UA Engineering Professor Recognized for Diversity Efforts

Dr. Viola L. Acoff
Dr. Viola L. Acoff

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Dr. Viola L. Acoff, professor and head of the metallurgical and materials engineering department at The University of Alabama, is the inaugural recipient of the Ellen Swallow Richards Diversity Award given by the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, or TMS.

The award recognizes an individual who reflects the remarkable pioneering spirit of Ellen Swallow Richards by overcoming personal, professional, educational, cultural or institutional adversity to pursue a career in minerals, metals or materials, or helping others to overcome these challenges to pursue such a career, according to an announcement of Acoff’s selection by TMS.

Acoff was one of the first two tenure-track, African-American faculty members in the UA College of Engineering. Later, she was the first African-American to reach the rank of professor in the College of Engineering.

“When I was informed that I was selected, I was speechless. I was honored just to be nominated for this award and all that it represents,” Acoff said. “Almost two decades ago, I made it my personal mission to do whatever I can to increase diversity in materials science and engineering. The fact that TMS has established this award to recognize an individual who reflects the remarkable pioneering spirit of Ellen Swallow Richards makes me even prouder to call myself a member of TMS.”

Acoff, a longtime member of TMS, is the ninth of 10 children born to Roosevelt Acoff Sr. and the late Mary Winfield Acoff, of Bessemer. Acoff’s parents encouraged their children to become formally educated. Acoff received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in materials engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She began at UA in 1994 as an assistant professor of metallurgical and materials engineering. She was promoted to associate professor and granted tenure in 2000, and she was promoted to professor in 2004.

Acoff has been active in various areas of research related to welding, and she has been awarded more than $7 million in externally-funded research grants, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. She has published more than 75 peer reviewed papers, co-authored three books and co-edited three books. Her personal mission to increase the number of science and engineering degrees awarded to students from underrepresented minority groups has included serving, since 1996, as UA’s director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program, LSAMP, and extensive outreach to faculty at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

In 2008, Acoff was appointed head of the department of chemical and biological engineering. In 2009, she was also appointed head of the department of metallurgical and materials engineering, and served in the dual capacity for a year. For her outstanding achievements in leadership at UA, Acoff received the College of Engineering’s T. Morris Hackney Endowed Faculty Leadership Award. She was named a Fellow of the Southeastern Conference Academic Leadership Development Program.

As a researcher and respected engineer in her field, Acoff sees the need to continually ensure that students from all backgrounds can study and work in engineering.

“Although women make up half the potential pool of professionals, women are still a distinct minority in the field of engineering,” Acoff said. “Similarly, people of color now account for most of the population growth in our country, but are also at a distinct minority in the field of engineering. Based on these facts, it is important that we continue our efforts to develop better ways to recruit and retain students from groups that are underrepresented in the field of engineering.”

Ellen Swallow Richards, who died in 1911, challenged social standards that blocked women from such pursuits to become the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the first professional-degreed female scientist in the United States. She was also the first female member of TMS’s antecedent organization, American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. Among her many accomplishments, she was a metallurgist and is widely recognized as the founder of the field of ecology.

Dr. Garry Warren, professor emeritus at the University and 2011 TMS president, nominated Acoff for the award. He noted that, like Richards, Acoff had to persevere through personal challenges to achieve her goals.

“Early in her career she lost an important mentor – her mother – but this only seemed to make her more determined to be successful and to set an example for others in her extended family. Fortunately for the materials profession, she found an outlet in helping and mentoring students to overcome their challenges, many of which were similar to those she faced at the outset of her career,” he said.

Formal presentation of the 2014 Ellen Swallow Richards Diversity Award will be made during the banquet at the First TMS Summit on Creating and Sustaining Diversity in the Minerals, Metals and Materials Professions in July at the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, D.C.

TMS is a member-driven international professional society dedicated to fostering the exchange of learning and ideas across the entire range of minerals, metals, and materials science and engineering, from minerals processing and primary metals production, to basic research and the advanced applications of materials.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 4,500 students and more than 120 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Mitchell and Truman scholars.


Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444,