Spotlight on McCormick
Creating ‘whole-brain’ engineers:
Dean Julio Ottino on what has made McCormick a haven for interdisciplinary initiatives
From fostering leadership to working toward a more sustainable future, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science continues to redefine engineering and education. We sat down with Dean Julio Ottino to discuss what sets McCormick apart.
NULC: McCormick seems to be very adept at crossing traditional boundaries to collaborate with other schools on important initiatives. What is the rationale behind this strategy?
JO: This has been a conscious effort to increase our reach. Cross-linking and adaptability are key to our strategy. We produce people and ideas, and both are enriched by collaborations with other units. Innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines; one of the goals of collaboration is to increase the creative space and come up with better ideas.
We have active partnerships with nearly every area of the University, and we quantify this. On our website, we have graphics that show how co-authorship on research papers has increased McCormick’s reach throughout Northwestern (see collaboration.mccormick.northwestern.edu/).
NULC: From the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to tornadoes in the United States, recent events have underscored the importance of efficient disaster response. What do you hope the recently launched Humanitarian Logistics initiative can accomplish?
JO: The Humanitarian Logistics initiative came out of a McCormick series called New Opportunities Workshops. In one of the meetings, Karen Smilowitz, an associate professor in industrial engineering and management sciences, brought up the question, “Why do doctors and lawyers do pro bono work but engineers do not?” Recent events have underscored the importance of the initiative. When a crisis hits, the ability to deploy resources is critical. Supplies may be available, but they need to reach the people who need them the most.
My hope is that this initiative will be a bridge between the excellent operations research group that we have at McCormick and a wide variety of organizations that need that expertise. Operations research, which is at the heart of Humanitarian Logistics, is now growing to include healthcare operations, in partnership with the Feinberg School of Medicine.
NULC: McCormick is now the academic home for the Center for Leadership, which offers an introductory leadership course, a certificate program, and a fellowship program. Why do you think an engineering school is a good fit to house this interdisciplinary initiative?
JO: We are only as good as the people we produce, and leadership is a critical component of the success of our graduates. The center fits into our strategy to develop people along three dimensions: technical expertise, entrepreneurial experiences, and personal effectiveness. Like several of our other programs, such as the Segal Design Institute and the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Center for Leadership is based within McCormick, but its reach extends to other parts of the University.
NULC: On the topic of cross-disciplinary initiatives, the Institute for Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern is now in its third year. Are you excited about what you have seen so far?
JO: ISEN was an urgent need for the University. Energy and sustainability were quickly moving to the forefront, and we risked losing our positioning if we didn’t establish leadership in this area. In the past two years Northwestern has made great strides in energy research—including two Energy Frontier Research Centers that brought $46 million in funding.
This is an area in which our students care deeply. For example, undergraduate students recently spearheaded an effort to build Northwestern’s first solar energy array on the top of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, raising more than $100,000. Our chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World has active projects in many countries, and new student groups are growing quickly.
NULC: What kind of role does leadership giving play in furthering innovation at McCormick?
JO: Giving is a very visible way to chart our progress. Ideas have to inspire our alumni, parents, and friends to gain their support. Our ability to move forward is dependent on having the resources to do so, and we’ve been fortunate to see our leadership level giving, and membership in McCormick’s Walter P. Murphy Society and the Northwestern University Leadership Circle, increase steadily over the past three years.
NULC: How critical is the flexibility that gifts to the McCormick Annual Fund provide?
JO: It’s essential. At McCormick, we use a significant portion of our unrestricted gifts to fund what we call Murphy Society grants. These grants fund a wide variety of student and faculty initiatives and give us the ability to launch new programs, such as Humanitarian Logistics, and provide support for student organizations, such as Design for America.
Universities usually evolve into the modus operandi of large companies, making it difficult to launch start-up ventures. We can get set in our ways by always trying to reduce risk. New things involve risk and Annual Fund gifts allow us to seed start-up initiatives focused on undergraduate education. Many of the investments that we are making today will set us apart from our peers in the years to come.
NULC: What areas of the school do you consider to be in greatest need of donor support?
JO: There are many areas, but a few are top of mind. Undergraduate research is one. More than half of our students participate in research, and the ability to work on relevant problems in the labs of our faculty is one of the distinguishing aspects of a Northwestern education.
Another is recruiting and retaining top faculty. One of the best ways to ensure our competitiveness is by establishing new endowed chairs. These chairs help us recognize and reward outstanding faculty members and give us the necessary resources to recruit and retain top talent.
We have many more needs, too many to cover here, around central themes— such as design, entrepreneurship, global health, complex systems, energy and sustainability— that will help us reach new levels of excellence.
NULC: You joined the McCormick faculty in 1991. What do you consider the most significant change in the school over the past two decades?
JO: The foundation at McCormick was always good, but now we are more collaborative and entrepreneurial. There have also been some cultural changes. Departments now function as part of a whole, rather than as independent parts. Our graduate students are increasingly organized and interconnected, largely due to the work of student organizations such as the McCormick Graduate Leadership Council. And our undergraduates want to set the world on fire—they see themselves central to the mission of the University.
On the whole, our biggest change is our drive to produce whole-brain engineers. Engineers used to be thought of in terms of what they made. At McCormick we believe that engineers should be thought of in terms of how they think. And that thinking should seamlessly fuse the analytical and the creative.
NULC: What hasn’t changed?
JO: The foundations. The reason that we are able to introduce initiatives that develop “right-brain” (creative) thinking skills is that our analytical and technical foundations were already incredibly strong. The other thing that hasn’t changed is the relevance of engineering.
If anything, it’s more at the center than ever before. Many of today’s pressing problems—energy, environment, global health— intersect with areas of engineering. The need for engineers, and especially engineers of the caliber of McCormick, has never been greater.