A Q&A with founding chair John Rabolt
John Rabolt, founding chair and Karl W. and Renate Böer Professor, played an instrumental role in establishing UD’s materials science and engineering department.
After working for 20 years at IBM Research in San Jose, California, Rabolt was recruited to UD in 1996 and brought his vision of what a 21st century materials science department should look like. With this forward-looking approach, he created a department that focused on interdisciplinary research, avoided traditional materials silos (e.g., metals, ceramics, semiconductors, etc.) and focused its curriculum on modern materials.
Here, Rabolt provides his reflections on 25 years of materials science at UD, what he is most proud of, and how the department is positioned for future success.
Q: You came to UD with the goal of creating a modern materials science department. How did you and other founding members of the department help make that a reality?
Rabolt: When we were initially forming the department in 1998, we did not want to be a traditional material science department where everyone is separated into research silos.
Instead, I and Mary Galvin, who was the first person I hired and is currently the Dean of Sciences at Notre Dame, built the department with interdisciplinary areas. We knew that if we wanted to be a 21st century department, we needed to be interdisciplinary from the start.
When we first started, we had four areas of expertise, and we thought that if we recruited faculty who had a foot in at least 2 areas, it would prevent those silos from forming. Now, the science has evolved into more than 4 areas, and there’s new areas like nanostructures, biomedicine, and photonics, things that we couldn’t have predicted would be major areas 25 years ago.
Q: What are the biggest strengths of UD’s materials science & engineering department?
Rabolt: Definitely our culture and our faculty and student leadership potential.
Since we built the department 25 years ago, we’ve only lost two people, which is amazing for any department. And our faculty stay here because of that strong culture: We like each other, we talk to each other, and we just enjoy working together towards common goals.
One of the things I would do when we were first hiring faculty is the “move the desk” test—We’d go through their research expertise, what they were going to need to start a faculty position, what courses would they teach and then I would say ‘We’re a new department, if I came to you on a Friday and said I need you to help me move some desks, would you be okay with that?’ The answers would really tell me a lot about their personality and their commitment to be a “team player.” Surprisingly, some candidates indicated that their research was too important for them to spend time moving desks… They are not faculty in MSEG at UD!
In terms of leadership, our department has a lot of great leaders. In addition to our chairs, we have people leading major research centers: Matthew Doty as the Associate Director of the UD Nanofabrication Facility, Joshua Zide leading the Materials Growth Facility (and also our current chair), and LaShanda Korley as the Director of the Center for Plastics Innovation CPI and Co-Director of the Center for Hybrid, Active, and Responsive Materials, to mention a few.
Overall, as a department Mary and I removed barriers so that our faculty could be as great as they could be, both in terms of leadership as well as in science and engineering.
Q: Talk about what went into developing the courses offered by the department.
Rabolt: When we were defining the basis of our department, we got all the faculty together who were teaching in the previous Material Science Program. As we were trying to decide which courses to keep and which ones we needed to develop, Giuseppe Palmesi (now at Drexel) had a great idea to turn our thinking around and instead list the technical competencies and professional competencies we wanted a materials science student of the 21st century to have.
We came up with a list of technical competencies, and I said that we needed soft skills, so we also developed a list of professional competencies, like the ability to analyze data, be entrepreneurial and how to think critically. With these two lists, we could easily go through, look at our desired competencies and see if each course fit or not, and if there were no courses that fit, we created it.
That’s also where the “High Tech Entrepreneurship for engineers” course came from, because that was a key soft skill, so I and Scott Jones from Lerner co-developed the course in the late 90s. And because I came from industry and grew up professionally in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship was something unique that I realized I could bring to UD.
In that course we cover every aspect of starting a small company: Marketing, competition, customer discovery, IP and patents, and legal issues. I initially taught the course with Gonzalo Arce from Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Scott Jones but for the last 5+ years Rick Martin from ECE has been the third co-instructor. We just taught our 25th course last fall.
I’m also teaching “Career survival outside the University,” this semester, which includes topics like comparisons between university and industry cultures, ethics and accountability, leadership versus management and how to interview for academic and/or industrial positions. The course helps students see what the next 5 or 10 years at a company are going to look like—a lot of the lessons you learn in industry are painful, and you don’t want everybody going through that experience if you can give them a heads up instead.
Q: What are you the proudest of from your 25 years here at UD?
Rabolt: The quality of our students, first our graduate students and now the undergraduates.
The competition is tough out there, but within the first few years of the department, graduates would choose us over other places because we carried a reputation of teaching practical materials science that had a “real world” impact thanks to the original faculty’s roots in industry.
In addition, our students know that not only would they get information about the materials themselves, but how it all fits together in a system, e.g., a cell phone. This systems approach is not only a good way to teach students about different concepts, but also how things happen in industry.
Q: What do you hope to see in the next 25 years?
Rabolt: I hope that the culture we established is sustainable—I think right now we have the momentum to do so. In addition, our faculty leadership is mid-career, which will help develop the next generation.
I would also like to see our department lead more multi-user grants, such as Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), while ensuring that the proposed projects keep a broad view of what is good for the department.
I’d also like to see the department set up a rainy-day fund and work more with development. That way, we have support during low funding cycles, funding for named professorships, and undergraduate and graduate fellowships. This would provide a sustainable budget model for the foreseeable future.
Article by Erica Brockmeier