Sonya Smith Appointed to Lead Howard University’s Research Institute for Tactical Autonomy

Washington, D.C. – Howard University announced that Sonya Smith, Ph.D., has been appointed to serve as executive director of the University’s Research Institute Autonomy (RITA). Also referred to as the University Affiliated Research Center, or UARC, the University’s RITA is only one of 15 centers in the United States. 

Smith is no stranger to the University, joining as faculty in 1995 after becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering from the University of Virginia. As a professor and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program within Howard’s College of Engineering and Architecture, Smith holds the distinction of being the first tenured female faculty member in the University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. During her tenure, Smith established the Applied Fluids-Thermal Research Laboratory, which is an interdisciplinary theoretical and computational research group.  

Smith’s research has received support from various organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and private industry. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. She has also served as president of Sigma Xi: the Research Honor Society. 

As executive director of RITA, Smith will be responsible for leading the center designed with providing opportunities to advance more Black students in STEM. This is a critical mission as the University advances toward achieving R-1 research status. As the first HBCU participating in the UARC program, Howard’s RITA will focus on advanced battle management systems and tactical autonomy. 

Smith does not take lightly the ground she is breaking by serving in this role. 

“The Research Institute on Tactical Autonomy will play a major role in further positioning Howard University as a leading research institution and I am truly honored to be tapped to take on this awesome responsibility of leading our work in this field,” said Smith, who in 2021 was named a fellow with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “I’m excited to see how my colleagues and I can work with students to advance the work around autonomous systems and machine learning. Furthermore, I believe that the work taking place here is not just vital for strengthening research, but also will help in diversifying the field and raising awareness of the bright minds being trained at HBCUs.” 

In addition to her work around increasing opportunities for Black students and researchers, Smith has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to enhancing opportunities for women in STEM. She led Howard University’s NSF ADVANCE-IT award, which aimed to address the challenges faced by women in STEM leadership positions. She has also served as a board member and former president of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), an organization dedicated to advancing women’s inclusion in engineering.  

Office of Research Senior Vice President Bruce Jones, Ph.D., believes Smith is unequivocally qualified to lead RITA and looks forward to seeing how its work around research excels under her direction.  

“I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Smith’s impact on our students and across the University over the years and, to say that I am impressed is an understatement,” Jones said. “When it comes to the very critical work that is a part of this space, it is imperative that someone with Dr. Smith’s experience and insight be able to work with our students and help increase their opportunities and our presence. 

“Dr. Smith is an effective and engaged educator whose passion for and knowledge of STEM will surely continue to benefit students here as well as impact the research taking place here that will positively impact others here and abroad,” Jones added. “Through our RITA program, Dr. Smith is once again in position to break new ground while providing guidance to future generations of researchers.”