“We desperately need to grow, both because of these research areas that we want to move in and because of the incredible popularity of the school.” — Emily Carter, dean of the engineering school
Photo: Ricardo Barros

With a number of major changes in store for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, another was announced April 29: Emily Carter, the dean since 2016, will become executive vice chancellor and provost of UCLA starting Sept. 1. In an interview before news of her departure was released, Carter discussed the planning for new engineering buildings and initiatives to improve the school’s diversity. 

What’s happening with new engineering facilities?

We’re working with Ennead Architects to design a master plan for the next set of engineering buildings and one for environmental studies, along Western Way. We desperately need to grow, both because of these research areas that we want to move into and because of the incredible popularity of the school: Computer science is the No. 1 major on campus, and the school has 27 percent of undergraduate concentrators. We are quite undersized compared to the rest of the University. That has to change, but it can’t change without new buildings.

What are the priorities for construction? 

Computer science is spread out over eight different buildings. The plan is to have a data-science building that houses all of computer science and brings the Center for Information Technology Policy — which is populated by computer scientists and visitors and other joint faculty — along with the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning and potentially the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering, all together in one building. The two main departments that will be associated with data science are computer science, and operations research and financial engineering, which is really all about dealing with data under uncertainty. 

We have this great strength in theoretical information science and machine learning. And we are leading the pack in applying algorithms, machine learning, and different forms of statistics and combinations to applications. That includes work, for example, in computer science looking at the genetic basis of disease, applications in neuroscience and in psychology, in understanding cancer. 

I would say the Center for Information Technology Policy is best in its class, working through what appropriate policies are regarding artificial intelligence, privacy issues, and data-security issues.

Tell us about the plans for bioengineering. 

The other huge priority is a bioengineering institute that has been endorsed by the president. Next to the digital transformation, I would say it is the biggest part of engineering that is going to have absolutely profound effects, and there are three pillars of excellence.

One has to do with developmental bioengineering, where the ultimate goal is to bring understanding of basic engineering principles to manipulate how cells interact in such a way as to control how organs are made. One could eventually make, for example, personalized organs — that’s the dream.

We have another set of people who work on cellular engineering: understanding what goes on inside cells and how to measure and manipulate those, which has profound implications for the origins of disease, especially neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS. 

The third area is the intersection of information technology and biology — using statistics and machine learning to accelerate discovery, but also how to develop algorithms and hardware that, for example, accelerate our ability to understand how the brain works.

The institute will be part of the first wet-lab building that is built; it also will include another SEAS department that has not yet been chosen. We are fundraising for both of these priority buildings; we are supposed to break ground in less than two years.

An optional curriculum was recently introduced for students without traditional academic preparation for engineering courses offered in the first year. How is it working? 

A cross-SEAS committee worked for two years to put together a series of courses, which we launched last year, that are essentially an alternative path. We are targeting students who are potentially less prepared to jump into the standard math and physics courses here.

Looking both at the statistics and what the students said [in surveys], many students wished they had been exposed more to engineering in the freshman year. We learned that for every two male students who [transfer out of the engineering program], three female students leave, and we disproportionately were losing underrepresented minorities as well. That is the opposite of what we aspire to in the School of Engineering.

So, for example, we are teaching three math classes and two physics classes that teach the concepts that are needed to be successful in any of the engineering majors, but teaching them through the lens of engineering examples — and they’re being taught by our faculty. The first year it was a small pilot group of 50 students. Instead of losing 20 percent of them, we lost 6 percent of them. It really made a big difference.

What’s the priority in recruiting graduate students and faculty?

The big priority there is diversity. I’d like the faculty to start looking like the general population, so that people feel they can identify with the people who are mentoring them and teaching them and also bringing different perspectives of how they approach their work. And we’re never going to diversify the faculty to the extent we need if we don’t do our bit to train a diverse set of graduate students.

What’s critical is to proactively reach out to talented people and say, “Think of Princeton. We want you. We are not just a lily-white male institution anymore, you know, and we recognize that you coming here will enrich us intellectually.” I was able to reallocate resources to do a national search for an associate dean for diversity and inclusion; we hired a terrific person, Julie Yun, who turned out to be already working here at the Graduate School.

What results have you seen?

The number of underrepresented minorities among graduate students applying to the School of Engineering this year went up by almost 50 percent. The number that were admitted went up by 13 percent. Of course, these are small numbers, but it just shows that if you have a full-time person going out and identifying talent, it’s amazing. Numbers for women went up as well; not as much, but went up. The number of women has been stuck for quite some time at about 28 percent of the graduate-student population. It’s about 17 percent among the faculty. Underrepresented minorities are about 6 percent of graduate students and 5 percent of the faculty. 

Now Julie’s bringing those techniques to our faculty searches, where we’re not just sitting back and seeing who applies; we’re going out and we’re welcoming people. I think that’s a huge change.

What are some steps that have been taken to change the culture of the engineering school?

I think we’ve done a lot to further improve the culture within the school. I started networking meetings of all the female faculty with one another, because we had faculty who were feeling isolated because there are so few women spread across the school. I started regular networking meetings with underrepresented minority faculty. The junior faculty found out about that and wanted to have their own, and now the vice dean meets with all the junior faculty across the whole school to get feedback. A lot of good ideas have come from that.

And we started — and I’m very proud of this — an extra-departmental mentoring program for the junior faculty. They’re assigned a faculty member outside of their department — outside of the chain of command, outside of someone who’s going to judge them about their tenure – whose work is somewhat related to them, and the junior faculty member gets a say in who is chosen. The junior faculty who have sent feedback have said they just love it.

We’ve also established SEAS-wide committees to look at space, which is essential because our space situation is so dire, and also to share best practices across what we do for our graduate programs and our undergraduate program.

This is an expanded version of the Q&A published in the May 15, 2019, issue. Interview conducted and condensed by W.R.O.