"Never Give Up" – The Marshall Jones Story

Marshall Jones, Ph.D.

In celebration of Martin Luther King week, the Pratt School of Engineering sponsored a talk by mechanical engineer Marshall Jones on Jan. 19. Jones, a Ph.D. mechanical engineer, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Coolidge Fellow at GE Global Research.

Jones talked about his life’s journey from his childhood growing up on a duck ranch on eastern Long Island to being a respected researcher in laser technology at GE’s prestigious Global Research Center in Niskayuna, N.Y.

Jones exhorted students to follow a PLAN throughout their careers. This is a acronym he defines as Planning, and mapping out a direction in and making the tough decisions to stay focused on goals. He encouraged students to understand that Learning is and should be a constant throughout life. Learning and adapting to changes in the world around us is critical to someone who is pursuing a career in technology development, Jones said. And he emphasized the importance of Attitude and determination, as well as the golden rule of being Nice, because what goes around comes around.

Jones’ own career starts with humble beginnings. A tongue-tied boy who could only be understood by his younger brother and the family dog, Jones was raised by his aunt and uncle while his father was in the Navy and his mother worked in the city as a seamstress to make ends meet. And his first attempt at the first grade when he was 5 years old was a miserable experience.

“It took two weeks for my teacher to tell my aunt and uncle that I simply wasn’t ready to start school yet,” said Jones.

The next year Jones tackled school with enthusiasm and quickly began to excel in math. But a peek at his second grade report card showed that he was struggling with reading and spelling. He managed to advance a grade, but his difficulties caught up with him when his fourth grade teacher refused to pass him and told Marshall’s family he had to repeat fourth grade.

Marshall said he was devastated because that put him in the same class as his younger brother, but later gained a better perspective.

“I can honestly say that repeating the fourth grade is what helped me become an engineer,” he explained. “I just wasn’t learning reading and spelling at the same pace I was learning math and I needed to take that extra year to get caught up.”

Remembering those early years, Jones said, “I am certain that my elementary teachers would not have predicted that ‘little Marshall’ would be where I am today.”

In high school Jones excelled in athletics, with starring roles on the track, wrestling and football teams. “I felt that athletics would be my key to going to college.”

But a knee injury in his junior year ended those hopes. “I thought then that it was all over, that college was just out of my reach.”

But knowing that he was good in math and physics, and excelled in mechanical drawing courses, Jones went to his counsellor and asked what his options were. He was encouraged to go into engineering, and to attend a two-year school to get started toward a degree. So that’s what he did.

“This is when I learned to become a student,” he said. "Until then, I was dedicated to being an athlete and to stay in top in peak condition. “In college I was staying up until midnight and really learning how to study.”

Because his two-year school didn’t offer engineering courses, and it was cheaper for him to go to a public university out of state than a private university in New York state, Jones enrolled at the University of Michigan. And this change necessitated another big decision in his life. Jones had to decide that pursuing his education was more important than holding on to his first real girl friend.

“Hard as that was, it was the right thing for me to do,” he said. "I needed to concentrate on my studies."

Early on, Jones went to Brookhaven National Laboratory looking for internship opportunities, and ended up working there during the summers.

"At 19 years of age, I was making more than my uncle on the duck ranch," he recalls. "That was a shock to me, and a real motivator to keep going."

Jones earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1965, and immediately went to work full time at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He stayed at Brookhaven from 1965 to 1969.

“I was able to work on a tremendous range of projects, from high energy physics applications, to cryogenics, to helping to build the largest superconducting magnet,” Jones said. “It was a wonderful time, full of learning new things.”

Another part of what he did at GE was to recruit students from historically black universities, and that's where he met his future wife Annie.

During that time, Jones worked his way up in the company to a management position and was regarded as an up and comer in the company. Yet he wasn’t completely satisfied, and decided to go back to school.

Jones earned his MS in 1972 and his Ph.D. in 1974 in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts.

"Graduate school is where you learn you can study anything," said Jones.

Serendipitously, one of the people on his doctoral committee was someone who worked for General Electric’s research division. That connection later took him to GE for employment.

"I considered a postdoc, but by then I had a wife and two kids, and it was time to make some money," he said.

Jones joined General Electric Corporate Research and Development in 1974 and his career took off. He became the manager of the Laser Technology Program from 1981 to 1985 and is presently a project leader in laser technology. He now holds 46 U.S. Patents and 31 foreign patents.

In 1982, he was a member of an International Industrial Study Mission to Japan on Laser Technology. In 1985, Jones' research on laser/fiber optic/robot systems was voted one of the nation's top 100 innovations of the year by Science Digest Magazine.

He received the 1986 Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from the University of Massachusetts. In 1987, he was awarded the Chancellor's Medal from the University of Massachusetts. In 1990, he was elected a Senior Member of the Laser Institute of America (LIA).

In 1994, Jones received the Black Engineer of the Year Award for “Outstanding Technical Contribution in Industry,” and was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). He received the 1995 Distinguished Achievement Award for Professional and Community Service from the University of Massachusetts.

In 1997, he received ASME’s Dedicated Service Award. In 1998, he received the American Welding Society’s Professor Rene Wasserman Memorial Award. In 1999, Jones received the National Society of Black Engineers Pioneer of the Year Golden Torch Award. In 2000, he received the Black Engineer of the Year Award for “Outstanding Alumnus Achievement.”

Jones has now spent 31 years working for GE, and is now a part of GE's Global Research sector.