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Q&A: Wendi Heinzelman


Interview by Jennifer Roach

Wendi Heinzelman, professor of electrical and computer engineering and former dean of graduate studies for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, has been a proven administrator, a researcher of international distinction, and an award-winning teacher since joining the University faculty in 2001.Heinzelman became the first female dean of the Hajim School of Engineering & Applied Sciences on July 1.

What do you think are the Hajim School’s strengths?

The outstanding students, faculty, and staff. What makes a school is the people who are part of the school. We have world-class faculty, amazing students, and excellent staff here, and I think that’s a huge strength of the school. Another strength is that it’s a very collaborative, interdisciplinary environment. People really enjoy working across traditional boundaries. There are a lot of schools that promote collaboration and interdisciplinary research, but I think we do it particularly well here. We focus on interdisciplinary and collaborative research not just within the  engineering school but crossing boundaries not only to Arts & Sciences but also to the Medical Center, the School of Nursing, and the Eastman School of Music with our audio and music engineering program. We have many research and academic programs that are unique in the ability to combine the strengths of multiple disciplines.

Can you talk a bit about your vision for the school?

We want to build on these strengths by trying to find new research opportunities and educational opportunities that cross disciplinary boundaries. Certainly, data science is a key area that we’re going to continue to build on. We have a very strong undergraduate program and a master’s program in data science, as well as an NSF grant that will train PhD students in data science, and I think that’s a good model that we’ll want to think about trying to replicate in other areas. In general, we’re looking at developing new disciplinary and cross-disciplinary initiatives—at the educational level with potentially new programs, as well as at the research level, potentially creating new centers, and looking for funding opportunities for research as well as undergraduate students and master’s and PhD students.

I’d like to see more involvement of our students in three key experiences outside of courses. One is a research experience with a faculty member—an independent study, something where you’re using different skills than you use in a classroom, where you’re trying to generate new knowledge as opposed to learning something already known. The second is an internship. For engineers I think it’s critical that students obtain an experience in industry to understand what it’s like to be an engineer in industry and what a career in that area is like, to help them design their career. The third thing is a global experience. This could be anything from a semester of study abroad to a brief experience over winter break or spring break or a summer program—something that shows students the breadth of cultures and experiences outside of the United States, because in this day and age, it’s critical for engineers to have a global view.

What will be some of your first priorities?

My first priority is to meet with students, faculty, and staff to understand what their views are about what needs to be done and understand better where we’re at. I want to obtain as broad a view as possible  that incorporates all the different Hajim constituents in order to get a better understanding of the full breadth of strengths and opportunities that we have as a school and challenges that we need to address.

What do you see as the school’s most pressing challenge?

One challenge I see is that engineering needs a marketing makeover. People don’t realize what defines an engineer and what an engineer does. To me, engineering is about solving problems. There are lots of different problems out there. From health care—using technology to enable people to live healthier lives—to energy and the environment—creating new alternative energy solutions or designing more efficient systems—to entertainment—providing novel social media and music/video technologies. Every one of society’s biggest challenges requires engineering solutions. If you ask a sixth-grader what they want to be when they grow up, very few are going to say they want to be an engineer. But a lot of them will say that they want to help people or do something to make the world better, or easier, or more fun. And that’s basically engineering—it’s involved in all of that. So I think one of the challenges is to broaden the message of what engineering is, what engineers do, and why it’s such a fascinating field to study. We need to diversify the student body and the faculty. We need to attract more women and more underrepresented minority students to the engineering discipline to have the diversity of views that is critical to solving some of these important problems.

So, Wendi …

What’s the best book you’ve recently read? Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Where is your favorite place to travel? Africa

Favorite food? Italian

On a weekend we’d find you … Sailing with my husband and two kids on Canandaigua Lake