Dean Joseph Helble explains three new initiatives for maximizing Thayer School’s impact on the world.
By Lee Michaelides
Thayer School is in an enviable position. The completion of MacLean Engineering Sciences Center — Thayer’s new 64,000-square-foot addition of labs, classrooms, and offices — has given the school a rare opportunity to build initiatives that will maximize Thayer School’s ability to improve the world.
Dean Joseph J. Helble recently announced that the school would be leveraging its academic strengths to address three interdisciplinary areas that have broad societal impact: the interface between engineering and medicine; energy technologies; and complex systems.
The impact areas emerged from a year-long faculty effort to identify how Thayer School can make a difference to society. With unanimous faculty support, Thayer is moving forward with new programs, courses, workshops, symposia, and research in all three areas.
The school is also hiring seven professors in two of the areas — engineering in medicine and energy technologies. (Three professors working on complex systems were hired in 2006.) Added to the 25 tenured and tenure-track faculty already at Thayer, the new hires will have a tremendous impact on the educational opportunities afforded to students.
For Helble and the Thayer faculty, choosing the right people is crucial. At the large engineering powerhouses, where single departments are often larger than the entire Thayer faculty, the addition of seven people is important, but hardly transformative in the way it will be in Hanover.
“We are the smallest Ph.D.-granting institution in the U.S. News top 50 engineering schools,” says Helble. “We have some interest in seeing our graduate student body grow, but it’s all about balance. You want a critical mass of scholarly activity in each area. You want research opportunities to be accessible to undergraduates as well as graduate students; you want to have a sufficient number of faculty to support that program and transfer that knowledge directly by teaching at the undergraduate level.”
Helble sees this strategic expansion as an opportunity to break with Thayer’s past hiring practices. “Historically, we, like many other programs, would fill a faculty opening in the following way: If the faculty member who taught mechanical engineering classes retired, we would look to hire a mechanical engineer to teach those classes. And then we would say, ‘Here is a laboratory; build a research program.’ We wouldn’t look for any cohesion with our other research programs, and there were no efforts to try to structure scholarly activity.”
Arguably that system served Thayer well in the past. A hiring wave back in the 1960s set the stage for the Thayer School of today. For example, the late John Strohbehn, “the father of bioengineering at Thayer” and a longtime professor and associate dean, found ways to encourage engineers to collaborate with Dartmouth’s medical researchers. More recently, the success of GlycoFi — the biotech firm started in Thayer labs by Professors Tillman Gerngross and Charles Hutchinson and bought last year by Merck for $400 million — demonstrates how productive the Thayer system can be.
WHAT HELBLE BRINGS TO THE TABLE IS A PLAN THAT MERGES engineering’s historic mission as the problem-solvers of society with Thayer’s research strengths and its openness to collaborations. “We have the luxury of stepping back and asking, ‘What are the world’s problems that require engineers to be working in concert toward solutions?’ ” says Helble.
“A year and half ago we started taking stock of what we were doing and discovered that 40 percent of our faculty were already interacting with Dartmouth Medical School faculty,” he says. This formed the basis of the first of Thayer School’s new impact areas, the interface between engineering and medicine.
Why not simply call it biomedical engineering? Because Helble and the faculty have a vision that is bigger and more ambitious.
“Biomedical engineering is an engineering discipline. It’s an existing branch of engineering that focuses largely on biomechanics or signal processing,” says Helble. “What we do here incorporates that, but it’s broader. It incorporates biomechanics and biomedical imaging. It also incorporates protein engineering. We just hired two new faculty members — Solomon Diamond ’97 Th’98, who works in the area of neural imaging, and Karl Griswold, who works in protein engineering. Faculty are already collaborating at Dartmouth with the William H. Neukom 1964 Institute for Computational Science and its director, Professor Richard Granger. Others are developing more extensive research programs with Dartmouth Medical School faculty. This is the kind of initiative that we’re building, and we’re looking for interactions with the best faculty at all levels of the curriculum.”
“We can’t be a world unto ourselves here if we want to make a significant contribution toward solving the world’s problems. We have to pull in expertise from around campus and outside the institution,” he adds.
Crucial to Thayer’s plan is the willing collaboration of Dartmouth Medical School faculty. Helble and his counterpart, former medical school Dean Stephen Spielberg, are building new partnerships between faculty from each school. “Our goals include plans to bring engineers into medicine and also take medical students and give them an engineering experience as part of their training,” says Helble. “We both believe this will ultimately make better doctors.”
Indeed, anyone who has visited a doctor recently knows that medical care involves more sophisticated technologies than ever. “More and more of what physicians do is based on pushing the limits of complex diagnostic technology,” say Helble. “Dean Spielberg and I both feel that it would be a good thing if more physicians were trained to understand the fundamental operation and the limitations of their instrumentation. We have an interest in bringing these programs closer together from the curricular level all the way to the research level.”
Training doctors about technology has obvious benefit for the patient. But how much medical training does an engineer need to work with physicians to solve medical problems? “A sound engineering background and a good understanding of basic biology can provide the foundation. Engineers can learn many of the problem-specific details from the scientific literature and from talking to and working with clinicians,” says Helble. “We want those engineering students and engineering faculty to have access to the clinics.”
Helble cites Meredith Lunn’s senior honors thesis project as a perfect example of how engineers and doctors working on the interface can solve a problem. Lunn, an ’06 who will earn her B.E. this year, took an engineering course co-taught by Dr. Joseph Rosen, an adjunct professor and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center plastic surgeon, and Professor Peter Robbie. Then Robbie and Professor William Lotko introduced her to surgeons at DHMC, who interested her in trying to improve devices for cleft palate surgeries. Working with pediatric craniofacial surgeon Dr. Mitchell Stotland, Lunn succeeded in developing an oral retractor for a palatoplasty procedure performed on 10- to 11-month-old children. The device will undergo testing soon. For her B.E. project, Lunn teamed with classmates Deborah Sperling ’06 and Kazi Ahmed to fit an articulating arm to a portable ultrasound cart; the invention is being used by Dr. Brian Sites and other DHMC anesthesiologists. “It was really amazing to have the opportunity to work so closely with the physicians at DHMC,” says Lunn. “I have probably been over there once every week or two for most of my Thayer experience to work on projects and meet with physicians about research and ideas.”
FEW WOULD ARGUE THAT ENERGY ISN’T ONE OF THE WORLD’S biggest probelms — and for its second initiative, energy technologies, Thayer will build on a strong foundation in this area. Two decades ago Professor Lee Lynd began work on cellulose-derived ethanol. Now, with the demand for ethanol skyrocketing, Lynd is in the spotlight for starting a company to commercialize production of ethanol from switchgrass, woodchips, and other inedible biomass — resources that won’t put energy and food production in competition. In April Lynd was honored as the first recipient of the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability.
Helble envisions recruiting other energy researchers of Lynd’s stature to expand opportunities for students to explore the wide array of work going on in the field. Helble is optimistic that engineers leaving Thayer will have the education needed to help solve the world’s energy problems.
The last impact area Thayer is focusing on is complex systems. “Complex systems are made out of large numbers of locally interacting units that exhibit cohesive global behavior as a whole, in a similar way to flocks of birds and swarms of ants,” explains Professor Reza Olfati-Saber, one of three professors with complex-systems expertise hired in 2006. “This is true across diverse applications of complex systems in various fields of science and engineering.” Thayer faculty are working on a diverse range of projects in this area, including computer networks, social networks, smart robots, living cells, energy infrastructure, and the near-Earth space environment.
HELBLE HAS A SEVEN-YEAR TIMETABLE TO MAKE THESE VARIOUS initiatives happen. Come 2014, what metric will he use to assess success? Qualifying his answer in the best style of an engineer, Helble notes, “There will always be tinkering as we go along — these are dynamic areas where research will evolve.”
Still, he outlines a few markers. “I’d like to see focused research activity in each of these areas, as represented by graduate students who are coming here specifically to study energy or complex systems or engineering in medicine,” he says. “I would like to see research funding in place to support integrated disciplinary efforts in these areas. I would like to see curricular developments in each of these areas so that those graduate students who are picking the Thayer School as a place to study have these courses as an entryway into the field. I would like to see opportunities for our undergraduates both in scholarship and coursework in these areas. I’m not talking about an energy engineering degree, but an elective or two to help introduce all of our engineering undergraduates to the problems they will face if their careers take them in this direction. And I’d like to see the school recognized in some fashion for its efforts — people pointing to us as a school that is making a significant contribution in these important interdisciplinary areas.”
Ideally, in the future Thayer School will stay small and focused while creating an environment where faculty create knowledge and students can benefit from their teaching, expertise, and professional contacts across the Dartmouth campus. Big money successes, such as GlycoFi, make for great press, but for Helble the real bottom line is always what an engineer and an engineering school are supposed to do.
“I think you could say that Thayer’s expectations for its faculty are higher than at other schools,” he says. “It’s not just bringing in grant money and publishing papers. It’s putting the technology to use — either patenting it or working with people who can patent it, and if it’s not patentable, finding a way to give it to someone else to address the world’s problems.”
-Lee Michaelides is a contributing editor.