Jianmin Qu Named Dean of Engineering at Tufts

Because society’s problems are so complex, science today has to be interdisciplinary to have impact, he says
Jianmin Qu
“To be a successful engineer nowadays, you need to know more than your engineering discipline,” says Jianmin Qu. Photo: David Johnson
May 12, 2015

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Jianmin Qu, a skilled academic leader whose research in theoretical and applied mechanics has led to safer airplanes, among other advances, has been appointed dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University.

Qu, currently Walter P. Murphy Professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, was named to the deanship after an international search. He will start his new job on August 1, succeeding Linda Abriola, who is stepping down after 12 years to return to the faculty.

During nearly three decades in academia, Qu has built a reputation as an accomplished scientist and an exceptional teacher, mentor and engineering leader at Northwestern and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author of two textbooks, including Fundamentals of Micromechanics of Solids (Wiley, 2006), which is still used at universities around the world.

Qu says he is excited about “the opportunity to do something special and make a difference in engineering education at Tufts.” One of the reasons he chose Tufts, he says, is the strong relationship between the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences.

“I’ve always believed that engineers shouldn’t be just engineers. The liberal arts should be a prerequisite for everything,” he says.

“To be a successful engineer nowadays, you need to know more than your engineering discipline. Society and its problems are so complex that engineers have to go beyond the bounds of a classical engineering education,” Qu says. “If you want to make advances in engineering or science today, it has to be interdisciplinary to have impact, because society’s problems are interdisciplinary. Engineers have to know about politics, law, public policy, culture.”

“As a talented academic leader and scientist, Dr. Qu is well-positioned to lead the school at a time when the demand for accomplished, creative engineers will only continue to grow,” says Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco. “His deep understanding of the synergistic relationship between the disciplines in the sciences and the liberal arts also reflects what has long been a signature strength of this university.”

After receiving a B.S. in mathematics from Jilin University in China, Qu came to the United States for graduate study, earning M.S. and doctoral degrees in theoretical and applied mechanics from Northwestern. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania for two years before joining the mechanical engineering faculty at Georgia Tech in 1989. He was promoted to full professor in 2000 and also served as associate chair and interim chair of mechanical engineering before returning to his alma mater in 2009.

“Professor Qu’s strength as a researcher is only part of what makes him so well-suited to serve as dean,” says Provost David Harris. “During his five years as chair of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern, he led an effective strategic-planning initiative and was instrumental in recruiting and retaining talented faculty.” Harris noted that Qu is highly regarded by the faculty in his department and was reappointed to serve a second term as chair.

The Rewards of Academic Administration

“I get a lot of satisfaction from academic administration,” Qu says, “because it gives me the ability to help others, faculty and students. It has made my career more interesting and exciting.”

As department chair, he has grown the faculty more than 25 percent and increased student enrollment more than 30 percent. The department’s ranking in U.S. News & World Report rose from number 18 in 2009 to number 14 this year.

Teaching and mentoring have been important in his career. Qu says the relatively small size of Tufts School of Engineering “is an advantage for undergraduate education here. It really is personalized education,” he says, because the small student/faculty ratios give students more opportunities to work closely with faculty.

“I believe experiential learning in an intimate setting is the best way of educating young people,” Qu says. “Engineering education is not just about learning technology and techniques.” He is the recipient of a number of teaching awards, including the Ralph R. Teeter Education Award from the Society of Automatic Engineers and the Lilly Teaching Fellowship from the Lilly Endowment. He has guided the work of 30 Ph.D. and 27 M.S. students and 14 postdocs.

Teaching and Research: Natural Companions

Teaching and research, he says, are natural academic companions. “The best researchers are usually the best teachers—and vice-versa—because they are passionate about their subject matter.” Faculty who are doing seminal work in their fields “bring frontier problems into their classrooms,” he says, and students benefit from getting to think about and work on those advanced concepts.

The incoming dean’s own research focus, theoretical and applied mechanics, is based on a breakthrough that occurred more than 300 years ago—Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.

Qu’s findings have advanced our understanding of how dissimilar materials can be put together to create higher-performing ones, such as the fiber-reinforced composites used to build the deck on your house and the pipelines that transport natural gas hundreds of thousands of miles. His work in microelectronic packaging has contributed to the development of more reliable cell phones and computers.

He says he is especially proud of his research in what is known as ultrasonic nondestructive evaluation—a type of analysis used to detect flaws or damage in a structure, such as an airplane wing or an engine component. Much like an orthopedist uses ultrasound to evaluate a balky knee, Qu has advanced the nondestructive evaluation technology so the tiniest crack or flaw can be detected in an airplane fuselage or a nuclear reactor, for example. “To be able to detect damage much earlier is a paradigm change,” he says.

He also has conducted research in electro-chemo-mechanics, which examines the relationship between electrical, chemical and mechanical properties in materials and how one property can be changed by manipulating another. His findings have led to the development of more efficient energy conversion and storage devices, such as fuel cells and batteries.

Over the past decade, Qu has been the principal investigator on more than $16 million in research projects funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Office of Naval Research, among others. His publications have been cited more than 6,000 times.

He is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a past member of the board of directors and treasurer of the Society of Engineering Sciences. He serves on the editorial boards of Acta Mechanica, the International Journal of Computational Methods and the International Journal of Modern Mechanics. He will chair the 18th U.S. National Congress of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, which will take place in Chicago in 2018.

Qu inherits a school that has grown in size, stature and selectivity in recent years. For the undergraduate class that will begin their engineering education this fall, there were 3,677 applicants for 200 spots, with an acceptance rate of 15 percent. The school has 150 full- and part-time faculty teaching 800 undergraduate students and 600 graduate students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.

Karen Bailey can be reached at karen.bailey@tufts.edu.