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Timothy Wei: Building a Multidisciplinary Community

Timothy Wei, head of the Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering Department (MANE)

Photo by Mark McCarty

He may be wearing the hat of an academic administrator, but Timothy Wei still sounds an awful lot like an engineer.

The new head of the Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering Department (MANE) hopes to “optimize” course requirements and “streamline” teaching loads, all while having “zero negative impact” on the quality of instruction. “We need to look at our curriculum to make sure we are teaching efficiently, focusing on what students need to know in the 21st century, and making sure we deliver that in an effective way,” he says, choosing his words with the precision of (you guessed it) an engineer.

Wei came to Rensselaer in January 2006 after almost 20 years at Rutgers. In MANE he sees a department with all the right pieces; his job is to provide leadership and get everyone on the same page. The goal: a cohesive community that uses its many talents to solve multidisciplinary problems at all levels, from instruction through research. “We are inherently multidisciplinary, with the natural sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, mathematics, and even the arts, all pulled together on very complex problems,” he says.

Wei hopes to create broad umbrella thrust areas under which large numbers of researchers can approach these problems — ideally in the form of research centers led by faculty from each of the MANE disciplines. “If you go back to the major initiative areas identified in The Rensselaer Plan, those are very natural for us,” he says. “We should be a microcosm of what the Institute looks like.”

While some might worry that this emphasis on research will detract from the top-notch engineering education MANE is known for, Wei sees no such trade-off. “In my experience, the best teachers are also great researchers,” he says. “They are thinking big thoughts, asking big questions. Those are the kind of people that bring excitement and passion for what they do to the students.” But, he adds, it is important to remember that MANE is an engineering department. Basic science is critical but engineers should be looking at the problems driving society.

Ideally, research within MANE should run the spectrum from basic to applied, with everything in between, Wei says. Faculty with expertise in fundamental nuclear, chemical, and physical sciences should form the foundation. But the department should also have researchers looking at tools and methodologies, as well as people at the very applied end.

Wei’s career exemplifies this spectrum. His training is in the fundamental physics of fluid flows. “I view that as my intellectual wheelhouse,” he says. “But I am also a problem solver. I like to take this fundamental science knowledge and cross over to solving real-world problems.”

Much of his “bread-and-butter” funding has come from basic research projects for the U.S. Navy, but lately he has expanded into bio-related research — using video-based techniques to measure fluid flows. He is working with a vascular surgeon to study the growth of endothelial cells, and with a neurosurgeon to understand the mechanism behind hydrocephalus, or excess fluid in the brain.

But these days Wei’s favorite project is about as applied as it gets. His video-based tools are helping U.S. Olympic swimmers improve their techniques. He has already found a way to improve the efficiency of the breast-stroke kick, but he is keeping the details quiet to give the team an advantage in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. “I get a real kick out of this stuff,” he deadpans.


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Milestones

Donald Fry * Donald Fry has been appointed vice president for institute advancement, responsible for oversight of the division of advancement strategy, services, and infrastructure; alumni relations; and development, including the Rensselaer Annual Fund, and individual, corporate, foundation, and international advancement. Fry most recently served as vice president for development and advancement at Colorado State University. He received his associate of arts degree in personnel management and bachelor of science degree in business and management, both from the University of Maryland. He received his master of science degree in business administration from Boston University.
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Steven Cramer Steven Cramer, professor and acting chair of chemical and biological engineering, is the recipient of the 2006 Alan S. Michaels Award for the Recovery of Biological Products, given by the American Chemical Society’s Division of Biochemical Technology. The award recognizes Cramer’s many achievements in the area of chromatographic bioprocessing for the recovery of biological products. Cramer is the first recipient of the award.
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Phil Phan, the Warren H. Bruggeman ’46 and Pauline Urban Bruggeman Distinguished Professor of Management, has been awarded the Bosch Berlin Prize in Public Policy. Phan will join more than 20 distinguished American scholars involved in cultural, academic, and public affairs who have been selected to study at the American Academy in Berlin. An expert in the areas of corporate governance, strategy, technological entrepreneurship, and regional economic development, Phan will focus his research on creating a model for large corporations to more successfully engage in technology transfer and joint innovation when they ally with small, entrepreneurial firms.
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Linda McGown Linda McGown, professor and chair of chemistry and chemical biology at Rensselaer, has been appointed the William Weightman Walker Chair of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Established in 1905, the Walker Chair is one of the two oldest named professorships at Rensselaer. A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2001, McGown has served on the editorial boards of several publications and journals, and received the New York Section of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy Gold Medal Award in 1994. She has written more than 100 peer-reviewed publications in areas related to analytical chemistry including dynamic fluorescence spectroscopy, molecular aggregation phenomena, DNA sequencing, bioseparations, and affinity techniques.
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Robert Palazzo Robert Palazzo, professor of biology and acting provost, has been voted president-elect of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). Palazzo will serve as president-elect until July 1, 2007, when he will assume the presidency of the organization. FASEB is the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States. Its mission is to enhance the ability of biomedical and life scientists to improve — through their research — the health, well-being, and productivity of all people.
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John Brunski, professor of biomedical engineering, was honored as the first William R. Laney Visiting Professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in September. The Laney Professorship is supported by the William R. Laney Endowment for Prosthodontic Education at the Mayo Clinic, and honors Dr. William R. Laney, who was among the first clinicians to introduce modern oral and maxillofacial implant technology into the U.S. in the early 1980s.
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Curt Breneman Curt Breneman, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and director of the Rensselaer Exploratory Center for Cheminformatics Research, won first place for his results in the Regression 2 category in the 2006 CoEPra (Comparative Evaluation of Prediction Algorithms) competition. The goal of the competition is to advance the algorithms and software for modeling chemical, biological, and medical data.
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Achille Messac Achille Messac, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, recently received a national Sustained Service Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Messac was cited for “dedicated service to AIAA through leadership of several AIAA conferences and of the Multidisciplinary Design Optimization Technical Committee.” The selection was made by the national Honors and Awards Committee of the AIAA, and the award recognizes sustained, significant service and contributions to AIAA by members of the institute.
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Tom Tarantelli, director of the Career Development Center, has been elected president of the Eastern Association of Colleges and Employers—the largest regional college and employer network in the country with approximately 1,200 members representing 817 colleges, 250 employers, and 27 associates from Maine to Virginia.
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Barbara Ruel Barbara Ruel, director of diversity and women in engineering programs, was honored with the 2006 President’s Award from the Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN). The award was presented at WEPAN’s annual conference June 11-14 in Pittsburgh, Pa. Awardees were selected based on their contribution to the 2006 WEPAN Annual Conference; Ruel served as conference program co-chair.
Michael Shur, the Patricia W. and C. Sheldon Roberts ’48 Chaired Professor in Solid State Electronics, has been named the 2007 recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Leon K. Kirchmayer Graduate Teaching Award. The award, which cites Shur for “inspirational guidance of graduate students and development of novel teaching materials in solid-state electronics,” honors teachers of electrical and electronics engineering and related disciplines for admirable teaching of graduate students.
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Basil Andrew Stewart, CPA, has been appointed assistant vice president for finance/controller. An accomplished financial professional, Stewart brings nearly 17 years of financial management experience with top-tier organizations to Rensselaer. Most recently Stewart served as controller and assistant treasurer at Smith College. Prior to Smith, Stewart served as controller of Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, where he was responsible for creating and maintaining financial control policies and procedures. Stewart received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Massachusetts, and is working toward an MBA from the school.
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