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One hundred and fifty years ago, Brown University engineer and teacher William A. Norton decided that New Haven offered his fledgling program and 26 students more of a future than anything he'd found in Providence. And as Yale engineering begins the festivities this month for its sesquicentennial celebration, it’s clear that Norton was on to something.
Now known as the Faculty of Engineering, this collection of researchers in a variety of engineering disciplines and in applied physics recently hired a new dean, Paul Fleury, a scientist and administrator with experience in universities and government and industrial laboratories. In the past few years, it has inaugurated programs in biomedical and environmental engineering, and it has snagged top-notch scholars to help its endeavors grow.
In January 2000, when President Levin announced his commitment to spend $1 billion to bolster Yale’s science and medical infrastructure, engineering was a major beneficiary (groundbreaking for a Cesar Pelli-designed building near the corner of Trumbull and Prospect streets is expected during the next academic year). And in the past year, its accomplishments were highlighted in two noteworthy ways. Science magazine, the flagship publication of the American Association of Arts and Sciences, cited the creation of molecule-sized circuits, the result of research pioneered by Mark Reed, the Harold Hodgkinson Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, as its “Breakthrough of the Year.” And the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information, a group that monitors how often scientists cite each other’s research papers—a clear measure of quality and importance—named Yale engineering as first among the top 100 schools in its five-year-long Science Citation Index survey. (The University was ranked 8th in the last SCI survey.)
“We definitely have a lot to celebrate,” says Fleury.
Unspoken is perhaps the biggest, and, to some, most unlikely, success story of them all—that 150 years after its inception, an engineering program still remains viable at the University. As recently as a decade ago, there was good reason to doubt that there'd be any need to even plan a sesquicentennial. (For more information on anniversary events, see the engineering Web site, www.eng.yale.edu.)
“Yale has never known what to do about engineering—there’s always been this tension,” said W. Jack Cunningham, Emeritus professor and author of the definitive history, Engineering at Yale: School, Department, Council-1932-82. Cunningham made his remarks in a November 1994 Yale Alumni Magazine article that described various efforts—sometimes beneficial, sometimes not—to reconfigure a discipline whose nuts-and-bolts orientation has often seemed at odds with the University’s more cerebral approach to academia.
Matters came to a head in the early 1990s when, during the fight over then-President Benno Schmidt’s controversial plan to restructure the faculty, there was serious talk of eliminating engineering altogether. However, in 1994, the program won more than a temporary reprieve when Schmidt’s successor Richard Levin appointed physicist D. Allan Bromley, who had been science adviser to U.S. president George H.W. Bush, to be dean of engineering. (Engineering, although it has a dean, is actually part of Arts and Sciences rather than a separate professional school.)
The appointment came with a charge to rebuild a beleaguered discipline and the resources to begin the job. Sterling Professor of the Sciences Bromley—bow-tied and, according to Mark Reed, “an indomitable force of nature”—was equal to the task of raising money, morale, and reputations.
“Bromley put engineering back on its feet and gave it validity,” says Reed, who came to Yale in the early 1990s after an early career at Texas Instruments and chaired the electrical engineering department from 1995 until last year. “I got to see firsthand the renaissance that Allan had the prescience, enthusiasm, and sheer willpower to pull off.”
Reed and others see Paul Fleury as a worthy successor: a dean who can consolidate the gains made during the Bromley era and move engineering to a new level of prominence. “Paul is a world-class researcher who has managed science at the highest level,” says Douglas Stone, chairman of applied physics and an alumnus of AT&T Bell Labs, the world-famous corporate research organization where Fleury served as a senior administrator for more than 25 years.
The new dean, a specialist in the development of high-tech methods to study the properties of materials, has published more than 130 scientific papers and has been awarded five patents for lasers and other devices with potential applications in communications and pollution detection. Fleury, 62, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from John Carroll University in Ohio in the early 1960s and a doctorate in physics from MIT in 1965. A member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1999 and the National Academy of Engineering since 1996, he has been vice president of research and exploratory technology at the Sandia National Laboratories, and from 1996 to 2000, Fleury was dean of engineering at the University of New Mexico. There, he was credited with raising the national visibility of its engineering school, so he has experience with one of the major challenges he faces at Yale.
“It’s time to bring perception up to reality,” says Fleury. “I’m very enthusiastic about the quality of our people, programs, and students—we should be much better known.”
Unfortunately, in the ratings game, change is slow. Despite all the recent improvements, Yale’s undergraduate program was ranked 43rd in the most recent U.S. News and World Report survey (the graduate program is ranked 41st). In addition to the lingering effects of past problems on its reputation, the ranking of Yale engineering lags because of its size. The high-quality program, one of the smallest in the nation, currently graduates about 50 undergraduates. MIT, top-ranked in the U.S. News survey, has more than 2,000 engineering undergrads; at number-two Stanford, nearly 10 percent of its more than 6,000 undergrads are majoring in the subject.
At Yale, “a huge increase in size is simply not in the cards,” says Fleury. Nor would it necessarily be desirable, the dean continues. At the big engineering schools, however excellent their programs, students tend to be confined within the intellectual boundaries of their discipline. “What makes Yale unique is that it offers excellent engineering training as part of the best liberal education,” he says.
Still, as the undergraduate program prepares for the review by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology that takes place every six years, Fleury and his staff have undertaken a comprehensive evaluation that in large part is geared toward increasing the subject’s appeal both to potential majors and to students in general. “We'd like to double the number of engineering majors, which is currently about four percent of the Yale College graduating class,” says Fleury.
The recently inaugurated biomedical and environmental engineering programs have already drawn undergraduate interest, and the dean hopes to translate a positive media buzz currently being transmitted via an enhanced Web site into more applicants and a greater “yield” of those accepted who have indicated an interest in engineering. (The yield is currently 50 percent; the goal is 75 percent. Numbers for the Class of 2006 look “very promising,” says the dean, with early admits up 50 percent.) In addition, Fleury is looking for ways to attack the subject’s image problem and thus prevent students from dropping out soon after they get started.
“We have to find more effective ways to help students understand the excitement and importance of the discipline,” says the dean. “Engineering is not a spectator sport—it’s an endeavor that translates the discoveries of science into key technologies, like computers, lasers, and the like, which leverage human productivity and increase the overall wealth of society.”
These are compelling arguments, as is the less-than-one-percent unemployment rate last year for people with engineering degrees. “It’s the best first degree for anything you want to do in life, because it gives you the ability to look at complex issues in qualitative and quantitative ways,” says Fleury.
One way to enhance the subject’s overall cachet would be to increase the number of courses for non-majors. By exposing more undergraduates to the ways engineers work, the hope is to change the discipline’s “pocket-protector” image and, more importantly, boost science and technology literacy among undergraduates, who have at times considered the Science Hill landscape to be the academic equivalent of Siberia. “Almost all of the important contemporary issues of society have a technology component,” says Fleury, “soa University that prides itself on producing leaders can’t afford to have its students illiterate about the methods and modes of thinking that are used in engineering.”
Increasingly, however, those methods have shifted. “Engineering has been around for thousands of years, but for most of that time, the approach has been trial and error,” says the dean. “Now, the endeavor is becoming more and more science-based, and the boundaries between science and engineering are rather fuzzy. In fact, the more we can blur them, the better.”
AT&T Bell Labs, the famed meeting ground of Nobel laureates and high technology tinkerers, exemplified the barrier-free, interdisciplinary approach in which fundamental discoveries in the basic sciences could quickly serve as the foundation for new devices. Fleury explains that the relatively flexible boundaries of Yale departments and professional schools have already allowed a similar interdisciplinary process to take shape at the University.
The environmental engineering program, for example, is a cooperative venture with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The effort in biomedical engineering (see April 1998), which will be headquartered in the new engineering building, is a joint program with the School of Medicine.
Indeed, the relative ease with which cooperative research can be done at Yale was a key factor in Mark Saltzman’s decision to leave Cornell and join the University’s biomedical program. “There’s a very long physical and cultural distance between Ithaca and Manhattan, where Cornell’s med school is located,” says Saltzman, whose research involves the development of drug delivery systems and has already resulted in a patented method of treating brain tumors.
Saltzman, the first tenured professor to be hired by the program, was also won over by the proximity of biotechnology companies. “I greatly value my industrial colleagues,” he says. “They’re becoming critical collaborators in university research.”
The fact that a sought-after veteran scholar would forsake an established program for what is, after all, a start-up is a clear indication that the outside world perceives Yale engineering to be a stock on the rise. An even better sign of how far things have come can be found in the applied physics department.
A hybrid discipline, applied physics found a home within engineering because of its prevailing intellectual orientation. “We do our work with an awareness of the technological relevance of our discoveries,” says department chairman Douglas Stone. “We’re always asking: what could this be used for, and what do people care about in industry? A distinguishing feature of the applied physics mindset is that we patent things.”
Important advances in laser technology and microelectronics have their origins in the department, but engineering’s earlier problems over the structure and future of the discipline at Yale, as well as a wave of pending retirements, left applied physics in a precarious position. “Engineering and applied physics was basically one big unhappy family,” says Stone, “and we were having trouble recruiting the kind of eminent senior faculty we needed in order to rebuild.”
So in the mid-1980s, the department, along with physics, tried something different and hired four young researchers, one of whom was Stone, to be the wave of the future. It was a gamble, but it worked, and each scholar was granted tenure. In the early- to mid-1990s, applied physics rolled the dice again, hiring Charles Ahn, Robert Schoelkopf, and Robert Grober as the next wave. This strategy remains risky, says Stone. “You have to have faith in your judgment, because you’re saying that these people will be the stars, the leaders, in 5 to 15 years,” the chairman notes.
Grober is an interesting case history. Dynamic, an accomplished teacher—his physics for pre-meds has drawn rave reviews (and a 4.2 out of 5 in the undergraduate ratings survey), and, like the other members of his cohort, a holder of a prestigious Packard Fellowship—Grober is a specialist in an exotic brand of microscopy that is enabling companies to build better and faster computer chips. Using a combination of lasers, temperatures near absolute zero (around minus-450 degrees F.), and a device called a scanning confocal microscope, the researcher, who was recently granted tenure, has figured out a way to rapidly analyze the chemistry of single molecules that are critical to the success of the process of etching microcircuits on silicon wafers. “We can now do in an hour what used to take six months,” says Grober, “and the detectors we’ve created have a number of potential applications, particularly in biology and medicine.”
Capturing such potential superstars, and keeping them happy, productive, and disinclined to entertain offers from the competition, is not, to be sure, cheap. “The price tag for starting up a laboratory for a junior researcher has gone through the roof,” says Stone, citing a range of between $500,000 and $1 million as typical. “But so far, Yale hasn’t flinched.”
Provost Alison Richard, who oversees the University’s budget, admits that “support for science is a very expensive business.” And Yale has had to play catch-up. “For a variety of reasons, the University was massively underinvested in both science facilities and faculty,” says Richard. “The resources we’ve committed recently have enabled our departments to go after the very best, and the effort is paying off.”
While an engineering patent has yet to bring the University a multimillion dollar revenue stream, the program received another kind of reward for its work-and perhaps the strongest indication that its dark days are history. In early January, French experimental physicist Michel Devoret joined the applied physics department.
Devoret, whose discoveries are regarded as critical to the development of the “quantum computer,” a radically different kind of device, was considered to be unmovable. A director at the French Atomic Energy Research Center in the Paris suburb of Saclay, Devoret had rebuffed numerous courtship attempts, but in 1999, he spent a sabbatical year at Yale working with Robert Schoelkopf, the inventor of the single-electron transistor, and other investigators. “The science done here is marvelous,” says Devoret, who had lived in New Haven 35 years earlier when his father, a French biologist, did his sabbatical at the University. “I learned English and absorbed the culture. I’ve always liked the American way of life.”
Devoret also liked the American approach to physics and engineering. So when Yale offered him the chance to continue his collaboration, as well as a tenured professorship, a multimillion-dollar investment in the ultrasmall-scale fabrication facilities he needs for his research, and a stellar group of theoretical physicists (including the recently hired Steven Girvin, who studies quantum mechanics), the researcher decided it was time to move.
“In the past, we’ve seen how the old-style physics known as classical mechanics could be used to explain what you can see, like the motion of stars, as well as to build useful devices like the steam engine,” says Devoret. “At the beginning of the 21st century, we’re learning that quantum mechanics, which explains the properties of things we can’t see, may now be used to make computing machines that work faster than anything we can presently imagine. Just don’t look for one on your desktop anytime soon.”
Or, maybe, ever. History is replete with instances of promising endeavors, like the attempt to tame nuclear fusion, that have failed to bear fruit, and Devoret and his colleagues are fully aware of the potential pitfalls.
“Quantum computing is a holy grail,” says Douglas Stone, “but whether we get there or not, the discoveries we’ll make along the way are going to be very important. To have Yale become a world center for research in this area is an incredible achievement.”
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