Finding, and supporting, "The right faculty"

David Williams left Lehigh on July 1 to become president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), the premier research institution in Alabama. In 31 years at Lehigh, Williams served as department chair and Harold Chambers Senior Professor of materials science and engineering and as the university’s vice provost for research. Williams is a past president of the International Federation of Microbeam Analysis Societies and a Fellow of TMS, ASM International and the Royal Microscopical Society. He is also author of Transmission Electron Microscopy and coeditor of Images of Materials.

Q: What inspired you to devote your career to materials science and engineering?

A: I had gone to Cambridge to read physics, and I barely scraped through my end-of-year exam. My tutor said to me, “Williams, if you want to graduate from this institution, pick another subject.” I ended up getting a first-class degree in materials science. Nobody offered me a job, so I stayed on to do research. I knocked on the door of one professor, but he said, “I don’t need any more Ph.D. students.” The next office belonged to a microscopist who welcomed me in. That’s how I became an electron microscopist. Life is a series of failures. That’s been a very important lesson for me.

Q: What is your most memorable achievement as a professor?

A: The 20-odd master’s and 20-odd Ph.D. students who taught me just about everything I know. One of my Ph.D. students, for example, earned straight A’s, published six papers, and worked at Los Alamos National Lab and the Max Planck Institute. She is now at the University of Newcastle in Australia. The chance to work with people like that is the most remarkable part of my career.

Q: What do you consider your most impressive discoveries?

A: Joe Goldstein [former vice president for research at Lehigh] and I were able to examine the microstructure of meteorites and gain insight into the cooling rate of the solar system. This was fascinating, but absolutely irrelevant to anything commercial. And recently, my group has been able to understand how slight changes in electron distributions between adjacent atoms can control catastrophic events such as brittle failure of metals.

Q: How can universities encourage research?

A: When I arrived at Lehigh as a young assistant professor in 1976, Joe Goldstein wrote me into his ongoing grant with NASA, even though I had no knowledge whatsoever of meteorites. Joe also asked me to advise one of his graduate students on transmission electron microscopy. So collaboration was the message that I received very clearly. One plus one makes a lot more than two.

Q: How should universities choose areas of research focus?

A: It’s very simple. Invest in the next generation of smart young people. Hire the right faculty and get out of their way. To those who succeed, you say, “Which area do you want to go into next? How can we support you?” You build on what you already have. Research thrusts should evolve, not be imposed from the top down.

Q: How can we encourage more American undergraduate students to pursue graduate study in science and engineering?

A: We have singularly failed to excite our own graduates about the long-term future of science and engineering. Read the names of new Ph.D.s – they’re Chinese, they’re Indian, they’re international.

My son just graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a double major in civil engineering and public policy. He went to work for in Baltimore. He certainly had the GPA to pursue a higher degree. But what would we have said to attract him? “Instead of going off to earn a solid salary and a nice bonus, why not stay here? We’ll work your tail off, you can live in poverty, and if you’re really good, you’ll get a Ph.D. in five, six years.” Which offer would you take?

If we want to persuade our best and brightest to go into engineering and science, we have to be competitive.The top graduate research fellowships now pay about $32,000 a year. That beats $20,000 to $25,000, which is more typical. But it’s still only 40 to 50 percent of what a good graduating engineer or scientist can make. At the same time, we should make it easier for international graduates to remain here and teach and do research. Someone wrote recently that there should be an immigration officer waiting at commencement exercises, stamping the visa of every new international Ph.D. and saying, “Welcome! You’re now on track for a green card.”

Q: How can the U.S. motivate more of its young citizens to consider science and engineering careers?

A: NSF has required K-12 outreach in all of its major research centers, and that’s good. Lehigh does outreach through the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, STEM, S.T.A.R. (Students That Are Ready) and many other programs. But no matter how exciting nanotechnology or DNA sequencing is, students won’t be successful if they don’t come to school well-fed and go home to a stable environment where their curiosity is encouraged. It all starts well before university.

Q: How should schools prepare students to deal with ethical issues?

A: It’s difficult to answer ethical questions without knowing what the issues are. Are ethics universal? I tend to be a gray-scale man because I’m an imaging technologist and all our images are viewed in gray. I think it’s necessary to teach knowledge, in hopes that some sense of wisdom comes out at the end, before you ask the difficult questions.

Q: What advice would you give to students considering academic careers?

A: Do good research and teach it well in the classroom. Lehigh has consistently expected faculty to be good teachers and good researchers. It’s a message I’ve conveyed at the UAH. The successful faculty I have seen are fine scholars who teach well in the classroom.

Q: Is it possible to get the American public as excited about a scientific endeavor as it was in the 1960s during the race to reach the moon?

A: Of course. The human race has not changed; all that has changed is the circumstances under which we operate. It is possible to excite people about things that are important. We are a visual species; we need to translate science and engineering into a visual mode. We can see atoms. We can see galaxies at the dawn of time. We have got to tailor that knowledge, put it on the iPod and show it on the classroom wall.

Q: Are you optimistic?

A: Yes. The students we’re bringing into Lehigh now are smarter than they were 20 years ago, but they are very different in their interests. Our job as professors is to build on their strengths and not expect them to be the way we were.