Skip to content ↓

Interview with the dean: Subra Suresh, School of Engineering

Dean of the School of Engineering, Subra Suresh.
Dean of the School of Engineering, Subra Suresh.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Over the course of the spring semester, Tech Talk will be bringing readers a series of interviews with each of MIT's five school deans. The second in this series features Dean Subra Suresh, a former head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) who took charge of the School of Engineering last summer. In the following interview with Greg Frost and David Chandler of the MIT News Office, Suresh outlines his hopes and dreams for the School of Engineering and the changing face of engineering both at MIT and globally.

Q. It's admittedly early in your tenure, but can you give us a sense of your top short- and long-term goals?

A. The School of Engineering at MIT has been perceived both nationally and internationally as the leading engineering school. The long-term goal would be not only to maintain that lead in the face of ever-increasing competition, but also to enhance significantly the gap between us and peer institutions that compete with us. In the face of changing intellectual climate of engineering on a global scale, we must make sure that the next wave of engineering inventions and innovations--by that I mean the way engineering is taught in academic institutions for both graduate and undergraduate students and the way engineering innovations impact industrial practice and society--nucleates here. For example, engineering science was a concept that started in MIT's School of Engineering, and now it is followed all over the world. The goal is to provide opportunities that enhance excellence in education, research and innovation.

As a leading engineering school, I would say that we have not only an opportunity but also an obligation and a responsibility to lead the profession.

The pace of intellectual change in engineering has been very rapid, and multidisciplinary view of education and research has grown significantly within the past decade. Historically, engineering has emerged from the intellectual foundations of physics, chemistry and mathematics. But more recently biology has become an important part of that intellectual core. Economics, management and humanities, as well as communication skills, engineering ethics and teamwork have also become important flavors of that core. We must continually ask if we are preparing our students the right way.

Any faculty member at MIT has the opportunity to work across departmental boundaries within the school and across school boundaries within the Institute as far as multidisciplinary research is concerned. We must ensure that administrative and organizational barriers are minimized or eliminated to develop educational and intellectual activities across schools. The time constant for organizational change in academia is much longer than the time constant for the evolution of a new intellectual discipline. One of the key things that we are focusing on is how to make the intraschool and interschool organizational structures more nimble. For example, with respect to teaching, is there duplication of subjects? With respect to research, with respect to recruitment of junior faculty whose research interest may lie in more than one department, we want to make it easier to work effectively across organizational silos. We know that there are growing numbers of faculty who join MIT with more than one academic field of interest, and with activities in more than one department. So this is going to be a very challenging task, but a very important task for us to examine and refine.

Given the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, we need to develop a system that continues to attract the best faculty and students. How do we continually improve our best practices to mentor them, to nurture them, and to provide a supporting environment for their intellectual growth? This is also a strong focus of our strategic planning process.

Are there novel mechanisms through which we should be thinking about providing our students the opportunity for a broad education without necessarily sacrificing depth? In addition to well-established fields of specialization--as, for example, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science--should we explore the possibility of a broader engineering degree for those who would use it as a foundation to launch a career in a different field? What would be the intellectual content of such an MIT engineering degree? Would such a broad first degree in engineering enhance the appeal of science and engineering in society?

A second near-term and very important goal is to significantly increase the proportion of women and underrepresented minority groups in faculty and student ranks.

A third item is that individual faculty members at MIT in general, and at the School of Engineering in particular, have been extremely successful in engaging globally in educational and research activities. There are a few examples where MIT has centrally created opportunities for faculty and students. So one of the things we've started to do for the near term is to develop a strategic plan for the school, with respect to international and global engagement. We have a faculty director of international programs for the school who is working very closely with the Institute committees to chart the course for international engagement in a coordinated manner.

The fourth major goal is to enhance opportunities to translate successes from scientific discoveries to practice so that the greatest benefits to society are realized as quickly as possible. MIT and the School of Engineering have done remarkably well in creating an ecosystem to translate fundamental research into practice. One recent initiative we have put in place involves internationalization of the best practices of the Deshpande Center. This is a program, known as I-cubed, International Innovation Initiative, that we launched several months ago. This is expected to create new opportunities for MIT faculty to translate research into practice on a global scale by bringing the best practices of the Deshpande Center in our international collaborations.

Q. Within the broad range of engineering disciplines, are there particular areas MIT needs to increase its emphasis? At the same time, are there areas that are important now but may be less so in coming years?

A. Broadly, there are areas within engineering that play a major role in interdisciplinary activities at the Institute. For example, the MIT Energy Initiative. In the latest round of seed funding, approximately 70 percent of the seed funding went to the School of Engineering--not by design; that's just how it evolved. That's very important because we have a lot of strength in not only fundamental research but also in applying the fundamental research to practice, and energy and environmental sustainability are two major areas of intellectual pursuit with significant implications for the global society. In fact, I was very pleased to see the Schools of Engineering and Science partner with the MIT Energy Initiative in the first round of seed funding for research into energy. We also jointly supported the creation of several broad subjects on energy taught across our two schools.

I don't think we can separate the environment from the energy discussion. More than 12 faculty members from the School of Engineering are participating in a new program with research activities in the areas of water, environment and sensing technology. This is the CENSAM Program, a research component of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre (or SMART Centre).

A third important area for us lies at the intersection of engineering and life sciences. There are a number of activities there where the School of Engineering plays an active role--I will mention four of them. The first is that the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research was launched recently, and the School of Engineering will have 12 faculty members set up their research laboratories in the new building for which groundbreaking ceremonies were held last week. The new Department of Biological Engineering came into existence last year, and the first batch of undergraduate students will receive their degrees this June. This department is redefining the intellectual landscape of intersections between quantitative engineering science and biology with implications for human health. A third example of this engagement is one of the large interdisciplinary research groups in the area of infectious disease. Just like CENSAM, there is an infectious disease program of the SMART Centre, through which a number of faculty members from the School of Engineering work closely with colleagues from biology and from our partner institutions abroad. There are four major diseases that are being studied: tuberculosis, avian flu, malaria and respiratory syncytial virus. These strategic global alliances give us a unique opportunity to undertake research beyond what can be done solely in Cambridge, Mass.

A final example is a virtual activity in microbiology that just started a new PhD program, that has roughly half of the faculty involved from biology and the School of Science, and the other half from several departments in the School of Engineering. We have supported that program with fellowships. It is my understanding that for next fall, there is a large number of applicants for that program. That brings me to another very important point and priority for the school to engage very actively with other schools, much more so than we've done in the past. The Dean of Science and I have been meeting almost once a week, ever since both of us became deans, to facilitate this inter-school interaction. We've also started expanding formal interactions and collaborations with other schools. So Dean Santos of the School of Architecture and Planning and I have been talking about priorities in such areas as transportation and energy, and about capturing and showcasing MIT's excellence in the arena of innovation and invention in a visible manner across the Institute. Working with the School of Architecture and the MIT Museum, we are exploring ways of highlighting the excitement of activities facilitated by the Deshpande Center, Lemelson-MIT Program, various student prize programs and I-cubed in various prominent locations across the institute. That's the mid-term goal. Similarly, the dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Dean Fitzgerald, and I have plans for several interschool activities in new and emerging interdisciplinary areas, from the viewpoints of both teaching and research.

An example of a successful joint activity with the Sloan School of Management involves the joint executive education program offered for British Petroleum. We have BP Academy and BP Projects Academy, which are joint activities between Sloan and the School of Engineering, and we want to expand and enhance such activities in the coming year through our professional educational program. Another goal would be to engage with the Innovation Center and the Entrepreneurship Center of Sloan School with I-cubed in the School of Engineering. One other mid-term goal is to develop innovative mechanisms to engage a broader cross-section of faculty within the school in leadership roles in new and exciting initiatives. We have many wonderful, mid-career faculty, who have a lot of energy and very good ideas, and they really care about MIT. So in the last few months we've encouraged mid-career faculty to meet together and come up with ideas for innovative initiatives within the school, and we are exploring mechanisms to support these ideas.

Q. What is the most surprising thing you've run across thus far in your leadership of the School of Engineering?

A. I've been a student at MIT. I've been a faculty member at MIT for 15 years. I'm also an MIT parent. I've looked at MIT from very different angles, and I was also a professor at another institution for 10 years before returning to MIT. The excellence of the School of Engineering is not a surprise to me. But the breadth and depth of that excellence--seeing it from this office--has been a very pleasant surprise. I've seen it on all levels, from the senior-most to the junior-most faculty member, among undergraduate and graduate students, and among technical and support staff.

Q. What do you see in the future in terms of the degree to which engineering education involves real hands-on work--actually building things or working in a lab as opposed to sitting at a computer screen?

A. A few months ago, we established a new program in the school called the Bernard Gordon Program for Educational Leadership with a $20 million commitment for support from MIT alumnus Bernie Gordon over a 10-year period. And the purpose of the program is exactly what you just mentioned, which is to provide our undergraduate students an opportunity for much greater hands-on experience, for learning through teamwork and for leadership training. In an increasingly virtual, software-controlled world, the real hardcore, hands-on experience in engineering should not be overlooked, and one of the purposes of this program is to create much greater opportunities for our students to experiment, explore and to learn by working with real systems and components. The challenge there is the scale. I mean, having a lab for a thousand students is not that easy, but we want every undergraduate student to have that experience some day.

Q. As a follow-up question, is MIT doing this because it worries that incoming students aren't as comfortable doing the kind of hands-on work as, say, previous generations of MIT students?

A. Great question. EECS has done this for their freshmen, but there are also other examples of this. About eight years ago, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics revamped its undergraduate curriculum. So they have a unified undergraduate curriculum that combines learning with practical experience through experimentation, design and teamwork. The other example is in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where we built modern undergraduate teaching labs along the Infinite Corridor. In the sophomore year, we have a curriculum now where the students not only take lectures but also work in coordinated labs. That meant creating new labs that did not exist and also required that we change our teaching assignment. Across many departments in the school, colleagues feel that such experiences are very important in undergraduate education.

There is a broad sentiment across the school that we cannot get away from real hands-on experience for engineering education. It requires a lot of resources, so I think it needs to be done carefully.

Q. Looking ahead, how important do you see engineering education being to a country's competitiveness in an increasingly interconnected world?

A. This is going to be the century of technology, more so than the previous century. The engineers trained by institutions such as MIT will not only have many more career changes than their parents or grandparents did, but they are also likely to live and work abroad more frequently than the previous generations of engineers did. I believe that it is extremely important for MIT's School of Engineering to help train outstanding engineers and global citizens whose technological prowess and leadership skills helps solve complex global problems. Such engineers, scientists, technologists and innovators will hold the key to our country's competitive edge in an increasingly interconnected global economy. Major American corporations such as IBM, General Electric, Microsoft or Google have large research centers abroad in places like Bangalore and Shanghai. As an intellectual leader, knowledge creator and educational and research innovator, the School of Engineering at MIT is a key player in this global engineering enterprise. As greater numbers of engineers are produced in rapidly growing economies with large populations, role models such as MIT's School of Engineering are also very much sought after for advice and input, and for developing high standards that the international community can be proud of.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 2008 (download PDF).

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News