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Since becoming dean of engineering in July 2005, Christophe Pierre has prioritized ramping up the faculty's research activities. Here, he discusses how to accomplish this goal.
How does one go about increasing research activities in the faculty, especially given limited resources?
There are never enough resources, clearly, but with those we have, we can always do better. For instance, we are working on creating research incentive programs. One idea involves returning a larger portion of overhead money to the faculty members who supervise doctoral students and are principal investigators on research grants and contracts, so they can then use it to help manage and grow their research programs. We also want to develop our research infrastructure, which includes establishing an office to provide support for professors dealing with various funding agencies and industry. For instance, it could identify clusters of opportunities and help with writing proposals. A vibrant research enterprise also requires support for professionals such as research scientists, who help run research activities, and other personnel - so we're really looking at the human infrastructure rather than bricks and labs.
That said, most of our buildings, by and large, are quite old, so we must also focus on improving physical facilities that house teaching and research labs, as they play a major role in our recruitment and retention efforts.
Speaking of recruitment, the faculty currently has about 900 graduate students, including about 340 doctoral candidates. You have plans to increase that number.
Yes, we want to increase our doctoral student population by about 40 percent. The doctoral student is the engine of the research enterprise - they're the ones working in labs on a day-to-day basis, supervised by faculty members. When you consider the successful research universities across the world, what makes the difference is that they have the best graduate students.
So, this January we introduced a new recruitment program that involves three-year fellowships with roughly half the funding coming from the Faculty of Engineering and half from professors' research budgets. We are being proactive, putting forth financial packages on par with those awarded by other top schools internationally, and our professors have bought into the process, so clearly there is a thirst for this kind of arrangement. And in April we hosted our first graduate student recruitment weekend, with students coming from as far as Korea to visit McGill. We are already seeing the effect, as we have had 29 fellowship offers accepted so far, and are attracting the very best graduate students, including many with NSERC or FQRNT fellowships.
What other concerns need to be addressed to keep research on the cutting edge?
We have the classical engineering departments - Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Computer, Chemical, Mining and Materials, in addition to the Schools of Architecture and Urban Planning - but today's engineering world is much more interdisciplinary. We're making major inroads into fields like bioengineering, advanced materials and nanotechnology, and environmental engineering, all of which cut across departments. So how do we set up structures that are conducive to interdisciplinary research and education? Clearly, the departmental structures are important, but we also need to transcend them with another layer of programs that bridge departments and foster interdisciplinary activity. For example, we have a number of bioengineering researchers in departments across the faculty, so we should bring them together by creating a home for bioengineering research.
Any other notable plans for the coming year?
We are transferring the Student Affairs Office to create a one-stop Engineering Student Centre on the ground floor of the Frank Dawson Adams Building, a major passageway, where we can integrate student advising and career counselling for undergraduate and graduate students, provide a computing facility, and also open a women in engineering office. We are planning a January 2007 opening of this comprehensive student centre.
You sound busy - how have you found your first year?
It has been great. This is a demanding job and there is always too much to do, but that is also part of my personality. I certainly feel that working together with the chairs and directors, we have the momentum to meet our research and education initiatives.
My first job was at Avions Marcel Dassault, just outside of Paris, where I worked on the Rafale jetfighter airframe structure for a few months as an intern, and then stayed a few more months after finishing my undergraduate degree. It was a very interesting experience and lasted about six months in total, after which I went to Princeton University to do graduate work. And then I stayed in the university system as a professor, which you are supposed to enjoy - it's not work at all.