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Christophe Pierre: Being Like Earl

Christophe PierreGraduation Year: 1985

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science

Mechanical Engineering
Materials Science

Career Highlights:

  • Dean of engineering at McGill University

The experience prepared me well for a career in academic engineering.

Christophe Pierre (Ph.D. ’85), dean of engineering at McGill University, learned some valuable skills about juggling the demands of administering a school while maintaining a productive research laboratory from a former Duke engineering dean.

“I left France in 1982 to do graduate work at Princeton University and studied under Earl Dowell,” Pierre recalls. “A year later, when Earl moved to Duke to become dean, I followed him.”

In fact, two years after arriving at Duke he had earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science.

“The speed of things just kind of happened,” Pierre said. “One day, Earl gave me a research paper that had just been published on the localization of vibrations. That was very new topic for me. Before I knew it, I had done the Ph.D. The field was so new that we could progress so fast.

“At the time, the department was relatively small, both in terms of size and number of faculty,” he continued. “The department was very welcoming, like a family. Princeton, by comparison, was much bigger and more anonymous. Also, as one of the dean’s students, I had access to many things and people were more inclined to talk to me and help out. The experience prepared me well for a career in academic engineering.”

Two weeks after his successful Ph.D. defense, he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan, where he ended up spending the next two decades, rising steadily from assistant professor to chaired professor and associate dean. “Patience was never one of my virtues,” he added, chuckling.

In 2005, he became McGill’s engineering dean. All the while, he has directed a productive and vibrant lab.

“As a dean, Earl seemed to have that unique ability to handle many different responsibilities and handle them well,” Pierre said. “The trick, as I have learned, is defining priorities. It’s a matter of organization, like putting together a good team to help achieve milestones and delegating certain responsibilities. It is something that is not taught in school, but learned on the job.”

Pierre’s research focuses on vibrations, and their potential impacts on structures, like automobiles or aircraft. “In a car, unwanted vibrations can come in the form of noise and be an annoyance to the driver,” he said. “However, in something like a jet’s turbine, unwanted vibrations can lead to blade fatigue and ultimately the failure of the engine with catastrophic results.”

Though he has been in contact with Duke professional colleagues such as Kenneth Hall, Julian Abele Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Pierre hasn’t been on campus in quite a while. He does, however, have fond memories of his student housing, an apartment on Louise Circle.

“We lived in a two-story brick townhouse built in the 50s,” he said. “It was inexpensive and very comfortable. I can still see in my mind the manager—a true southern gentleman who smoked cigars and drove a big Cadillac. He was quite the character.”

Originally published Summer 2009