Get to Know Kyongbum Lee, New Dean of the Tufts School of Engineering

The teacher, administrator, and researcher looks to begin a new chapter for the school as he assumes the permanent deanship

Kyongbum Lee, an expert in the field of metabolic engineering, has been named the new dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University. The Karol Family Professor, Lee has been the school’s dean ad interim since last summer. His appointment builds on a distinguished career at the School of Engineering as a teacher, mentor, administrator, and respected researcher.

In a conversation with Tufts Now, Lee shared his aspirations for the school, why decision makers need the distinctive “solution perspective” of Tufts engineers, and how learning English led to a love of literature, one that continues today.

Tufts Now: What are some opportunities you would like to pursue at the school as dean?

Kyongbum Lee: Over the past couple of years, we've been responding to the pandemic, which meant that we had to hit pause on some of our ambitions. The pandemic also put a strain on some of the ties that make us such a close-knit community. So, one opportunity for us is reaffirming our sense of community by actively encouraging our students, staff, and faculty to hold events that bring people together. I also look forward to building community through new hires who add to our body of expertise and bring intellectual and cultural diversity, as we resume moving towards our strategic goals.

Would you like to expand on a specific direction that you’d like to see strengthened?

The School of Engineering has a two-fold mission of educating students and advancing knowledge for the benefit of society. It is important that we intentionally and actively engage with society—locally, nationally, and globally. As an engineering school that is firmly committed to active citizenship, we should strive to be known as a trusted source of knowledge and provider of innovative solutions for the most critical issues facing society.

For example, on climate, we can dispassionately acknowledge the challenges of an energy transition, holistically accounting for the environmental and human costs of various approaches—for example, mining for the raw materials of electricity storage systems has its consequences—and use our ingenuity to propose technologies that help us utilize resources in a more sustainable, just, and equitable way.

I’m thinking particularly of working with decision makers in industry—including our own alumni—the people who develop and implement strategies for producing goods and services that we use every day.

We want these decision makers to collaborate with us not only on developing new technologies, but also on educating the next generation of engineers who are their employees and our graduates. As a school, we have ambitions to have societal impact by engaging with the world and we should vigorously communicate this intention. I am looking forward to creating new opportunities to partner with industry decision makers on the complex challenges we face. 

When I was looking for my first academic job, I really wanted to be at a place that is equally committed to excellence in scholarship and teaching, because the potential for impact we can have as academics is so much greater when we combine training of people and creation of knowledge.”

Kyongbum Lee, Dean and Karol Family Professor

How would you describe Tufts engineers? What do they bring to the table?

Tufts students have a sincere desire to do good for the benefit of society. Our distinctive model of education, which encourages students to immerse themselves in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and civic engagement, alongside STEM, provides our students the opportunity to develop a more holistic sense of the world.

I think it is very helpful to place yourself in the world to recognize where you can contribute, and importantly, how to appreciate contributions from those who are different than yourself. Through their education here, our students can become experts in their subjects, and at the same time obtain a broadened perspective on what ought to be done to meet societal needs and how they can contribute.

You have considerable administrative experience, having been chair of the chemical and biological engineering department since 2012. But were there lessons learned as interim dean, that you will carry forward?

It’s true I had been department chair for a long time before I was interim dean, but one thing department chairs don't get to do a lot of is fundraising. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. I discovered how much I appreciate why people give. If we’re doing a good job, people will support the school.

I found out that many of our most ardent supporters were themselves beneficiaries of the university's generosity in their own past. A gift for financial aid, then, is their way to both say thank you, and at the same time, to transform the lives of the next generation of students.

That connection made me feel good about leadership of the school. It brightens your day to meet people who believe it’s the right thing to do to benefit complete strangers through their philanthropy. It also makes you feel good about working at a university.

Higher education, at its finest, does change people’s lives. It really helps people become themselves and to become change agents. And that’s why we’re here. We're supposed to be an engine of good. That’s our mission and we definitely can’t do that without our donors.

Is there something that you would like to share about yourself that many people might not know or expect?

I don’t think it is widely known that I started college thinking that I would major in both literature and chemical engineering. In high school, my favorite subjects were English and history. I actually took two AP English classes, which is ironic because when my family came to the United States, I was 14 and I didn't know any English, just German and Korean.

But when you don’t speak the language, you put extra effort into learning it by reading. I came to love writers like William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad—Conrad maybe because I was an immigrant and he was trilingual in Polish, French, and English. And I thought, “This is great—he’s a Polish author who is considered one of the greatest writers of English prose.”

In college, I switched to engineering because I felt the teachers were better; teachers make a huge difference in what you want to study and learn. But I still love to read. I’m a big sci-fi and fantasy fiction nerd. I like Steven Erikson, whose specialty is what’s called “world building.” He‘s an anthropologist and archeologist by training and you can imagine how that's helpful in terms of epic storytelling. To me, that's what's intriguing about sci-fi and fantasy.

The best authors can lead you to imagine a different world, while at the same time they’re telling stories about characters to whom we can relate through their struggles with issues like privilege and class, tolerance and intolerance. Those are some of these major themes and commentaries that Erikson takes up, but with characters like talking reptiles who reside in flying fortresses.

You’ve devoted your academic career—nearly 20 years—to the School of Engineering. What does it mean to you personally to serve as dean?

When I set out on my career as an engineering professor, taking on an administrative role, let alone at the level of dean, had not crossed my mind. The impression I have from the mentors I've met along the way is they all found joy in their work within their own field, thanks in large part to strong leadership and vision at their institutions. Then, as their careers progressed, they realized that they could step up and do their part in providing leadership and vision for their colleagues and students. This is the case for me as well.

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be able to be a dean at Tufts. I’ve been here for almost 20 years, and I feel extremely fortunate to work at a school whose values are well aligned with my own. When I was looking for my first academic job, I really wanted to be at a place that is equally committed to excellence in scholarship and teaching, because the potential for impact we can have as academics is so much greater when we combine training of people and creation of knowledge.

Importantly, how we go about training and discovery matters at Tufts. We want to do this collaboratively and inclusively. I am honored to be entrusted with the responsibility of stewarding this vision.

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