Visiting university president Assanis encourages engineering collaboration
Dr. Dennis Assanis continues to find ways to take engineering impacts to new heights through collaboration with experts in fields ranging from healthcare to art.
“You really need to consider all aspects, especially if you want a bigger impact,” Assanis said. “A lot of our education in the future needs to be more creative and more interdisciplinary if the intent is to make a greater contribution to society.”
Assanis, president of the University of Delaware, met with graduate students on March 21 as part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Fowler Distinguished Lecture Series at Texas A&M University. Before becoming university president in 2016, Assanis served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Stony Brook University and as vice president for Brookhaven National Laboratory Affairs. He previously taught and conducted research at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Growing up in Athens, Greece, Assanis said he remembers how education in his formative years took a holistic approach and included topics ranging from the sciences to liberal arts. He said taking a similar mindset with an engineering education is beneficial to engineers, who tend to be more analytical and systems-oriented.
“What is nice in general about engineers is that their training prepares them well to think analytically, to think about every problem as a big system that has some input, some output and some constraints,” Assanis said. “With that kind of analytical thinking, you can approach problems at least to a degree, but that’s not enough because of all these other factors; the people factors, the emotional factors, the constraints that you have around the world.”
Assanis said it is important to place engineering within the context of the broader environment that encompasses society, economic and political aspects.
“If it is engineering for engineers, it won’t quite have the same impact,” Assanis said. “It needs to be engineering for the world.”
Assanis received his bachelor’s degree in marine engineering from Newcastle University in England. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) he earned master’s degrees in naval architecture and marine engineering, mechanical engineering and management. He also earned a doctoral degree in power and propulsion while at MIT.
“I went into engineering because it felt to me more analytical and more systems-oriented than some of the other fields,” Assanis said. “But I didn’t lose sight of the fact that you need to continue to have your grounding in the social and environmental aspects that are happening around you. Communication, collaboration and social skills are important.”
He emphasized the role and contributions of his wife, Eleni, and their two sons in expanding his interdisciplinary perspective on a wide range of topics throughout his life.
Assanis said there are some challenges to developing a more interdisciplinary approach to an engineering career. One example is that the awards system in academia, especially in the early years of a career, are based on individual contributions and research. He feels that researchers can benefit from having a mixture of independent work to build credentials and collaborative work with others.
With an engineering degree, Assanis said the sky is the limit, even if graduates use their knowledge and skills in unconventional ways. He has known engineering majors who have become doctors, lawyers and even priests.
“It’s such excellent preparation,” he said. “Some of the best doctors I have encountered were the ones who actually had an undergraduate degree in engineering, preferably mechanical engineering, because they knew how to analyze what is going on with your condition with logic.”
Assanis’ visit for his seminar was his first time at Texas A&M. He said he enjoyed meeting Aggies and touring different parts of campus.
“I’ve always heard great things about Texas A&M and especially about the engineering program,” he said. “It is really one of the power houses in engineering, so anybody in the field of engineering aspires at some point in their life to pay a visit and see what the campus has to offer.”
Assanis is a distinguished educator with a wide range of academic leadership experience and a worldwide reputation as a scholar and expert in both fundamental and applied studies of internal combustion engines and energy systems. He was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2008.
His advice to future engineers was to embrace the other disciplines, ranging from public policy and social studies to the business world and health sciences.
“You’re going to have an even stronger impact,” Assanis said. “Even though you’re very good in engineering, I think it’s important that you collaborate with all the other sciences to make a bigger impact.”
The Fowler Distinguished Lecture Series invites nationally recognized engineers and scientists to lecture as part of the graduate department seminar class.