Enlisting new researchers for global challenges

Alice Gast became Lehigh’s 13th president on Aug. 1, 2006. An expert in surface and interfacial phenomena, Gast served previously as vice president for research at MIT and as professor of chemical engineering at Stanford and its Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. Gast is particularly interested in the behavior of complex fluids, colloidal aggregation and ordering, proteinlipid interactions and enzyme reactions at surfaces. She has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received Guggenheim and Humboldt fellowships.

Q: You often quote Lehigh founder Asa Packer and his mission for Lehigh – “to instill in students the values of a liberal education while preparing them for life in an increasingly technical world.” What does the combination of classical and scientific education mean for the modern university?

A: I believe strongly in this dual mission. Many universities are trying to define what higher education will be in the 21st century. Some of them are finding they need to come back to their core values. My sense is that Lehigh has never left its core values and has maintained its balance between classical and scientific education while evolving into new areas and pursuing new disciplines.

In the future, I think we will find that overspecialization will not be valued. People who can cross disciplinary boundaries, work well with others and solve problems in a variety of ways will be those who are most successful. People with a well-balanced education will have those tools. They will have learned how to define and to solve problems from a variety of perspectives because of the breadth of their education.

Q: Many researchers today are exploring the interaction of biological and engineering systems. Where do you think this new field is headed?

A: Biomedical engineering and bioengineering are exciting new forefronts that transcend disciplinary boundaries. Pathways in disease and cell-signal processing, for example, are two areas where analogies can be drawn to engineering systems.

Engineers should also be thinking about how their work can contribute to human health in a broader sense. I think we as a nation have turned our attention from infectious disease and really crippling diseases to chronic illnesses and the aging population. Yet the specter of pandemic flu recently turned our attention back to infectious disease. Clearly globally infectious disease is still a huge issue facing the world, and as the world shrinks and diseases travel more rapidly from one continent to another, I think there are a lot of opportunities for engineers, scientists and social scientists to work together.

Q: What other emerging areas of science and technology should engineering schools pursue?

A: There are grand challenges facing the world where researchers in engineering, the sciences and social sciences, working together, can have a huge impact. Issues like climate change, environment and energy clearly have a place in an engineering college. Lehigh can excel in these areas. In a small university with a collaborative environment, it’s relatively easy for researchers to cross boundaries and pursue new themes of research.

Q: Recent advances in nanotechnology, information technology and bioengineering have underscored ethical dilemmas regarding embryonic stem-cell research, security, privacy, end-of-life issues and more. How can engineering schools prepare students to deal with these issues?

A: I certainly think that engineering schools have an obligation to pursue their research with a view to its impact on society. I think faculty should bring real-life examples from their areas of scholarship into the classes they teach and into classes on ethical issues in science and engineering. Students are very concerned about the societal impacts of technology. I think the time is right to bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to develop realistic courses that will make students want to gain a deeper understanding of ethical issues.

Q: You have stated that the U.S. system of higher education is the envy of the world. Can you elaborate?

A: I’m a firm believer in our national system of higher education. One of the main reasons that the finest students in the world have flocked to American universities is the strong marriage between research and education in the U.S. In many other countries, research is assigned to institutes and is somewhat separate from the educational function. In the American system, professors do cutting-edge research and bring this experience into the classroom. That makes education much more meaningful for students.

Today, American higher education faces much more competition from abroad. Universities in other countries have done a good job emulating U.S. universities and copying what’s best about them.

Q: In the 1960s, science enjoyed great public support in the U.S. and Americans were almost universally excited about the goal of sending a man to the moon. What endeavor today could galvanize the nation and renew popular interest in science and technology?

A: Today’s challenges are global in scale and require international collaboration. There have been some notable successes. The virus responsible for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was identified, and a diagnostic test developed in a few months, by a collaborative effort involving 11 laboratories in nine countries. The ITER fusion reactor, which will be built in France, involves the European Union, the U.S. and five other nations. I don’t know if these examples will galvanize people, but I hope they motivate them. We need public support to work together on a global scale.

Q: What are your goals for research at Lehigh?

A: My goals for Lehigh stem from my experiences at MIT and Stanford. I’ve learned that research excellence comes from hiring the very best faculty and recruiting the very best students and giving them the environment it takes to excel. In the right environment, faculty and students will see new directions, find exciting opportunities, cross boundaries and catalyze groups. That’s how research excellence thrives. Fund-raising is at the heart of this goal. Lehigh has reflected its commitment to excellence in its current capital campaign by raising funds for endowed chairs and scholarships.

Q: You have earned an international reputation for your work in surface and interfacial phenomena and the behavior of complex fluids. What was your most memorable moment as a researcher?

A: Some of my best moments in research have been in finding analogies. I’m a chemical engineer. I work on complex fluids. Some people in chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering work on similar things. It’s exciting when I learn something from another field and can make an analogy to a problem I’m working on and use it in my research.

But I’m most proud of my students. I was one of those faculty members who believes that my products are really my students. Developing their potential and their ability to solve problems and pursue research has been, I think, the greatest joy of being a professor.