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October 23, 2001

When the Envision Engineering session took place October 23, the School of Engineering and Applied Science was mid-way through a strategic planning process in which the department chairs are working together to shape the school’s future for the next five years. As a result, the discussion focused on clearly articulated goals and well-defined strategies for achieving them.

Recognizing that one of its greatest strengths is its commitment to students, both graduate and undergraduate, the school seeks to become a more prominent contributor to research and technology-transfer and at the same time enhance its ability to educate future leaders in technology and society.

The Goals of the Planning Process
The school has set a target of achieving a top-20 ranking by 2005, up from its current position at 35th. This would bring the school into alignment with the University’s overall position in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Although SEAS is relatively small as compared with such powerhouses as Berkeley, MIT, and Stanford, it has the flexibility to adjust quickly to new directions in technology and to capitalize on its exceptional capabilities in selected areas. As the Dean Miksad pointed out, "We are small enough to change, big enough to have an impact, and special enough to excel."

One of the purposes of the strategic planning process has been to determine where SEAS can realistically achieve excellence and what new resources will be needed to reach this goal. These funds won’t come down as a "pot of money from the heavens (i.e., the state or the University)," Dean Miksad noted, so the school will have to become more entrepreneurial to acquire the means to fulfill its aspirations.

The presentations that followed revealed a strategy built around lowering the barriers between the traditional engineering disciplines, between SEAS and other areas of the University, and between SEAS and other institutions. Through collaboration across disciplinary lines, the school intends to create "cross-functional clusters" in four areas where it has great potential to excel: 1) computer and information science and engineering, 2) nanoscale structures and systems, 3) bioengineering, and 4) human and environmental systems.

These clusters, which show that the school is very much in sync with the University’s Virginia 2020 planning process, are areas in which there is already a "high level of school-wide excellence," Dean Miksad observed. The clusters do not represent the merger or elimination of departments, he noted. Rather, they represent a way for departments to work with one another across disciplinary lines to achieve something larger than the sum of their parts. The clusters also address challenges in society that will require multifunctional and multidisciplinary technological approaches.

Presentations on the four clusters outlined current strengths in these areas, the vision for the future, strategies for achieving the vision, and barriers to reaching these goals.

Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE)
In his presentation on CISE, Systems Engineering Chair Donald Brown asserted that achieving leadership in this field is vital to raising the stature of the Engineering School and the University. It is also vital to fulfilling the core mission of the school, particularly its contributions to the well-being of our citizens and the preparation of future leaders in technology and society. CISE is making dramatic contributions to society, Mr. Brown said, and teaching the fundamental principles of creating, managing, and using information will give students the foundation for success in whatever career they choose. Furthermore, the faculty’s commitment to education in this area, especially the education of undergraduates, is one of the qualities that will set the Engineering School and the University apart.

The vision outlined for CISE at the University includes winning international recognition for teaching and research in this area, integrating CISE into all departments and into other schools on the Grounds, creating multidisciplinary centers that will help to attract the best faculty and students, and rising into the top 10 percent of all programs in this field. To reach these goals, the school must build on current strengths in such areas as risk management, real time and embedded systems; and network engineering.

Barriers to fulfilling this vision include inadequate capacity to meet current student demand for courses; lack of sufficient space, faculty, and institutional support, especially support for graduate students; and issues related to hiring and evaluation of faculty. To overcome these barriers, plans call for raising endowments for financing new faculty positions and to ward off "poaching" of current faculty by other institutions; pursuing grant support for educational initiatives and multidisciplinary research; obtaining the private funds necessary for constructing a new CISE building; and creating scholarships and fellowships for CISE students. There was discussion about relieving some of the space pressures by moving operations to the University’s research parks, but faculty voiced concern about losing the advantage of proximity to other research programs on the Central Grounds.

An important goal is to establish linkages to other areas of the school and other areas of the University. Valuable connections could be forged with faculty working in bio-informatics in medicine, e-commerce and management information systems in business, IT applications in the humanities, IT in K-12 and adult education at the Curry School, and spatial and graphical modeling in architecture. Better efforts will be needed to learn about CISE-related teaching and research in other areas of the University.

"We provide enormous power to leverage not just ourselves but the entire University," Mr. Brown said. Excellence in CISE, he added, is critical to being a great institution.

Nanoscale Structures and Systems
Understanding systems and materials at the scale of one to 100 nanometers (or billionths of a meter) will lead to important breakthroughs in such areas as medicine, microelectronics and computing, and the development of novel materials, observed Materials Science and Engineering Chair William Jesser in his presentation on Nanoscale Structures and Systems. One can imagine embedded sensor arrays for monitoring the health of a patient, nanoscopic machines, and materials with extraordinary properties. Progress is being made toward the grand challenge of creating self-assembling complex systems at this scale.

This is an area in which the school already has significant capabilities, facilities, and equipment, such as clean rooms and ion beam technology. As Mr. Jesser noted, work on nanosystems "permeates the University." He cited research in such areas as fabrication and synthesis of nanoscopic materials and devices and strong interdisciplinary programs in biomedical engineering and medicine. The ability of the University to attract NSF support for the Center for Nanoscpoic Design and Materials is indicative of the University’s stature. "We are players," he said. The Commonwealth of Virginia is committed to becoming a leader in nanotechnology, and it was noted that strong programs in this area will be a powerful magnet for attracting the best undergraduate and graduate students.

Strategic objectives include being further recognized as one of the best places conducting research in nanoscale structures and systems, integrating nanoscale studies across disciplinary lines, and providing cross-disciplinary facilities for work on biomachines, quantum computing, and multifunctional materials. The school also seeks to hire new faculty whose cross-disciplinary expertise will lead to better linkages with other areas of the University.

Barriers to fulfilling these objectives include lack of research space, the cost of starting and sustaining work in this area, and insufficient support for graduate students. To address these inadequacies, Mr. Jesser suggested increased donor funding, including endowments for faculty hires; pursuing major grants to finance new facilities; and treating all graduate students as in-state after their first year.

In the area of education, the school envisions a curriculum in nanostructures that maximizes courses offered in other disciplines and other institutions, including Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University. Plans also call for offering an undergraduate minor in this field, providing new space that can be shared with departments engaged in related activities, and creating laboratory experiences for undergraduates that incorporate work on nanostructures.

To advance research in this area, the school intends to seek further grant funding for major projects, to solicit donor support for research facilities, and to add faculty in such key areas as polymeric-biomaterials, electron holography, photonics, and chemical vapor deposition. New positions are needed for highly trained technicians who can operate complex research equipment in this field, and funds are needed to offer competitive laboratory start-up packages for faculty.

The Engineering School’s cross-functional cluster in nanotechnology offers a likely focal point for fulfilling the Virginia 2020 recommendation to pursue preeminence in this field. SEAS and the University are now close to being among the top ten institutions in the study of nanoscale structures and systems. There are abundant opportunities for linkages with researchers in CISE, biology and medicine, physics and chemistry, and other areas of the Engineering School. Vice President and Provost Gene Block suggested exploring linkages with researchers working in the area of structural biology, who are using similar technology in their work.

Biomedical Engineering Chair Thomas Skalak’s presentation made clear that bioengineering promises to be a powerful force for generating advances in health care and industry, thanks in part to advances in molecular and cell biology. Biotechnology researchers are developing new ways to control biological systems that will translate into new treatments for illness and injury, as well as new products and processes that will promote the well-being of our citizens.

There is already a strong platform for developing a world-class bioengineering program. As a cross-functional cluster, it benefits from linkages with departments within SEAS, as well as with the School of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, the School of Nursing, and Darden. The strength of the bioengineering platform is evident in the funding it receives for its interdisciplinary research programs and for the recognition faculty have earned for their published research in recent years.

Existing assets include a commitment to bioengineering across departments in SEAS, growing student interest, a highly ranked (15th) biomedical engineering department, programs with a proven ability to obtain external funding, and productive collaborations with researchers in other schools in such areas as molecular physiology, cell biology, radiology, and chemistry.

Mr. Skalak observed that this cluster has the potential to be a key driver in the Virginia 2020 biodifferentiation initiative, with researchers working in such areas as protein patterning and tissue self-assembly. It also has the potential for stronger linkages with researchers working in relevant areas of CISE and nanotechnology.

One of the major goals for the biotechnology cluster is to develop an interdisciplinary BIO-V complex modeled after the BIO-X program at Stanford, where a new facility will hold some fifty faculty working in a variety of overlapping disciplines. As envisioned, BIO-V also would be housed in a new facility with as much as 80,000 square feet of research space. Its work will span the Virginia 2020 initiatives and will link with multiple programs in SEAS (particularly biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, and materials science and engineering), as well as with the College and the School of Medicine. BIO-V, said Mr. Skalak, will bring together small units to create a larger, more powerful entity that creates new opportunities for collaboration and cross-fertilization.

Another strategic objective of the cluster is to build 40,000 square feet of new instructional space and to expand the faculty to ensure that biotechnology is fully integrated into the undergraduate engineering curriculum and to meet growing student demand for bioengineering courses. Plans call for developing a new biomedical engineering major, complementing a new biotechnology minor for undergraduates, and to place students in industry internships as part of the core experience.

Capitalizing on its current momentum in obtaining external funding, the cluster will pursue new grants to make it competitive with the top ten programs in this field. The goal is to increase funding to at least $400,000 per faculty member. The cluster also seeks to establish new faculty lines to address current gaps in its research as well as to increase its teaching capacity. For such purposes, the cluster will need to raise a $40 million endowment and will need $25 million for current spending over the next eight years.

Human and Environmental Systems
Combining the school’s strengths in the traditional engineering disciplines, the new human and environmental systems cluster will emphasize three areas:

  1. Analysis and design of transportation systems
  2. Generation, storage, and efficient use of energy


Sustainable technologies for the recovery, protection, and enhancement of the environment

In his presentation on this cluster, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Chair Joseph Humphrey emphasized that it holds great potential for groundbreaking work in areas of vital importance to society, such as homeland security, infrastructure interconnections and interdependencies, global health, and ethics in engineering. He cited examples of current research that demonstrate the school’s capacity to make significant contributions to our health, safety, and quality of life. Among them:

  Bullet Modeling of integrated surface transportation systems that will have direct applications in Northern Virginia.
  Bullet A NASA-supported study of insect flight for the development of flying micro-machines that can be used in battlefield surveillance or inspection of hard-to-reach spaces such as air ducts.
  Bullet Improvement of anode catalysts that are critical to the commercialization of fuel cells, a clean source of energy for automobiles and power generation.
  Bullet Microbial treatment of organic pollutants to maintain water quality.
  Bullet Studies of the effects of corrosion on aging aircraft and highways.

Mr. Humphrey outlined the abundant capabilities of this cluster across disciplines, which can be combined to form a critical mass of excellent programs. Examples range from centers devoted to safety-critical systems and risk management to labs working in such diverse areas as auto safety, rotating machinery, magnetic bearings, micro-heat transfer, and bio-thermo fluids. The cluster already has well-established links with programs around the Grounds, including the basic science departments in the College, environmental and sustainability programs in the Architecture School and the Darden School, and the Center for Global Health in the School of Medicine.

The cluster faces the challenge of making government and industry leaders and the general public aware of the critical importance of this work. It intends to seek out new partnerships with government agencies, other research laboratories, and policy makers, and it will develop educational and research programs in areas of current societal need, such as homeland security. More incentives are needed to encourage faculty to pursue cross-functional work and the funding to support it, and the cluster will need additional space, faculty and staff, and top-quality graduate students. Resolving the issue of tuition differentials for out-of-state students will enhance the ability of these programs to recruit gifted graduate students from around the country.

To help the cluster achieve cohesion, Mr. Humphrey laid out an implementation plan that includes an interdepartmental steering committee to coordinate cluster activities. A faculty advisory board will develop collaborative research and teaching initiatives, including technical electives and graduate-level courses that draw on the multiple disciplines that shape the human environment. A key ingredient in this plan will be a school-wide colloquium in which faculty can discuss the broad range of technological and societal issues that can be addressed by advances in human and environmental systems.

Creating a New Mindset
Envision Engineering provided a glimpse of the future of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and it is one in which the boundaries shaping the traditional disciplines have been largely removed. In their place will be broader and more flexible areas of teaching and research that will maximize the school’s capabilities and provide the greatest leverage for making significant contributions to new knowledge. These cross-functional clusters map neatly with the University’s long-range priorities, as identified in the Virginia 2020 planning process. In addition to seeing great promise in new collaborations across disciplinary lines, the school recognizes that its uncommon commitment to students is one of its distinguishing qualities. It intends to preserve and enhance this special characteristic.

To achieve its goals, the Engineering School will need new endowments and other funds to support faculty positions. It also will need more space, both for teaching and research, and more support for students. The school intends to obtain these resources largely through its own entrepreneurial efforts, modeling future initiatives on such recent successes as the funding of MR-5 and the creation of the Center for Nanoscopic Materials Design.

Just as important will be infusing the school with a new way of thinking and a realization that this will not be business as usual. "We will have to work with others–within and outside the school and outside the University," said Dean Miksad. "It’s a new mindset, a new culture."



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Last Modified: Thursday, 16-Feb-2006 08:37:55 EST
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia


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