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Meet Pratt's Dean Bellamkonda
Ravi Bellamkonda became the new Vinik Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering on August 1, 2016. Previously chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Bellamkonda was appointed in January after an international search, and cited by Duke’s President Richard Brodhead for his “outstanding personal accomplishment and visionary leadership.” [Read Duke news release]
We chatted with Bellamkonda in spring 2016 about his perspectives on Pratt and hopes for the future of Duke Engineering.
Q. What attracted you to the job as engineering dean at Duke?
Well, I have a very good job right now, so I was not actively looking to move. In fact I engaged in the search because it was Duke—it’s such a special place. Pratt is a great engineering school that’s set in a comprehensive research university, with strong schools like Medicine, Trinity, Fuqua, Nicholas, and others. If you look at the challenges the world is facing in areas like energy, the environment, health and transportation, the solutions to these challenges all have a technological component at their heart, but they are not technical challenges alone--policy, economics and politics all need to come together as well. So the idea that our faculty and students can take on these challenges and work collaboratively to change the world within the context of a very strong university really attracted me. Duke also has a reputation for being entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, with a dynamism and flexibility to reach a little further and not just play it safe. I like that it has a culture of not being afraid to take risks to try to solve problems.
- B.Eng. in biomedical engineering, College of Engineering, Osmania University (India)
- Ph.D. in medical science and biomaterials, Brown University
- Research focus: Neurological biomaterials and cancer therapeutics
- Selected honors: Clemson Award for Applied Research (Society for Biomaterials), EUREKA award (National Cancer Institute), CAREER award (National Science Foundation), and best professor award (Georgia Tech BME students)
- Family: Married to Lalita Kaligotla; two children, son Mihir (16) and daughter Ameya (12)
- Hobbies: Tennis, keeping up with current events, reading (“Mostly young adult fiction my children recommend to me—we’re big fans of Harry Potter and The Bartimaeus Trilogy for instance!”)
Q. During the interview process you spoke with dozens of leaders and faculty from Pratt and across Duke. Based on those conversations, do you have a sense of what your first priorities will be?
My first priority will be to spend time listening. The search process engaged many people but it was just a small cross-section of the whole, so I want to meet with faculty, staff, students, alumni and partners in various programs and at various levels to learn more.
Based on my preliminary engagement, I do think we have two special opportunities that I’d like to explore in consultation with the faculty.
One is clearly defining certain areas of research in which we can be absolutely world-class, the best in the country and the world. I’m a biomedical engineer and of course Duke BME is very well-known, but I also know that Pratt is strong in several other areas, like materials science and engineering, quantum computing, environment and big data, to name just a few examples. I think focusing on areas where we can truly lead—in research, in startup generation, in graduate programs and interdisciplinary partnerships—that’s how we’ll really make a difference. This is not to say we don’t value what each of our faculty does. Articulation of our strengths will benefit everyone, and increase the likelihood that we build even more strengths.
On the education side, there are special opportunities for us to think about what it will mean to be an engineer 20 years from now. We’re moving into a world where the most important thing is not just mastering some technical content, but mastering how to extract knowledge from plain information. Technical content is increasingly freely available, and engineering talent is coming from all over the world, so we need to ask ourselves “What are the characteristics of a Duke engineer that set her or him apart and make them sought-after talent?”
In my opinion, besides technical mastery, being multidimensional is important. The ability to solve complex problems with incomplete information, work in diverse teams, communicate with felicity—we think of these as soft skills, but they are the skills that will separate the technically competent from the engineering leaders that Duke nurtures. I think Duke already does an excellent job of this with programs like Bass Connections, Grand Challenge Scholars, and entrepreneurship and “maker” opportunities, but I’d like us to think deliberately about ways to continue to encourage deep, student-driven learning from the very beginning of the student experience.
In graduate education, I think Pratt has done a great job enabling students to gain professional experience through programs such as PhD Plus. Only one in eight PhD students actually goes on to an academic career, so providing the opportunity for students to engage in entrepreneurial activity and internships that will give them true experience in the business or government or non-profit worlds is increasingly important. At the end of the day we’d like to equip our students to become thought leaders, and help build in them a sense of fearlessness in tackling complex challenges.
Q. How about priorities beyond the core areas of education and research?
My other priorities are really about fostering relationships, community engagement and philanthropy to support our education and research missions. Neither Pratt nor Duke would be as special as they are without the generous support of alumni and well-wishers. Philanthropy in many ways is the magic ingredient, the transformative enabler that allows Pratt and Duke to leap ahead and lead. I also hope to connect with alumni, parents, industry partners and the Durham community to see how we can best engage them, because their ideas and networks and resources are critical to our success.
I’d also like to explore ways to enhance ties between Pratt and other Duke schools and programs to continue building partnerships that will help us all rise. And there are a few structural but important things we need to put into place to enable our goals. Appropriate research and learning spaces are critical for Pratt to realize its full potential, for instance.
So, the financial strength of Pratt is not the goal, but it is a key enabler of our ability to do transformative research, and provide the best experience to our students--who represent the best talent in the world--so they can in turn build the kind of world you and I would be proud to live in.
Q. You’ve had some interesting leadership experiences besides your role as department chair—serving as the president of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and as associate vice president for research at Georgia Tech, and founding three start-up companies. How do you think those experiences have influenced you?
My broad leadership experiences have given me the opportunity to recognize what makes our wonderful country an innovator and leader. It’s not just the academic institutions we have; it’s the whole ecosystem of federal funding, peer review, philanthropic support and industry innovation. This ecosystem can hum and come together synergistically when there is a common vision and purpose, and when we in academia view these other elements as partners and put in place mechanisms for our faculty and students to interact with industry and other partners more easily, with fewer hurdles.
Q. How would you describe your leadership style?
Well, you might want to ask the wonderful people I work with [laughs]! The simplest way to capture my style is to say that I like to enable the best in each of us.
I’d like us to collectively create an environment that is inspiring and meaningful, so that all of us feel like we are part of a noble enterprise trying to find the truth about something—how to address an environmental problem or how to cure cancer or discovering something fundamental that wasn’t known before.
An important part of that is making sure that everyone feels valued for the different perspectives and backgrounds they bring. I know Duke and Pratt are actively working to foster diversity and inclusion, and that is something I care deeply about. It has been a high priority for me at Georgia Tech and Emory and will be a high priority for me at Pratt. It’s important to not only recruit and retain faculty and students who are more representative of our diverse society, but also to honestly ask ourselves whether we are really doing all we can to ensure the success of every individual we already have here as a part of the Pratt family.
I’d like Pratt and Duke to be a destination that attracts the best, brightest, most diverse faculty, students and staff because it becomes widely known that all of Duke will root for each person’s success. I personally would like to enable this journey by helping to create the culture, the infrastructure, the resources and reward systems that will allow our faculty, students and staff to feel free to be creative, and be in touch with our love of engineering and science, of teaching, learning, scholarship and service, so we can make a difference in the world.
Q. Anything else you’d like to say?
Just that it’s an honor to be named dean of Pratt. It’s a wonderful institution with a very bright future, and I’m looking forward to working as hard as I can and to the best of my ability to facilitate our journey to define what the future of engineering is going to be. I believe Pratt has the opportunity to lead, and I am confident we will!
– Pratt Communications