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New dean of engineering is MIT prof

By Brooke Bullock     3/30/11 7:00pm

Rice plans to continue supporting higher research and entrepreneurship in the engineering department with Ned Thomas as the new dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, President David Leebron said.

After a search initiated last August, Provost George McLendon announced on March 17 that Thomas, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will take over for Interim Dean Sidney Burrus on July 1.

Dean of Natural Sciences Dan Carson said that Thomas's depth of experience and wisdom for looking at all branches of the academic enterprise were qualities that stood out to the search committee as a good fit for Rice.

"He's chair of the top-ranked department at the top-ranked engineering department in the world," McLendon said. "He's a collaborative guy, a good student mentor for students ... very well respected outside of his department — those were some of the features that were particularly attractive for a leader of research and education."

MIT's School of Engineering has been ranked number one by U.S. News and World Report for all 22 years that Thomas has been on staff there.

Carson said that the search committee in charge of finding a new engineering dean was able to communicate very well and work together. The committee had a representative from every engineering department, one undergraduate student representative and one graduate student representative. They began searching in August and submitted recommendations to the president and provost around mid-December.

"A really impressive slate of candidates applied," Carson said. "We interviewed 11 or 12, and they were all super. Rice would have been well served by any of them."

Leebron said that applicants are drawn to the small size of Rice because there is more chance to make an impact and move forward. Thomas in particular stood out because he is an extraordinarily distinguished scientist and has a strong track record as an academic leader. Leebron also said that Thomas' experience in research would help Rice continue its efforts to become a greater research institution.

Thomas was MIT's Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and has collaborated on multiple research projects in areas such as photonics and nanostructure fabrication. He also founded MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies in 2002 — an interdisciplinary research project involving more than 60 faculty members developing technologies like a device that can remotely detect TNT and lightweight gear to reduce soldiers' backpack loads.

Leebron said that Thomas's years at MIT will help develop new ideas that will make Rice even better.

"MIT is an extraordinary institution," Leebron said. "Rice is, too, but in a different way. We can benefit from the experiences of people from other great institutions."

Because of the recognition these projects received from outside of MIT, Burrus said that Thomas's coming to Rice would catch attention. Jones College freshman and chemical engineering student Cameron Smith agreed.

"For Rice to be able to land a new dean of engineering with such an extensive background in research and such a successful career at MIT, it says a lot about the strength of [Rice's] engineering program both in the United States and internationally," Smith said.

Burrus said it will be good to see what ideas Thomas has that Rice hasn't had yet since he is coming from such a famous engineering institution. He said he hopes Thomas will help establish more large research centers at Rice with his experience from MIT.

"We've had success with smaller research and individual grants," Burrus said. "We've only had a few large research center grants."

Provost McLendon said that Thomas will also help build on Rice's strong materials science research since he comes from an already impressive background in materials science. However, McLendon said that Thomas' overall knowledge of research will be an even greater asset to research at Rice.

"It's the understanding he brings of how research is done at places like MIT," McLendon said. "We can compare and contrast ways they do things and we do things."

As interim dean, Burrus said that he has had very few difficulties with the position apart from getting to know new programs and staff since he was last dean — 1998 to 2005. Burrus had one piece of advice for Thomas.

"Rice is not a miniature MIT," Burrus said. "He should listen and learn what Rice is like — especially about what you don't find online."

Leebron said that they are very excited about Thomas's coming to Rice and look forward to his input and leadership in the engineering school.

"We are really thrilled with the results of this search and excited to bring a leader with global standing to the university," Leebron said.

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