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Letter to the editor: Excelsior, Dean Thomas!

By Robert LiKamWa     8/30/16 11:33pm

I recently heard the news that Ned Thomas will leave his position as the Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering. I respect the university-level decision, and understand that most administrative issues fall outside of the purview of undergraduate and graduate students. At the same time, I wanted to share the positive impact that Dean Ned Thomas has had on my career.

If memory serves correctly, Dean Thomas was appointed to his position in 2011, as I began my second year of graduate school in electrical and computer engineering. I’ll never forget his first town hall meeting with engineering graduate students. Dean Thomas described where Rice Engineering stood against other elite institutions in the nation and where we wanted to be. More importantly, he convinced a room of graduate students that we were the ones who could make the transitions happen. I know I am one among many who felt personally inspired to carry his enthusiasm into my own research career.

Looking for ways to spread Dean Thomas’ enthusiasm to the rest of the school, David Ramirez, Luke Boyer and I wanted to use the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership to launch a lightning talk competition. We met with Dean Thomas in his office to discuss challenges we were facing in trying to get the event started. With Dean Thomas helping us encourage faculty and students to participate, we launched the Screech 90-second graduate research competition across all Rice engineering departments. Screech was a fantastic success, inspiring the university-wide 90-second thesis competition the following semester. Both events have continued annually since their inceptions. Without the help of Dean Thomas, Screech never would have launched.

There were also multiple cultural shifts within Rice Engineering. From nerdy t-shirts to banners, Rice Engineering established an identity of unity amongst the departments in the School of Engineering. And every week, all students, faculty and staff got an enthusiastic newsletter from the Dean’s office about ongoing projects and accomplishments of faculty and students. The gusto made it feel that Rice was right where I wanted to be.

Personal hallway interactions were just as strong and just as meaningful. When I told him I was defending my doctorate thesis, he gave words of encouragement. When I was on the job market, he gave critical advice. When I told him I was leaving Rice to start an assistant professorship at Arizona State University, he gave a litany of great things to look forward to about my new destination.

On my last day at Rice, I went without appointment to Dean Thomas’ office. He paused his meeting, shook my hand, and told me that I am on my way to great things. If he’s right — and I hope he is — it has been through the encouragement and identity of Rice Engineering. I hope that the next Dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering will express the same level of enthusiasm that Dean Thomas has for undergraduate and graduate students, and the same level of passion for Rice University.

Thank you Dean Thomas. Excelsior!

Robert LiKamWa

Will Rice College, B.S. ’10, M.S. ’12 and Ph.D. ’16 in the department of electrical and computer engineering

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