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Winter 2005


Photo by Tom Kates
Shared Vision
For Dean Linda Abriola, a different kind of
engineering school builds on new collaborations

See related story: An Invisible Threat

In 1973, when Linda Abriola entered Drexel University, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and major in engineering. But what seemed a practical decision held a startling revelation. “I didn’t know that women weren’t supposed to be engineers,” she says, about discovering she was the lone woman in her classes.

Then, after an exam in engineering geology, her professor approached with a question she has never forgotten. “He said, ‘You’re not a Home Ec major, are you?’ He had had few women in his classes. He thought I was just taking it as an elective. I knew early on I was going to have to prove that I could be an engineer, and it’s taken a fair amount of stubbornness to get me where I wanted to go.”

Abriola’s story resonates with many women who have challenged stereotypes as they built reputations in fields traditionally dominated by men. For Abriola, it has been a lifelong and passionate pursuit. She rose through the ranks at the University of Michigan, and, now, as the first woman dean of the Tufts University School of Engineering, she is one of only about 15 women in the nation who serve in this capacity. It’s a role to which Abriola brings a perseverance that has stood her in good stead for more than three decades.

“I’m excited to be here,” she says, in a recent interview in her Anderson Hall office. “I didn’t envision being a dean, but once I visited Tufts, I saw it was a place where I had a lot of potential to make a difference. I could see immediately that there were so many things I could do.”

Indeed, that determination, combined with an ability to visualize the next step for the Engineering School, made her an ideal candidate to recruit. Diane Souvaine, professor and chair in the Department of Computer Science, said the dean’s search coincided with a year of strategic planning and external reviews that called on Tufts Engineering “to devote increasing energies to groundbreaking interdisciplinary research.” Abriola’s credentials in engineering gave the search committee confidence that she could fulfill such an ambitious mandate.

“An acclaimed researcher at the interface of chemical engineering and civil and environmental engineering, and recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering, Linda had also been recognized at the University of Michigan for the quality of her teaching and for her public service,” said Souvaine. “That outstanding record, combined with her delight in her research and enthusiasm for teaching, made her a perfect match for Tufts.”

Jamshed Bharucha, provost and senior vice president, agrees. “Dean Abriola has a brilliant record of achievement as an intellectual leader,” he says. “She is already making her mark on the university.”

Abriola’s vision is taking shape. With undergraduate programs solidly established under former dean Ioannis N. Miaoulis, she is focusing on graduate programs and advanced engineering scholarship and research. It’s a direction that can be best understood by looking at priorities that emerged not long after Abriola arrived at Tufts in September 2003. As she and department chairs scrutinized what would set Tufts apart, three overarching themes brought together the school’s strengths with those of the university.

The first, environmental sustainability, encompasses Tufts’ newest interdisciplinary graduate program, Water: Systems, Science and Society, or WSSS, as well as energy concerns and the built environment. Tufts already has “some very interesting work” going on regarding alternative energy materials, such as fuel cells, and just this year inaugurated a new lecture series in nanotechnology.

The second area focuses on the growing field of bioengineering. Abriola anticipates collaborations across departments in Arts and Sciences as well with the professional schools. There are plans for building an integrated research building to foster this intersection of disciplines.

And third, Abriola says Tufts is primed to be a leader in engineering education innovation. The university already has a reputation for innovation in pre-K–12 outreach initiatives. Abriola envisions going further and making Tufts “a center for educating engineers and non-engineers.” Again, linkages, including departments of child development, psychology, and education, are considered essential.

Abriola says many schools, such as Princeton, Duke, or Purdue, are also focusing on similar areas. The question for Tufts is simple: Can we pull it off? “I think we can be competitive,” she replied, with characteristic assurance. “Tufts has a unique combination of schools, so we have one of the best chances of making a mark in education, of doing something no one else can do. We have a chance to be a player.”

Abriola grew up outside Philadelphia in a close-knit Italian-American home. Her father, a civil engineer, ran a construction company. Her first love was music, and she was a violinist in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. She took her dream of becoming a classical violinist to an audition for Juilliard. She shakes her head as she recalls that “big traumatic event.” “Everything was supposed to be from memory,” she says. “My memory just went. So I didn’t get in to Juilliard.”

At Drexel, she was soon hooked on geology and environmental science, and took advanced classes in hydraulics. Eventually she would end up studying a subject that combined all three—ground-water contamination. “I think I was attracted to the complexity of the natural environment and trying to understand it and develop engineering solutions in the natural environment,” she says.

She went on to earn a master’s and a PhD at Princeton, where she was encouraged by her advisor, George Pinder, now a professor at the University of Vermont, to investigate chlorinated solvents—fluids used by dry cleaners. She subsequently developed the first mathematical model that described how organic liquid contaminants migrate in the porous subsurface. This work, and her subsequent modeling investigations, continue to be widely referenced in the literature.

Abriola emerged from graduate school with several job offers, ultimately joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1984. There, she was at first the only woman faculty member in her department. “For a long time, it was isolating,” she says, adding that she often felt she could not turn down opportunities that demanded much of her discretionary time. “When you’re a woman in a field that is male-dominated, you get asked to do a lot of committee work because everybody wants a woman on the committee for diversity,” she says. “I did much more than my share of service when I started out. You have to ask yourself the question: What can I make of this opportunity? Am I just the token woman or can I actually have an impact? And if you feel it’s worthwhile, you do it.”

When Tufts called, Abriola wasn’t looking to become an academic administrator. She had been a professor for 19 years. “I was proud of that because I was the first woman in the school of engineering ever to hold a chair,” she says. “But I was at the point where I thought I should have proven myself. I thought I should have more influence. And that put the bug in me to look around at other opportunities, other chair professorships.”

In the spring of 2003, Abriola was persuaded to visit the Tufts campus where she was impressed by a “diverse and enthusiastic” search committee, as by the legacy of former dean Ioannis N. Miaoulis; thanks to his efforts to promote engineering among women, some 32 percent of Tufts engineering students (approximately twice the national average) are women.

Abriola also saw a school that had tripled the number of women faculty and that has the highest number of women professors and students in the history of the school; 16 percent of the faculty (approximately four times the national average) are female. In the effort to increase diversity in the school, more than 80 percent of new faculty hired in the past five years were from underrepresented groups.

The size of Tufts, she says, was also a selling point. Tufts is among the smallest universities nationally ranked as a Research Class 1 university. At the School of Engineering, that scale fostered approachable staff and faculty, small classes, and opportunities for project design and research. “It seemed that the scale was such that I could make change and effect change a lot more easily, I think, than at a huge institution,” says Abriola. “I thought that I could make this into the school that I would have wanted to go to as an undergraduate.”

Her introduction also revealed a school with ambitious goals. In 2000, the College of Engineering was changed to the School of Engineering, a move described in the strategic plan as “a significant transformation that made the School responsible for both undergraduate and graduate engineering education.” It also set the stage for “an expanded commitment” to increase the school’s “worldwide visibility as a prominent institution for advanced engineering education.” Toward that end, the school endorsed its potential to partner with many university-wide initiatives, including joint degree programs with Arts and Sciences, the Fletcher School, and the Schools of Medicine, Dental Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. In step with that new momentum, the school’s bricks and mortar were scheduled for renovation, and new teaching and research spaces were bringing new vitality as well.

Her daylong interview continued all the way to the top: President Lawrence S. Bacow and Provost Jamshed Bharucha. Cautiously, Abriola told them that while she was interested, she wasn’t prepared to give up her research. She was “shocked “when Bharucha said, “That’s exactly what we want.”

“This was a refreshing idea—that you can lead by example,” says Abriola. “I felt like I shared their values.”

Looking back, Abriola laughs when she remembers how she thought combining her research and a deanship would be easy. With some 60 faculty, the School of Engineering at Tufts is tiny compared to that at the University of Michigan, where it would be the equivalent of one department.

“It’s been a ride,” she says. “I didn’t appreciate that Tufts does have six departments. The complexity is enormous. I come from a state school that is very hierarchical. Here it’s like a web. It’s been a challenge just to sort out how things work. There are 13 degrees that our school supports. There’s so much complexity.”

One thing Abriola didn’t have to worry about was attracting talented students. Ninety-nine percent of the school’s undergraduates—about 750 in all—graduate in four years, “which is extraordinary,” says Abriola, given that at many engineering schools, students need to take longer. Undergraduate applications also have almost doubled, while the average engineering school has seen a 15 percent decline in applications.

Another bragging right is zero net attrition: as many students transfer from Arts and Sciences into Engineering as transfer out of Engineering. “We may be the only one in the country who can say that,” says Abriola. “The schools are so closely connected it’s perceived as a seamless experience. We also have a fantastic academic dean, Kim Knox. She brings a personal interest to advising and mentoring all of our undergraduates. And I think our faculty are highly dedicated; there is an accessibility to them that can be hard to find at a larger institution.”

One of her most significant gains to date has been in hiring more exceptional faculty. The school most recently made seven new hires—nine, including faculty brought onboard over the past year and a half. “I’m really thrilled with the quality of our new hires,” Abriola says. “What’s really gratifying is that women candidates were the top choices of their individual departments. I think we have a chance to be a much more inclusive environment and actually build a different sort of engineering school as a result.”

That “different sort” of engineering school extends to introducing students to the pragmatic side of engineering. Two new faculty were recruited directly from industry, and the school also hired a professor of practice in structural engineering. “That’s a new thing for Tufts,” says Abriola. “We wanted to bring in an engineer who has had great success and expertise and who wants to teach. This faculty member was one of the chief engineers on Boston’s Big Dig.”

Strategically, the school is also seeking to develop and strengthen collaborations across the schools by hiring faculty who can work in different settings, but, most important, who also take teaching seriously. In recruiting for this group, for instance, one new faculty member was drawn to the classroom from the pharmaceutical company Wyeth, and now holds an adjunct appointment at Tufts Medical School.

“I’ve been delighted to see that this message, that we really care about teaching, sells well,” says Abriola. “There’s a perception, I think incorrect, that faculty interested in research aren’t interested in teaching, and I want to dispel that. I have seen how that has made a difference in recruiting top-notch faculty.”

In addition, the school is taking a close look at the undergraduate curriculum. Abriola would like to streamline course offerings and give students more flexibility in what has been a traditional curriculum. She also seeks to incorporate internationalism into coursework, as well as the values of team building and communication.

There is still much work to do. There are pressing space needs, for instance, that Abriola expects will be included in the master plan for the Somerville/Medford campus. In the long view, she envisions the school will have to grow its full-time faculty by about 25 percent and more than double its square footage. “We have to increase our space and improve our infrastructure,” she says.

The School of Engineering does have, she says, the potential to reach into areas of inquiry that build powerful collaborations between disciplines, schools, and even other countries. Abriola says Tufts can continue to expand its influence as it broadens its reputation for research and scholarship. Still, she concedes that people often don’t immediately think of engineering when they think of Tufts, a name-recognition problem that’s made particularly tough when MIT is four stops down the Red Line.

“We have to do a better job of acquainting people with the profile of Tufts and the Tufts engineer,” says Abriola. “Many alumni hold leadership positions in their companies. Some of them have gone on to work in law or business or as venture capitalists. When you talk to them, they say they really value their education as an engineer. It helped them learn how to problem solve and to appreciate technical aspects of their work. I want to build that image, that at the School of Engineering, we’re educating leaders.”

The School of Engineering’s Strategic Plan for 2002–2007 may be found on the web at engineering.tufts.edu/strategy2002-2007.pdf.