The University of Miami College of Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have forged a partnership of sorts in the person of Dr. James M. Tien, a soft-spoken scholar whose mission as dean at UM engineering is loud and clear: take UM to the next level.
“The school to me was just ready to go to the next level,” said Mr. Tien, who received his doctoral degree from the prestigious Massachusetts school. “And that next level is the American Association of Universities.
“They tend to be the top colleges, research universities in the nation,” he said. “We’ve kind of impacted the culture here. Our whole focus now is on research at the Ph.D. level, so this is value added knowledge rather than just an application of knowledge.”
Into the future, “My vision is more of the same, focus, focus, focus and collaborate,” Mr. Tien said. “We’re too small not to collaborate, and that’s why I think our bio-medical has grown, because we have close collaboration with the medical school and now we’re starting to collaborate also with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Dr. Tien talked about the College of Engineering and his tenure at the school at UM with Miami Today reporter Lou Ortiz.
Q: When did you come to UM?
Q: You’ve been a dean for the last 5 years?
Q: What were your initial impressions of the school and the Miami area?
A: The school to me was just ready to go to the next level. The next level was… the AAU. That’s the American Association of Universities. They tend to be the top colleges, research universities in the nation, and there are a couple of Canadian ones in there.
I was brought into help them get to that level and you don’t get, you don’t apply for that level, they invite you to join. So what we’re trying to do is get to an AAU quality institution by 2020, which I believe is our aspiration.
Q: What kinds of things are you doing to get there?
A: The University of Miami has always been a very good undergraduate institution but not so much into research, so we’ve really developed a whole research program that [in]… the last couple of years has really helped bring the visibility of Miami in research, both in medical and engineering and arts and science ,and computer science.
Q: Can you give us a couple of examples of the types of things you’re doing?
A: We’ve reviewed our strengths and then we’ve looked at the national needs because a lot of this research is funded by the federal government. So there are three areas that we’ve hooked on to: the first area is what one might call health care and technobiology. Technobiology is where technology is applied to biological issues, medicine and health care.
Q: Do you also teach?
A: Yes, I do, but mostly at this point I am working with my graduate students.
Q: What is your background?
A: I’m an electrical engineer; data analysis, algorithms, prediction – that’s our background in the mathematics part of it and the physics part of it, too.
Q: What are your other responsibilities as dean?
A: My other responsibilities are really is to get our students to graduate and to be in good position to have career success. By career success it’s no longer just your one job. I mean, our graduates are going to come out and are probably going to have 15 jobs by the time they finish their career. I’m not sure how many jobs you’ve had. I’ve only had three so far. Our students are going to have a lot more than that.
So we’ve opened up all of our laboratories to the undergraduates… because it’s only in the laboratories that the students can do what I call critical thinking, open-ended critical thinking.
When we go into the classroom, we make sure that we give them morsels that they can digest and regurgitate, but it’s really in the laboratory where it’s open-ended. And so we try to tell them that critical thinking is very, very important because when they go from job to job they’re going to have to figure out what is the job, how do I go about it and so on.
Q: How does the University of Miami engineering school differ from others across the country?
A: We’re focused really on career success. The other key thing – and probably it can be reflected in the structure that we have here in engineering – like, for example, if you go to a lot of colleges of engineering or schools of engineering, there’s usually an associate dean for academics and an associate dean for research, and then the academic associate dean is usually in charge of undergraduates and the research one is in charge of graduates. So what you really have in our schools is this notion of graduate research and undergraduate teaching, whereas the way we’ve done it is my academics associate dean goes all the way from undergraduate to graduate. Okay, so it’s vertically integrated and similarly the research is undergraduate and graduate, again integrated along the research lines. That’s why we’re involving our undergraduates in the research open-ended critical thinking activities that goes on in the laboratory.
Q: What kind of academic standards do you hold your students up to?
A: We obviously would like them to really understand the knowledge base, but also to get the proper skills that they can then use to replenish their knowledge base and, of course, as I mentioned, critical thinking skills to be able to deal with new situations, new problems, unstructured activities.
Q: Where do they come from? Across the United States? Across the world?
A: That’s one of the very big pluses of the college of engineering here. We have great diversity. We only have about 1,000 undergraduates, but they come from most countries of the world and every continent except Antarctica. What is good is that we’re about 35% Hispanic, 10% African-American and, more importantly, we’re 28% women. Your typical college of engineering across the nation averages about 14% women. It makes a very big difference in terms of their involvement in things… the groups, the committees, the organizations. They’re engaged, it’s really great to see them.
Q: Where have you sent these students on to? What corporations are interested in UM students?
A: We actually did an analysis. Typically, everybody thinks colleges of engineering produce students that go into manufacturing.
That used to be the case, especially after World War II, but more than likely at this point colleges of engineering graduates are going into services. As you may know, 82% of the US population is working in services, less than10% are in manufacturing. There is nothing wrong with that because engi- neers are very much about design. That’s what we do. That’s our middle name.
We design things, but we can design things to produce products like this physical product, but we also design things that produce services, like the cell phone that she’s using. It’s primarily a service that’s out there. I’m into services, too, so engineering is about design, but we design processes as well as products..
Q: What does it take to major in engineering at UM?
A: It’s an interesting thing. The school counselors have said it well: you must be good in physics and math. The more important thing is that the student must have an interest and ability to want to know how things work and why things work, because I need them to be motivated to then start learning it properly. Otherwise, it’s just learning for the sake of natural facts.
So we find that the students who are really interested in why things work and how things work do better in terms of their studies.
Q: Are you working on new technology here and research products?
A: Yes. The technobiology side is actually our largest program now in terms of funded research. The other area is sustainable systems: the environment, energy systems and so on.
The third area is really what all engi- neers do, which is really informatics and risk, and we like to emphasize risk. If, for example, the banks had emphasized risk and if BP had emphasized risk, we wouldn’t have been in this trouble at this point. So we’ve forgotten about risk and what we’re trying to do is make sure when we do our analysis that we’re focused on minimizing risk and not just doing the analysis for the sake of analysis.
Q: What have been your most significant accomplishments?
A: The most significant accomplishment from my point of view is we’ve impacted the culture here. As I mentioned, I came here where there is more an undergraduate culture, maybe master’s kinds of activities, but our whole additional focus now is on research at the PhD level, so this is value added knowledge rather than just an application of knowledge, which is fine, but we are also into value added knowledge.
Q: How about funding? With the budget the way it is in DC and the lack of funds, how are you doing with money for research?
A: You know – maybe knock on wood somewhere – we’ve done very well. For example, we started at $3 million in funding when I first came and we’re now at $5.5 million. Of course, if the federal budget goes off the cliff at the end of this year I don’t know how it’s going to work out.
But we are trying to balance a lot of our activities with also getting industry involved. The danger with industry is they’re much more into development rather than research. We have to balance that too.
Q: So what kinds of industries would you tap to help?
A: For example, we’ve already tapped one company, Fortinet. They’re a cyber security firm and, believe it or not, cyber security is really the number-one issue now in all of this informatics area. We’re putting things up in the clouds. These technology intensive firms are the kinds of companies that we want to partner with.
Q: What kind of support does the school give you?
A: I came here with the mandate of helping the university get to that AAU position or AAU quality position, and if I say, ‘look, we’re doing this for the sake of that,’ you know, trying to drive us toward AAU, I’ve had no problem whatsoever. In fact, they’ve been very supportive.
As you may know, the University of Miami has gone [from] – the year I came here – 54 or 53, but now we’re 38, and the President has said that engineering has really helped in getting the ranking.
Q: What is your vision for the future of the engineering program here?
A: My vision is more of the same, focus, focus, focus and collaborate. We’re too small not to collaborate, and that’s why I think our bio-medical has grown, because we have close collaboration with the medical school and now we’re starting to collaborate also with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Q: How did you climb the academic ladder to dean?
A: You’re asking about the administrative ladder. Actually, I really never wanted to be an administrator. It’s not a joke. I mean, I’ve been trying to escape it because my personal feeling is I want to get professionally recognized before I go into administration because once you get into administration it’s very heavy duty. For example, you’ve got to focus on administration, and a lot of it has got nothing to do with anything technical. Obviously, it’s things to do with people and working with people and so forth.
So for example, at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I was asked to take on the department chairmanship. Chairmanship is not a problem. In fact, my whole time there, I’d say two-thirds of my life there – and I was there 30 years – I was a chairman.
But then they started asking me to become acting dean. It’s only after I’ve contributed the most that I could to the profession that I decided then to say, okay, now I need to contribute to the whole administration side too. So I got more involved, and obviously been here as dean.
Q: What gives you the most joy in this job?
A: My most joy in this job is literally, the students. It’s the students, they challenge me intellectually. The students, whenever I’m kind of feeling overwhelmed with my administrative duties, I go out there and meet with the students. They give me a charge.
It then puts everything in perspective that says, okay, here’s why you’re doing this. Here’s why and they’re great. I mean the students literally support me in both mind and body, and that’s how we get recharged and continue doing our thing.
Q: So you got degrees at MIT?
A: Master’s and Ph.D.
Q: How was that experience there?
A: It was great. MIT is the right place if you’re in the graduate program. I would suggest this place more than MIT for undergraduates.
Q: What did you do after MIT?
A: I worked in industry. I didn’t want to teach right away because all the teachers I liked or respected had industry experience, so I worked at Bell Laboratories. I worked at the RAND Corp., the think tank out in California.
Q: Does this keep you occupied all the time or are you involved in civic organizations in Miami-Dade County?
A: I’m not as involved in civic organizations. I guess when I’m not busy, I’m very involved in my professional society, and the reason for that is I do feel like I should contribute back to my profession. It gave me what I have.
Q: What’s the name of your society?
A: The society is called IEEE, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, so I’ve been very involved with them and I’ve had leadership positions in basically education and publications. So those are my two great interests.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I didn’t finish the other one. The other professional organization is, I got elected into the National Academy of Engineering. So I’m devoting much time to that too now, but anyway it’s really a professional organization.
But I love -whenever I can get a chance – to travel. I just love it. I’m really into culture and understanding how people do things and react differently to different situations.
Q: Do you have any hobbies?
A: Aside from traveling, I go fishing if I have time, or swimming.
Q: What countries have you visited?
A: Quite a few countries in South America. We’ve visited China pretty much every year – I end up going there for some conferences. And Australia. I haven’t really gone that much into the Middle East, although Europe we’ve visited quite a bit. Again, I usually end up going to conferences and then extending it and traveling at that point.
The University of Miami College Of Engineering is pleased to announce the establishment of a professionally staffed, state-of-the-art Prototyping Facility, available for use both within UM and with outside customers.
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With its certified professionals and experienced machinists, the Prototyping Facility is ready to:
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Let the College of Engineering’s Prototyping Facility be your one stop for the realization of your prototype. For further information, please contact Mr. Paul Conover or 305-284-4115.