A Conversation With Jerome P. Lynch

4/1 DukEngineer Magazine

Duke's New Vinik Dean of Engineering discusses his background, joining the Pratt School of Engineering and his plans for the future

Jerome Lynch
A Conversation With Jerome P. Lynch

Jerome P. Lynch, PhD, F.EMI, joined the Duke community on January 1, 2022, as the Vinik Dean of Engineering, after 19 years at the University of Michigan. I sat down with him to discuss his background, joining Pratt and his plans for the future.

What intrigues you about being dean of the engineering school? What are you most looking forward to?

First, it is a tremendous honor to be asked to serve as the Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering here at Duke. What really excites me about the position is the broad base of excellence that we have in the school and across the university at-large. At the same time, it is an ambitious community passionate about using its talents and creativity to advance the common good. I get energized by the possibilities of directing these ambitions to solve some of society’s biggest and most complex problems.

One of the unique aspects of Duke is its size—it’s a moderately-sized engineering school when compared to some of its peer programs across the country. This allows us to be quick and nimble—we identify areas where there’s a critical need for innovation and quickly mobilize by decisively putting resources behind our efforts. There are many examples ranging from our signature design curriculum to our major investments in emerging research spaces such as quantum computing, materials and genetics, just to name a few.

One of the other draws to Duke is how engineering exists within a university that is firmly committed to a liberal arts education. As engineers, our contribution to solutions may start in the technical arena, but the challenges themselves, and even the technological solutions, raise a range of urgent questions around the social implications of our work. The liberal arts base to our education allows Duke engineers to ponder those questions and to ensure innovations advance the common good in a responsible manner.

What ideas do you have in mind for the future of engineering education and research?

In the education area, there are so many exciting initiatives underway here at Duke. So many, in fact, that I wish I was a student again! What makes Duke distinct is how our program has a laser focus on giving students a strong sense of purpose in their studies. Whereas my generation picked our majors based on the identity of our disciplines, students today think first about the types of problems they want to solve as professionals. They then craft their academic journey including majors to ensure they are best positioned to achieve their goals. In this manner, students are very purpose-driven.

At Pratt, we emphasize experiential learning where students work on real-world problems sourced from actual clients. This aligns well with student interests and gives them a chance to directly see how they can have impact. We will build on this cutting-edge approach to engineering education by ensuring we have a broader range of client types that diversify the types of design projects that are sourced. To further expand our students’ explorations of what their purposes may be, we should ensure design experiences are available that focus the financial, policy and ethical dimensions of their work.

With respect to research, I am excited to build off the deep expertise and innovation already going on across campus. Pratt is simply a magical place where so much is possible. One area I am personally passionate about is climate change. The impact of climate change on our habitat, many of which we are getting sneak previews of, is simply scary—they demand bold and daring thought leadership to tackle. Pratt has the exciting opportunity to be at the vanguard of multidisciplinary efforts that will lead to the solutions society needs to ensure resilience and equity in a rapidly changing world. By partnering with campus partners such as the Nicholas School of the Environment and others, there is just so much we can do to bring forth transformative climate solutions.

Three men stand together in front of a stone wall

You have led interdisciplinary programs in the past. Pratt is known for interdisciplinary collaborations. What ideas do you have in mind for collaboration?

Collaboration and interdisciplinary activity are essential parts of engineering as a profession—if you will, it is in our DNA. To me, cross-disciplinary collaborations are one of the things that make engineering an incredibly fun and rewarding profession. If we consider the challenges that lie ahead, they demand revolutionary approaches that might only be possible when different disciplines come together.

Interdisciplinarity is where Duke excels—the physical spaces of the campus are well integrated and intimate, naturally facilitating interaction, engagement and collaboration between disciplines. We will invest in these collaborative activities widely. There are so many that Pratt finds itself in the center of many already, ranging from those based with partners in medicine to those in the sciences. In addition to collaborating across campus, there is a tremendous opportunity for Pratt to further grow and strengthen its collaborations with non-academic partners off-campus. With the Research Triangle going through a rapid transformation, it is essential we engage the growing number of companies active in the region. In some engineering areas, to have an impact we need to validate our work at ever-larger scales that are not feasible in our labs. But we can gain access to full-scale, real-world testbeds by collaborating with external partners such as local industry.

You have a lot of leadership experience. How do you think those experiences have influenced you?

I have been lucky to experience different forms of leadership ranging from my prior role at Michigan, which was department chair, to experiences in leading startup companies. Each of these experiences has challenged me on many different levels leading to growth; they have challenged my knowledge, my assumptions that frame my work, my instincts, my outlook. Leadership is very much a contact sport, meaning it is as much about people as it is tactics. That is where I have learned the most; how to listen, engage and drive consensus to ensure the teams I lead move forward with collective purpose. An important part of the learning process is failure. Not everything you do will work, nor will it always lead to the outcome desired. The key is how you learn from failure—humbling lessons have undoubtedly helped me grow into a more effective leader.

What are your biggest goals for Pratt, being the Vinik Dean of Engineering at Duke?

First, I will take some time to introduce myself to the Pratt and greater Duke community so that I can learn from all Pratt stakeholders what they see as opportunities and challenges for engineering. The Pratt 2039 strategic vision offers early insight into the aspirations of the community. What energizes me most when I read Pratt 2039 is the consistent framing of our plans in the context of doing our work “in service to society.”

As an educator, this begins in the classroom. Pratt is a leader in engineering education—our students have the best-in-class educational experience tooling them with not only technical competencies but also a broader mindset based on their exposure to the liberal arts. As I mentioned before, I would like to build an even stronger sense of purpose and context for students as they study. This includes giving students the opportunity for more hands-on, real-world experiences throughout their time on campus.

On the research side, it’s to continue to invest in our excellence by targeting strategic areas of innovation. We are already known internationally as leaders in a number of different areas, ranging from our top-ten biomedical engineering program to areas like quantum computing. I would like to take the concept proposed in the Pratt 2039 strategic vision termed “explore and amplify” to venture into a number of emerging areas where we can have an oversized impact. Based on early success, we then amplify our resource investments to ensure we are at the edge of innovation. To accelerate impact, partnerships will be essential. We will focus on extending the reach of our work by building collaborations with local and global industry.

Finally, we have a strong and dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem at Duke that is well integrated with the regional entrepreneurial community. Pratt has been a campus leader in this space with faculty and students passionate about venture creation. Duke EngEn, along with its spaces and programs, are clear illustrations of our commitment to entrepreneurship as a core characteristic of the Pratt community. This is another area where we must continue to invest to ensure we can accelerate moving our innovation from lab to practice. In doing so, we can unlock the potential of our work and gain rich experiences that inform our future research and development efforts.

Johnny Lai is a student in Duke’s FinTech Master of Engineering program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.