when I had to succeed in this national exam that ultimately led me to be admitted to the best engineering school in Greece, the National Technical University of Athens.”

Sotiropoulos came to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. and a research and academic career — he received his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Penn State University and his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Cincinnati.

He planned to return to Greece after completing his postgraduate studies to pursue a career in academia. But his plans changed when he realized he had a variety of research options in the U.S.

“I got intoxicated by the possibilities and the can-do, everything-is-possible attitude in America. I quickly realized that Greece was no longer an option for me,” he said.

He was comfortable in his new surroundings.

“In spite of my accent and my long Greek last name, I quickly felt that everyone valued who I am as a human being and what I could contribute intellectually,” he said. “I felt an empowering sense of belonging and that this is now my new home. And that sense of belonging was so important for me to be able to succeed. It turned out that my late mother was right all along!”

Discovering the versatility of how fluids flow

Sotiropoulos became fascinated with not only the study of how fluids flow in nature but also how a very complex set of mathematical equations could describe the flow.

“We use fluids in so many technological advances that support our civilization and way of life. And somehow mathematics could explain it all,” he said. “I found this to be magical.”

His interest in the flow of fluids encompassed a variety of subjects from aerospace engineering to hydraulic engineering, from blood flow to renewable energy technologies.

Over the years, Sotiropoulos has received numerous honors and awards for his work. When asked what he considers his greatest research contribution, he points to the development of sophisticated computational models for solving the equations governing the motion of fluids in complex real-life applications and using these models to tackle a broad range of societally relevant problems.

“This paved the way for what we refer today as digital twinning — the development of computational models that can re-create physically realistic virtual models of complex natural systems in powerful computational platforms,” he explained. “This has enabled me to not only contribute fundamental new knowledge about how fluids flow, knowledge that could not be extracted from physical experiments alone, but to use the computational tools to solve problems by performing numerical experiments that would be difficult, if not impossible, to perform in the physical world.” 

For example, to understand why mackerel and eels are not only shaped differently but also swim with different styles in nature, Sotiropoulos generated a model of an eel that was made to swim like a mackerel and vice versa.

“This is an experiment that is simply impossible to perform in the physical world. Yet it is one that provided striking new insights into the role of fluid forces on the evolution of fish body shapes and swimming styles and yielded new knowledge that is now guiding the development of novel swimming robots,” he said.  

VCU resonates with his life and his journey

Sotiropoulos served as the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Stony Brook University prior to coming to VCU, where he hopes to make a difference in the lives of young people, especially those who have been overlooked.

“The mission of VCU resonates with my own life story and academic journey as a first-generation student who owes everything I have accomplished in my life to our public education system,” he said. “I wanted to provide meaningful career pathways and opportunities for upward social mobility to all these bright young minds who are frequently left behind by others. As a first-generation student myself, I have personally benefited in my life from institutions that gave me such an opportunity, and I am eager to give something back by helping VCU realize its bold vision for the future of higher education.”

His major focus as provost has been to realize President Rao’s vision to stay at the cutting edge “so that we can meet our students where they are in a world that is changing at unprecedentedly fast rates,” he said.

“In many ways VCU has already been at the leading edge of such transformative innovation. The da Vinci Center, the Shift Retail Lab, but also the BrandCenter look like the classrooms of the future,” he said. “Because these educational models are centered on cross-disciplinary collaboration, innovation, experiential learning, entrepreneurship and direct engagement with industry focusing on solving real-world problems. And, they create amazing opportunities for our students to not only secure well-paying jobs but also become lifelong learners, innovators and entrepreneurs. By adopting the da Vinci Center paradigm and infusing across our entire academic enterprise, VCU is uniquely positioned to become the university of the future.” 

The power of a sense of humor is often overlooked

If you were to ask Sotiropoulos to describe himself, he would lead his answer with a sense of humor.

“I try not to take myself too seriously,” he said. “I try to make people laugh as best as I can. But I am also focused and determined when I undertake a new challenge. And, I am the toughest critic of myself. I strive not to be too intense and to be fun being around, but I am not sure I am always succeeding.”

Away from VCU, his time is often spent biking, hiking, skiing or reading. 

“Reading relaxes and inspires me, broadens my horizons and helps inform my ideas and vision for the future,” he said.

His wife, Chrisa Arcan, Ph.D., also works at VCU as an associate professor of family medicine and population health in the School of Medicine. She is a nutrition epidemiologist and a registered dietitian. 

The two met at the University of Minnesota in 2006 and have been together ever since. One of the things they enjoy doing together is cooking.

“We cook every day, and it is the activity that helps us relax at the end of the day. We also like to cook for our friends,” he said. “I learned to cook when I moved to the U.S., and I had to learn how to take care of myself. My signature dishes are roasted leg of lamb Greek style and a favorite Italian pasta dish: fusilli with octopus braised in red wine, tomatoes and bone marrow.”

Sotiropoulos is proud of his life’s work but what is even more important to him is the legacy he leaves behind in helping others accomplish great things in life.

“I would like to be remembered for the students and colleagues I have helped mentor, the aspiring leaders I have been able to train and enable to achieve great things in their careers, and all those students whose lives I have positively impacted one way or another,” he said.