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Engineering at MIT: Inside Academia

Engineering at MIT: Inside Academia main image

Subra Suresh held the position of Dean of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology between 2007 and 2010, after previously holding the role of Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science. He has since gone on to become the Director of the US National Science Foundation.

We caught up with him while he was tenured at MIT to find out his history, and see how this internationally acclaimed researcher in the nano and micro-scale mechanical properties of engineered materials managed to climb to the top of the academic ladder.

Originally from India and a graduate from one of the most competitive universities in the world, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, Prof. Suresh recalls his mother's advice on making his first steps in an academic career. "She did not go to college but insisted that I qualify for a place at IIT even though, at the time, she did not know much about it. It was something cultural that she believed - that studying science and engineering is seen as a ticket to success."

Prof. Suresh's journey to the top has undoubtedly been based on an exemplary academic career. Having graduated from IIT Chennai in 1977 with a BSc in engineering he received a master's degree from Iowa State University in 1979 before beginning his PhD program at MIT.

With remarkable focus and tenacity, Prof. Suresh was awarded his PhD in 1983 and then embarked on his research career, first as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley and then as a Professor of Engineering at Brown University in Rhode Island, US.

International engagement

An international recruit himself, Prof. Suresh reflects the approach of MIT to be as internationally engaged as possible. The School of Engineering in particular has, for many years, targeted the recruitment of talented international students through a number of channels, not least their generous provision of financial aid and scholarships and offers of teaching and research assistantships for PhD applicants. 

The impact is clear - MIT is one of the most internationally diverse universities in the US. In the current academic year, 2,883 of the 10,220 students enrolled at MIT are from countries outside of the US, with close to 2,500 students registered on master's or PhD programs, half of who come from Asia.

Similarly international in character, MIT hosts 1,654 scholars from 82 different countries contributing to the teaching and research mission of the institution.

Even with an increasing internationalization, the way in which engineering is taught, however, is in a state of flux all around the world. Prof. Suresh recognizes that, even for an institution as prestigious as MIT, such innovation needs to be reflected in both the structure and content of teaching and research programs to ensure that graduates remain relevant to the demands of the international labor market.

He believes that adapting content to reflect other academic areas is one of the most important issues facing engineering now and in the future: "There are areas within engineering that play a major role in interdisciplinary activities at MIT. The Schools of Engineering and Science have partnered with the MIT Energy Initiative and I don't think we can separate the environment from the energy discussion.

"We also have the BP Academy and BP Project Academy, which are joint activities between the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering and we want to expand such activities in the coming year through our professional educational program."

Responding to current needs

Responding to the needs of employers and students is also important to Prof. Suresh, ensuring that graduates, particular those from overseas, have the greatest possible impact in their careers: "A few months ago, we established a new program in the school called the Bernard Gordon Program for Educational Leadership - the purpose of the program is to provide our students an opportunity for much greater hands-on experience, for learning through teamwork and for leadership training.

"In an increasingly virtual, software-controlled world, the real hardcore, hands-on experience in engineering should not be overlooked and one of the purposes of this program is to create much greater opportunities for our students to experiment, explore and to learn by working with real systems and components."

And perhaps this is one of the most important steps those in engineering have taken in recent years - Prof. Suresh and his fellow engineers around the world certainly think so. With the world changing so rapidly and academic areas becoming more interlinked engineering education and careers are more closely related than ever before.

"This is going to be the century of technology, more so than the previous century. The engineers trained by institutions such as MIT will not only have many more career changes than their parents or grandparents did, but they are also likely to live and work abroad more frequently than the previous generations of engineers did.

"I believe that it is extremely important for MIT's School of Engineering to help train outstanding engineers and global citizens whose technological prowess and leadership skills helps solve complex global problems."

World of opportunity

Prof. Suresh is also confident of the position and importance of those seeking graduate education internationally: "Such engineers, scientists, technologists and innovators will hold the key to any country's competitive edge in an increasingly interconnected global economy. Major American corporations such as IBM, General Electric, Microsoft or Google have large research centres abroad in places like Bangalore and Shanghai.

"As an intellectual leader, knowledge creator and educational and research innovator, the School of Engineering at MIT is a key player in this global engineering enterprise. As greater numbers of engineers are produced in rapidly growing economies with large populations, role models such as MIT's School of Engineering are also very much sought after for advice and input, and for developing high standards that the international community can be proud of."

There is undoubtedly a world of opportunity facing those seeking either a master's or a PhD in engineering internationally. Prof. Suresh's example and success is one that can be used as a guide for many with the academic and personal difference to really make a difference in our globalized world.

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Written by QS Staff Writer

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