Solving Real-Life Problems

BY NANCY WISE

ILLUSTRATION BY MARK WEAVER

 

Don’t look to politicians, governments, nonprofits or even rock stars to solve societal problems—look to engineers. That directive comes from Philippe Fauchet, who became dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering on July 1. Fauchet says human needs can be grouped into four core basics—medicine and health; energy and natural resources; security; and entertainment—and engineering is part of each. “We want to stay healthy, or if we are sick, we want to be cured. We want to be secure at all levels. We want to have access to electricity, clean water and everything else, and in our spare time, we want to be entertained,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot outside this.”

Photo by Daniel Dubois

Fauchet, 57, came to Vanderbilt from the University of Rochester, where he had been chair of the electrical and computer engineering department and earned a reputation for combining diverse groups and interests into successful research centers. As its new dean, Fauchet wants Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering to expand its reach, reputation and impact by tackling important issues that matter to humanity.

“We have to work on hard problems that make a difference. There are hard problems that nobody cares about. I don’t want to spend resources there,” he says. “If you want to say, ‘Vanderbilt helped solve this problem,’  then we have to work on things people care about.”

Four Core Strengths

Fauchet intends for the school to build on its existing expertise, research and collaborations to develop answers to societal problems in the four core areas.

He pinpoints specific security concerns, including safety of electronic records, nuclear issues, and bridge and road infrastructure. “As we know, electronic data can be attacked and manipulated,” he says. “People want to have safety and security there, and we need to develop systems that can sustain and resist attacks.”

People also are concerned about nuclear waste. The School of Engineering contains two of the world’s leading research groups in those areas, and Fauchet foresees leveraging their expertise as problem solvers.

Fauchet says the school probably will focus most on the intersection of engineering and medicine and health. “Health means ‘let’s try to keep you healthy in the first place.’ Can we use technologies, devices, systems to keep you healthy, to diagnose things early? Medicine is ‘let’s help the doctor be as efficient as he or she can be in treating you,’” Fauchet says.

Vanderbilt engineers are innovators in health and medicine research, and valuable collaborations with Vanderbilt University Medical Center are ongoing, he notes. “We are very fortunate because we can leverage the very strong, top-10 School of Medicine that we have here, with fantastic faculty members both on the research side and practitioner side. We want to build on that.”

“There are hard problems that nobody cares about. I don’t want to spend resources there.”

In continuing to outline his vision, Fauchet says the School of Engineering’s location in Nashville makes a focus on entertainment logical. To see the impact of technology on entertainment, one need only look at how the music industry moved from analog to digital and from the need for big, sophisticated recording studios to small, high-quality home studios.

“Here’s an example of where technical innovations profoundly impacted an industry,” he says. “Clearly, connections are to be made relating engineering to music. Now what can we do for that industry?”

He also sees opportunity for computer science graduates in entertainment, educational filmmaking and gaming. “Hollywood has been hiring busloads of computer scientists at all sorts of different levels for very well-paying, exciting jobs,” he says. Developing an entertainment core would appeal to undergraduate students in multiple engineering disciplines.

The final core need is finding engineering and scientific solutions to environmental and energy problems. “In natural resources, one of the needs is to keep our water clean and make sure it remains abundant where people live,” he says. “Another issue is the huge gap that exists between the power production available today and what we’ll need by 2050. We have no idea where that is going to come from.”

Initiator and Problem Solver

Some of Fauchet’s own research could help make solar energy more affordable. For half his career, his work has focused almost exclusively on nanoscience and nanotechnologies with silicon, the second most abundant element on Earth and key to computer microprocessors. While much research for decades centered on perfecting the use of silicon in the computing industry, Fauchet and the students who worked with him focused on other possibilities, including development of silicon for use in better solar cells.

Fauchet’s research interests have changed during his 30-year career—part of the beauty of being an academic, he says. He moved into nanoscience research after initially studying the use of laser beams to modify materials and then using laser beams to characterize materials and measure properties. His education includes a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University and a master’s degree in engineering from Brown University; he came to the United States after earning an undergraduate engineering degree in his home country of Belgium.

In addition to teaching, research, mentoring more than 40 doctoral students, and serving as an administrator, Fauchet also has established and led several multidisciplinary research centers. While on the faculty at Princeton University, he was one of the originators of the university’s Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials. At Rochester he launched the multidisciplinary Center for Future Health, established the Femtosecond Laser Facility, and directed the Energy Research Initiative, which united and expanded university-wide research and educational efforts related to energy.

Fauchet still has ties to Rochester both professionally and personally. Because his position as dean leaves him no time for teaching and less for research, his research lab will not move to Nashville until next year. Two of his daughters remain in Rochester to finish their senior years in high school and college. Fauchet and his wife, Melanie, have 13 adopted and biological children ranging in age from the oldest at 23 to the youngest at nearly 3, including a 13-year-old adopted from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The youngest now reside south of Nashville with their parents, while four are away at college—where all but one are studying engineering.

Real-World Needs

The new engineering dean says that in order for Vanderbilt to make an impact, the university’s culture of valuing and encouraging collaboration will be critical.

“Real-life problems are not bound to specific disciplines. Real-life problems care about finding the right team to solve them,” Fauchet says. The right team, he says, will pull together engineering faculty and students from different departments, physicians from the Medical Center, sociologists from the College of Arts and Science, members of industry—anyone needed to solve those problems.

That emphasis on teamwork will also allow the school to produce noteworthy results. “By developing stronger ties with other units within the campus and maybe with industry, we can actually do something that would be quite remarkable,” he says. “What we are trying to do is strengthen the already existing collaborations and make Engineering the go-to place.”