Panel, Symposium Celebrate 20 Years of PhD Programs

in NEWS, Students

Boston University President Robert A. Brown makes a point during the panel discussion, which also featured Dean Kenneth Lutchen and MIT Lincoln Laboratory CTO Bernadette Johnson. (Photo by BU Photo Services)
Boston University President Robert A. Brown makes a point during the panel discussion, which also featured Dean Kenneth Lutchen and MIT Lincoln Laboratory CTO Bernadette Johnson. (Photo by BU Photo Services)

The College of Engineering marked the first 20 years of its doctoral programs with a panel discussion and symposium on Saturday, May 19, shortly before this year’s PhD Hooding Ceremony.

“Today, we celebrate making it to 20 years,” said Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen, “But we did far more than just make it. Twenty years ago, we were not rank-able by US News & World Report in graduate programs because we had no PhD programs. Five years ago, we were ranked in the 50s. Today, we are at number 38, ahead of schools that have been around five times as long as we have.”

Lutchen was joined by University President Robert A. Brown and MIT Lincoln Laboratory Chief Technology Officer Bernadette Johnson in a panel discussion moderated by former Dean Charles DeLisi. The panel focused on the challenges and opportunities higher education faces as technology plays an increasingly large global role. All agreed on the critical importance of maintaining America’s lead in innovation as the key to continued economic strength and that strong technology-oriented PhD programs are critical to producing leaders in that area.

Brown cautioned against falling into the “success trap” created by a post-war economic boom that was fueled by an American manufacturing base that has since largely moved overseas.

“For the last 50 or 60 years,” he said, “we have been an incredible engine for the world economy. That success traps us into thinking the way forward is the way we did it before, but it will be different.”

He noted that America maintains a strong advantage in the quality of its engineering PhD programs, which continue to attract the best students from around the world. American universities, he said, need to graduate PhDs who see the world from global perspective, create products the world needs and take creative risks in the innovation process.

Lutchen and Brown both noted that America’s success in building and maintaining unparalleled research universities is made possible by the infrastructure that supports them. Lutchen discussed the “technology ecosystem” that produces commercial products that result from university research that was, in turn, made possible by government support.

“The most important investment government can make is in education,” Lutchen said. The public policy that enables that ecosystem, he said, is challenged by a nation that does not fully appreciate the link between technology and the economy, or even accept some well-established scientific principles.

“We cannot tolerate politicians who reject science just because they want to,” he said. “They are dangerous.”

Johnson added that technology development goes beyond economics and has long been responsible for societal advances. Just as agricultural development led to stable food supplies and enabled societies to advance, producing enough clean water for the world’s population will free people to make advances in other areas.

“Solving basic problems will advance us as a civilization every bit as much as in the past,” she said.

The panel discussion was followed by a symposium featuring four faculty members who discussed their research and its potential impact on society.

Professor James J. Collins (BME, MSE, SE) discussed the state of systems and synthetic biology, fields he and his PhD students have helped pioneer over the last dozen years. He described how he takes an engineering approach to molecular biology, developing synthetic gene networks that can be programmed to perform specific tasks, and switched on and off. His present focus, he said, is on crippling bacteria’s defense mechanisms so existing antibiotics can function more effectively.

Professor Thomas Little (ECE, SE) noted that the world stands to save about a billion gallons of oil per year—about 50 days’ worth—by replacing the 30 billion incandescent light bulbs now in use with LED lighting. He described how the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center is working to piggy back on this conversion to include data transmission capabilities in LEDs. The vision, he said, is to make every LED an Internet access point that could supplement existing wireless technology in indoor settings.

Materials Science & Engineering Division Head Professor David Bishop (ECE, MSE) outlined the numerous research efforts in the division. Researchers from Engineering and other schools at BU are working on materials for energy conservation and health care, as well as exploring nano-materials and designing materials digitally. Efforts at BU include basic research aimed at understanding and predicting the properties of novel materials, as well as applications in water purification, MEMs, dental repair, medical diagnostics and a host of other areas, he said.

In the final presentation, Professor Thomas Bifano (ME, MSE) detailed his research that produced micro-scale deformable mirrors. Light waves, he explained, are distorted as they pass through the atmosphere and biological media, producing blurred images in telescopes and medical optics. The mirrors compensate for these distortions, vastly improving the images’ resolution. He noted the technology is already impacting the field of diabetic medicine, where the mirrors are used on optical imaging machines to detect eye disease at a much earlier stage than ever before possible.

The day concluded with the PhD Hooding Ceremony. Forty-three graduates, including nine from the Bioinformatics program, received their doctorates at the ceremony. The featured speaker was Kimani C. Toussaint, Jr., who received his PhD in from BU in 2004 and is now an assistant professor of mechanical science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

-Michael G Seele