An interview with engineering dean Arthur Ramirez

Arthur P. Ramirez

Arthur Ramirez, dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering, came to UCSC from Bell Labs, a legendary center for science and engineering. He brings a true passion for using fundamental and applied research to solve real-world problems. In the interview that follows, he discusses the importance of developing deeper partnerships in Silicon Valley, and he describes the qualities that make the Baskin School of Engineering uniquely positioned to contribute to the rapidly changing technologies of the 21st century.

What are the most interesting or surprising things you have learned about the Baskin School of Engineering since your arrival?

There are pockets of excellence that I didn't even know about before I came here. Because the Baskin School of Engineering is a young school, only 11 years old, and is still relatively small, it does not have high national visibility. So after being here for a few months, one of the things I've found surprising and gratifying is that there are so many really bright faculty who are tackling some of the most important problems that are facing our society. And that's what I find exciting.

I've also been impressed by the collaborative nature of our faculty. There's a very good esprit de corps, and people are willing to work together across disciplines, not only within engineering, but also with people in the arts and humanities divisions, in physical and biological sciences, and in the social sciences. So we can build the presence of engineering on this campus as more than just a stand-alone unit, but as a unit that's growing and working well with the other divisions.

What do you see as the school's greatest strengths?

One of its greatest strengths, and one of the reasons for its creation, is its proximity to Silicon Valley. The ability to have face-to-face meetings and develop personal relationships with technology leaders in the Valley makes it easier for us to understand what their real needs are. And this is important for two reasons: We want our research programs to focus on problems that are important to industry, and we want to prepare our students in ways that match the needs of the companies where they will be working.

A second strength is one of the flip sides of our relative youth. In a time of rapidly changing technology, there is an advantage in being young and growing, because it gives us the ability to create new programs as we grow that will position us in the most important areas of technology for the coming decades.

What are some of those key areas of future technological development?

Two big issues that are likely to remain dominant for the foreseeable future are health care and energy. There is tremendous potential for bioinformatics and biotechnology to drive innovation in health care, and that's an important focus of both research and education in the Baskin School of Engineering.

Energy has become incredibly important for both economic and environmental reasons. There is a lot of opportunity for improving how we manage energy. We know that renewable energy sources will be disparate--there won't be one big renewable energy plant down the road. This creates a tremendously complex energy management problem, and the tools to effectively shuttle energy around from where it's created to where it's needed have not yet been created. That's an important area that is well suited to the set of departments we have in the engineering school.

What steps are you taking to position the Baskin School of Engineering to make major contributions to the technologies of the future?

One of the most important things we can do is to understand the needs of industry and try to design curricula and research activities to match those needs. That's a very social endeavor. You have to talk to people, spend time with them, and develop long-term relationships. Silicon Valley is arguably the cradle of technological innovation and manufacturing in the U.S. now, so we're in a good position to understand what engineering can do for product innovation and manufacturing. We are also close by three major government institutions--NASA Ames Research Center, the Naval Postgraduate School, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory--and they also have needs for engineering research and education.

So I've been meeting with a lot of people--CEOs, heads of research, and individual investigators--to build those relationships and to ascertain what this area, the greater Silicon Valley area, needs from a publicly supported engineering school.

How are the UC budget cuts affecting your ability move the school in the direction you'd like to go?

We have certainly had to scale back our plans for the growth of the engineering school. Our departments won't be growing at the rate that had been planned in terms of hiring new faculty.

In terms of research funding, however, we have actually increased the amount of external funding for faculty research. A lot of our faculty are young, and they are increasing the amount of research funding they bring in each year, so that has given us a bit of a grace period in these very difficult budget times.

On the other hand, the cuts are going to have an impact on our ability to deliver the curriculum to our students. That's why we're hoping it's only a short time before this budget crisis is resolved. We are doing all we can to continue to meet the educational needs of our students and to minimize the impact of these cuts. We have students in the pipeline who need to take certain courses to graduate, and meeting the needs of those students is a top priority.

What under-appreciated facts about the Baskin School of Engineering would you like to be better known?

Of course, I would like to see broader appreciation of the many areas in which we are doing innovative research and education. But an important quality of the Baskin School of Engineering, and one of the things that has impressed me very much, is that it's a place where creativity is really fostered in a way that you don't find at other institutions. Santa Cruz has a history of being iconoclastic, and I think it benefits from being in a very attractive location that is off the beaten path a bit. We have access to Silicon Valley, but we come back to campus and we can really think about how to change things in a big way. And that's what we've done in bioinformatics, in game design, in electrical engineering and computer engineering, in applied math and statistics, and in technology management.

In all of these fields, we have excellent programs that are pushing the boundaries of engineering. That's the real hidden secret of Santa Cruz that I hope becomes not so hidden.