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Q&A with Dean Tom Katsouleas

Dean of Pratt Tom Katsouleas has been overseeing Duke’s engineers for the past three years. Also a professor and researcher in electrical and computer engineering, Katsouleas has seen the University—and its engineering students—through many different lenses. The Chronicle’s Melissa Dalis recently sat down with Katsouleas to discuss his experience as dean, new additions to Pratt in the coming year and advice for engineers in the Class of 2015 before they arrive on campus.

The Chronicle: What’s your favorite part about being the Dean of Pratt?

Tom Katsouleas: The fun thing about being dean is that you are the tip of the arrow for the school, including its students, its staff, its faculty, its alums, your professional peers at your peer institutions, the development donors [and] society at large—it’s just a really interesting opportunity to interact with really interesting people at all levels.

TC: When did you fall in love with engineering?

TK: My father was an electrical and mechanical engineer and always wanted me to be an engineer. He started by teaching me physics, and much to his chagrin, I actually fell first in love with physics. About the time that I was choosing a major in graduate school after finishing with a broad degree in physics, I realized that all the majors I was interested in were applied. I was interested in working on nuclear fusion energy, and I started finding that everything I was interested in was falling into the engineering domain rather than the physics domain. So it actually happened kind of at the grad school level that I realized that my true heart was with engineering, not just basic science, and so in the end I think my dad was happy.

TC: How is Pratt unique from other engineering schools?

TK: There’s a sort of a personality to the Pratt students. The two characteristics I’ve seen are kind of a broader intellectual curiosity and a greater desire to give back in some way, and those are sort of signatures of the kind of students that seem to be drawn to Duke and to Pratt that sets it apart. The other thing is we pride ourselves on providing hands-on personal experiences for students, so 95 percent of our students… do either an internship or an extensive research experience with the professor of their choosing. We provide a lot of these extracurricular activities that are beyond the classroom—probably a greater variety of those than just about anywhere else—and our students participate in them in greater numbers. About a third of our students do an overseas program at some point, whether it’s a semester abroad, Engineers Without Borders or something like that—and that’s about 15 times the national average—so it’s quite a bit different here.

TC: What do you think is the biggest difference between a Pratt and a Trinity student?

TK: Both students are really the crème de la crème in terms of the best students in the country, and both of them are passionate about academics and yet still find time to do things like tent for basketball tickets. There’s a lot more in common than different, but [with] the nature of the rigor of the engineering program, I think the engineering students have longer hours and more lab time.... But hopefully, we make up for it by having cool things that we build and fun things that we learn.

TC: Are there any new additions, such as faculty, to Pratt that you’d like to talk about?

TK: At the end of this year, we opened a brand new machine shop for undergraduate students with extended hours so that students can do semester projects until all hours…. We have Desiree Plata coming from MIT, and she’s an expert in green manufacturing techniques…. From Italy, we have a new faculty member in geobiomorphology—an interesting area of civil/environmental engineering…. We have a new faculty member in biomedical engineering in cellular mechanics coming from Harvard…. In mechanical engineering, we have a fellow from Johns Hopkins named Omar Neo, who is going to lead a new program in decisions under uncertainty.

TC: Where is your favorite place to study on campus?

TK: [My office] Teer 305 or Twinnie’s…. I have office hours on Friday mornings at 9 a.m. in Twinnie’s, and it’s open to anyone—students, faculty [and] staff—anybody to drop in. That’s my favorite place really, because I have a nice cup of coffee and then people come by and tell me how things are going at school and share with me and questions or issues they might have.

TC: So what do you do in your Twinnie’s office hours, and why did you decide to have them?

TK: The way I decided was by accident. It was in my first two weeks here—I went over to the coffee house, I picked up a coffee and I sat down to check an email because of the Wi-Fi, and once I sat down people saw me and said, “Ah that’s the new dean,” and they all just started coming around to say hello and talking to me about various things going on, and I thought, “Gee, this is so great. Nobody sees me in my office—why don’t I just do this regularly?”…. It’s a great way for me to find out what’s going on at the school and make sure everybody has the chance to have access to me that wants it…. We talk about a new chair hire or a new educational program, [for example] some new entrepreneurship offerings that we’re offering to Ph.D. students—that’s been something that’s stimulated a lot of discussion, and faculty will drop in and talk to me about that. It’s all over the map. Sometimes a student stops in for career advice, advice on which major to take or something like that.

TC: Why are there only four engineering majors, and are there plans for expansion?

TK: A school the size of Pratt has to choose where to focus its resources, and our choice is to be excellent in what we offer as opposed to try to be a cafeteria that offers bland everything. That’s a strategic decision on Pratt’s part, but that said we are adding another major, which is the energy engineering major, which will be the first new major in Pratt in 40 years. The last new major we had was biomedical engineering, and it became the first accredited [undergraduate] biomedical engineering degree in the country. That’s the kind of thing we want to do—we want to be first in. I’d much rather be the first to offer a broad energy engineering degree than to add another department and be the last one to have that other department in an older field.

TC: What activities would you suggest the incoming Pratt freshmen to try outside of the classroom?

TK: That’s part of the strength and signature of the Pratt degree is the broad extracurricular experiences our students get. Students should try to plan an international experience at some point in their four years here, and then I definitely recommend that they pursue either an internship opportunity…or a research experience, which you can pursue either individually, with a faculty member or through the Pratt Fellows. Those are some of the great ones, but we have so many great programs—Engineers Without Borders, Engineering World Health, student teams like the Concrete Canoe, the Formula SAE Car or the robotics team. Whatever sounds most appealing to you, go for it.

TC: What advice would you give to the Class of 2015 engineers?

TK: Come in with an open mind, and be prepared to not only be shaped by your experience in Pratt but [also] shape the school and leave it changed and imprinted with your personality.

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