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Feature

Frank Bates.

Chemical engineering department head Frank Bates (above) estimates that the economic impact of CEMS on the state of Minnesota is about $15 million per faculty member per year. "That's more than 150 times what the state pays in CEMS faculty salaries," he says. "That's real leverage."

Chemical engineering has formula for success

By Deane Morrison

Published on July 7, 2004

Sit in on a meeting of Lanny Schmidt's research group and you may see a graduate student, technician, or even an undergraduate leading the discussion. If it weren't for the age difference, you would be hard put to pick out Schmidt, a Regents Professor and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) member, from the rest of the crew. Earlier this year, when the Schmidt team made headlines with its new reactor to generate hydrogen from ethanol, the world saw just the latest blossoming of a lab where egalitarianism, along with an attitude of adventure and pure fun, propels productivity to ever higher levels. An anomaly? Maybe in some places, but certainly not in the U's chemical engineering and materials science (CEMS) department. Everyone there is bathed in a culture of camaraderie and shared adventure dating back to the department's first head, Neal Amundson, who took the helm in 1949. "He was a giant of chemical engineering, one of the top three or four people ever in the field," says current department head Frank Bates, also an NAE member. Amundson introduced sophisticated mathematics to chemical engineering, but his skills as an administrator set a tone for the department that is still yielding dividends.

CEMS faculty trace the roots of excellence to two traditions begun by the first department head, Neal Amundson: hiring the best people and team teaching. Regardless of rank or previous experience in the subject matter, teams of faculty teach the department's core courses together and attend each other's lectures.

In the most recent ranking by the National Research Council, the U ranked number one in chemical engineering, taking first place in 11 of 12 categories. Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report also ranked the U number one, in a tie with MIT and UC-Berkeley. Excellence in a department like CEMS benefits not only the University, but the whole state. About four years ago, Bates estimated the economic impact of CEMS on the state of Minnesota, taking into account the large number of highly trained scientists who remain in the state after graduating and other factors. The average CEMS faculty salary was then $98,000, and Bates calculated that an economic impact of $15 million per faculty member per year could be associated with the department. "That's more than 150 times what the state pays in faculty salaries," he says. "That's real leverage." In fact, people are the main "product" of the department. Over the last three or four decades, CEMS has placed more of its graduates in university chemical engineering faculty positions than has any other department in the country. Among the legions of successful doctoral graduates of CEMS are Lee Raymond, CEO of Exxon Mobil; Bob Gore, inventor of GoreTex; and Robert Brown, provost at MIT. CEMS faculty trace the roots of excellence to two traditions Amundson began. First, he hired the best people he could find, including many whose specialties fell outside the traditional scope of the field. For example, while in England in 1958, Amundson found Rutherford Aris, a mathematical wizard not yet in possession of a Ph.D., and hired him on the spot. Aris went on to transform the mathematical framework for describing complex chemical reactions and was elected to the NAE. Among Amundson's other hires were Henry Tsuchiya, a microbiologist; H. Ted Davis, a chemical physicist, Regents Professor, NAE member, and dean of the Institute of Technology; Schmidt; and L.E. "Skip" Scriven, also a Regents Professor and NAE member, whose chemical engineering interests center on fluids.

People are the main "product" of the department. Among the legions of successful doctoral graduates of CEMS are Lee Raymond, CEO of Exxon Mobil; Bob Gore, inventor of GoreTex; and Robert Brown, provost at MIT.

These scientists and others created a potent mix of talents that catalyzed the department's steady rise to greatness. "The only way to improve an organization is to hire people who are better than those currently in it," says Scriven. But he credits Amundson with taking a further step by planting the true taproot of success: the practice of team teaching. Regardless of rank or previous experience in the subject matter, teams of faculty teach the department's core courses together and attend each other's lectures. Imagine a new assistant professor lecturing with a prominent full professor in the audience. Under those conditions, "a sloppy lecture is as rare as a May frost," Scriven says. "Standards are elevated." "This fall, I teach introductory materials science with Ed Cussler--he's the best teacher in the department," says Bates. "He's never taught a materials science course in his life. This subtle cultural element makes a huge difference." Faculty members are also required to rotate into new core courses on a regular basis, so everyone masters all the fundamentals and experiences a constant cross-fertilization of ideas. Similar to team teaching is the department's frequent practice of co-advising graduate students. Eric Cochran, a predoctoral student, is jointly advised by Bates and David Morse, but he also spends a lot of time in the laboratory of Timothy Lodge, a professor of chemistry. "What drew me here is that the graduate students here seemed content and compatible with my personality. No chips on shoulders," says Cochran. "They talked very clearly about their research and could communicate it well." Over the years, notes Scriven, the close-knit culture, especially team teaching of undergraduates, has borne fruit in the form of a subtle stimulation of research and an exceptional atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration. Not even MIT can beat that.

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