Outstanding innovation: Five questions with Georgios Karles, Ph.D.

In 2020, Karles received the Outstanding Innovator Award by the Virginia Section of the American Chemical Society for outstanding innovation and industrial leadership in technology.

Georgios Karles, Ph.D.

Georgios Karles, Ph.D., is preparing to teach students at the VCU College of Engineering after a long and successful career. Most recently a vice president of new product science at Juul Labs, Karles served as a VCU Engineering industry advisor for electrical and computer engineering as well as chemical and life science engineering. His experience in industry and academia gives Karles a unique perspective that he looks forward to sharing with students.

Tell me a bit about your experience in the industry. What led you to engineering?

Since graduating with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, I enjoyed a fulfilling career in industry for more than 30 years, engaging primarily in improving or designing new consumer goods and manufacturing processes. I had the opportunity to work on exciting research and new product and process development initiatives leveraging a deep and broad understanding of engineering principles and physicochemical sciences.

As I advanced in my career, I held multiple leadership positions at Altria, including director of modeling and simulation, senior director of analytical sciences, managing director of ALCS engineering and, most recently, vice president of new product science at Juul. A passion for problem solving and a drive for continuous learning were some of the forces that aligned my interest in engineering and helped me build a successful professional career.

Tell me about the research you have conducted over your career. 

My research interests are quite broad, being documented in more than 35 publications and conference presentations and more than 95 patents. Among other things, I have worked on polymer process development, chemical reaction modeling, diffusion modeling, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modeling, encapsulation technologies, flavor delivery technologies and innovations for reduced-risk tobacco products. Recently, I developed an interest in Industry 4.0 Technologies and the ongoing digital transformation of manufacturing and industrial processes. My focus is on promoting a comprehensive framework to leverage scientific and engineering principles to understand causal relationships in systems, thus improving decision making. It is the latter that I will be using as the foundation for teaching systems modeling. 

What inspired you to teach at VCU Engineering?

I have been involved with the VCU College of Engineering for quite some time now, serving on the industry advisory boards for both electrical and computer engineering and chemical and life science engineering. In addition, I’ve had the privilege of recruiting engineers from different disciplines across the VCU College of Engineering.

As I observed upcoming engineers in either academic or industrial positions, I developed an appreciation for upskilling opportunities that could help prospective engineers face the demands and challenges of a career in industry. I would further suggest that critical thinking and digital literacy are key skills that can springboard an engineer’s career. I am hoping this new curriculum in systems engineering, which initially benefits master’s students, will eventually aid undergraduate teaching as well.

From your perspective, what are the key industry trends driving the demand for professionals skilled in systems engineering? How do you intend on utilizing your industry expertise to teach these integral skills?

System complexity, competitive pressures, resource utilization, environmental concerns, productivity demands and societal imperatives offer significant challenges to many industries and institutions. Benefiting from the advent of computing power; advances in sensor technology; the enabling power of the Internet of Things; and advancements in AI, modeling and simulation are a must-have area of competency for any organization that is involved in system development and deployment. 

My experience in the field will highlight the ability of modeling and simulation to answer questions of how to improve products and processes, extend asset-useful life and utilization, improve process efficiency and accelerate troubleshooting. I plan to teach a variety of modeling methodologies, such as discrete event, system dynamics and agent-based modeling, Monte Carlo Simulations and Markov chains, among many others. 

What advice would you give to students pursuing careers in electrical and computer engineering and systems engineering?

In general, I would recommend to prospective engineers to develop a wide breadth of skills and embrace ambidexterity. They will also need to become comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity and, above all, cultivate the humility necessary to succeed in industry. Most engineering problems are highly interdisciplinary. To succeed in their careers, engineers need to be collaborative and embrace diversity of thought and experience. In other words, engineering, especially systems engineering, is a team sport.