Faculty Spotlight | Russell King

Around the world, seven is the most popular answer to the question, “What’s your lucky number?” It is also the most popular answer to the question, “How many majors did ISE’s Foscue Distinguished Professor Russell King have as an undergrad?” That is right. While attending the University of Florida, King went from pre-med to biology to microbiology to biochemistry to math and even ornamental horticulture before selecting engineering.

“The University told me I had to settle on one, and I remembered my physics teacher in high school saying I should consider engineering,” recalled King. So, during the process of visiting each engineering department, he met with the ISE department chair, Mike Thomas. During their discussions, Thomas told him about a research group ISE had that focused on health care. With King’s mother being a bacteriologist and his father serving on the Board of Directors of the local hospital, it matched his original interests in med school. But when Thomas shared that he was a serious golfer, King thought, “what better reason?” and he picked the systems engineering track.

Shortly after joining the ISE program, King met future NC State ISE department head and emeritus professor, Thom Hodgson. “He hired me as a programmer to maintain and improve software,” said King. “This experience was fun and interesting, and opened my eyes to the wealth of problems that industrial and systems engineers could help to solve.” But, growing up in Central Florida, his dream job was to work on queueing problems at Disney World.

Unfortunately, during the interview with Disney in his senior year, everything went wrong. The interviewer pointed out that King was sporting long hair and a goatee, and that didn’t fit the Disney image. No amount of explanation on King’s part that he would clean himself up seemed to matter. Luckily, Hodgson kept encouraging him to go to graduate school because, he said, “we’ll have more fun!” There was something about Hodgson that made King realize this could be a unique opportunity — later confirmed when Hodgson became a member of the National Academy of Engineering. So, he went to graduate school, and they have continued a working relationship that has lasted around 42 years.

So, how did King end up at NC State? Not surprisingly, luck played a factor. As he tells it, “In some ways, just dumb luck.” During his second year as a Ph.D. student, Hodgson moved to Raleigh to become the ISE department head. At the same time, Dynamac Corporation of Rockville, MD, recruited King to help develop certain aspects of a new workload control system. Since he had finished his Ph.D. course work, he could alternate weeks between NC State working with Hodgson on his research and in Maryland, working as a functional systems analyst with Dynamac. Since Hodgson was no longer on the faculty at Florida, he could not serve as the sole chair of his committee. So, Louis Martin-Vega — current NC State Dean of Engineering — stepped in as co-chair.

While finishing his degree, King received offers from top-ranked ISE programs in the country as well as from industry. After an agonizing process, he chose NC State because it was an up-and-coming program. He also felt he could have a lot of fun while making a significant impact at the same time. But it was the feeling of pride, fellowship and common loyalty among NC State’s faculty and staff that sealed the deal.

Over his career at NC State, King has had fun focusing his research on solving real problems. This approach has led him to some pretty diverse areas like pricing and inventory control, stress control of 3D-printed parts, supply chain design and analysis and improving military logistics. “I have very much enjoyed my now-37-year association with the ISE Department here at NC State,” he confided. And we are all lucky for that.