Q&A: The Word of the Day is Opportunity

Jennifer West headshot

Before coming to UVA, West was associate dean for Ph.D. education and a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. (Photo by Chris Tyree)

On July 1, Jennifer L. West took the helm as the 14th dean of the University of Virginia School of Engineering, with a vision for building on the school’s success and creating new opportunities. She arrived in Charlottesville from Durham, North Carolina, where she had been associate dean for Ph.D. education and a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

She joins the UVA faculty at a pivotal moment, as preparations are underway to welcome students back to UVA’s Grounds for the fall semester. The University begins the 2021-22 academic year eager to focus on the “Great and Good” strategic plan, with a vision for transforming UVA into the leading public university in the country – and among the best universities in the world – by 2030.

West’s appointment supports several of the strategic plan’s goals: recruiting excellent and diverse faculty; achieving preeminence in key research areas in which the University can make a significant contribution toward solving global challenges; and leading in academic discovery and entrepreneurship. She is the first female dean of UVA Engineering, and committed to providing opportunities for students and faculty from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Her research accomplishments, capped by a major new cancer treatment, led to her election to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors. And one of her priorities as dean is increasing entrepreneurial opportunities for students and faculty.

We talked with West about the formative experiences in her background that led her to engineering and to the dean position at UVA.

Q. How did you first become interested in engineering?

A. Both of my parents were public school teachers, and not in science or engineering. All of my aunts and uncles, too – we were a very public education-focused family. I didn’t know anyone who was an engineer, and I didn’t know what engineering was. So as a child, engineering was not one of my goals. But I loved science and math, and I loved building things with Legos and all those activities that drive children to have the skillsets to be engineers. Still, I really didn’t know that it was a career path.

The internet didn’t exist at that point, so I didn’t have the easy tools to go and learn about different career paths that kids today would have. At the end of high school, I thought I would probably be a veterinarian because I loved animals. I had been accepted into a program at Cornell where you can do an integrated bachelor’s-to-Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. I was on college visits to make my final decision about where I was going, and I ended up stranded in Boston due to weather. I had been accepted to MIT, but I didn’t really think I was interested because I was on the path to be a veterinarian. While I was in Boston, I went ahead and visited MIT and absolutely fell in love with it, right off the bat.

The tour took us through research labs, and some of the grad students invited me to come back after the tour and learn more about what was happening. That was the first time I’d ever seen research, and engineering as a discipline. Once the weather cleared, I never went to visit Cornell. I totally pivoted the direction my life was taking.

And then, I was really fortunate to be able to do undergraduate research in [MIT professor and world-renowned biotechnology researcher Robert Langer’s] lab. And that really set the direction my life was taking. I completely fell in love with the research and ended up spending many more hours in the lab working on things than I was officially supposed to do. Essentially within the first week of working in the lab, I had decided this was the direction that I needed to go, that I was going to do research in biomedical devices and biomaterials, and I was going to pursue a career in academia.

And now I have a true appreciation for how important it is for us, as engineers in higher education, to recruit students from non-traditional pathways.

Q. Who were your biggest influences and why?

A. My high school chemistry teacher at Claremont High School in Southern California, Donald Bourque, was a huge influence in convincing me that I could pursue STEM, and that I was capable. He really instilled a love for science in me. He supported activities outside of class, participating in science fairs at the school, county and state levels. He was there every day after school. I spent tons of time after school there in the labs, working on projects outside of the regular classroom assignments, and he spent lots of time talking to me. So it was really a very powerful influence. He just turned 85. We’re still Facebook friends.

Later, when I was in Bob Langer’s lab, I worked with a postdoctoral fellow named Tony D’Emanuele. I started working with him when I was a first-semester sophomore and extremely clueless. I really knew nothing and had no real skills to offer in the lab. At MIT, at that time, when people had research positions available for undergrads, they would post little 3-by-5 notes on this bulletin board in the corridor. I’d read about Tony’s project on this note card and had been really excited about it. I set up a time to go and talk to him.

I think after the first time I talked to him, he probably thought, ‘She’s too young, she doesn’t know anything.’ But he gave me a stack of papers to read, and I went back and I read them all, I was so excited about it. Then I called him and asked if I could meet with him again and go over some of the questions I had on the papers he’d given me. I went in with notes in all the margins. Then I think he started taking me seriously, and he offered me a position to come work in the lab with him. That was on a project looking at ways to modulate drug delivery, where you could implant a polymer in a patient and use ultrasound applied from outside the body to change the rate of drug release out of the implant. For example, if you were doing insulin delivery for a diabetic patient, you could have insulin delivery increase and decrease with changes in blood sugar by how you apply the ultrasound.

This was really exciting because it brought in all of the chemistry that I loved in terms of the polymers, but also showed me that you could impact real people with your research – change the lives of patients through the innovations you make in the laboratory. Tony definitely treated me like a full, intellectual partner in the work, not just someone who was there to wash dishes. And that allowed me to see how research worked and fall in love with it. As an undergraduate, I was able to publish several papers, and I was able to give an oral presentation on the research at an international meeting in England.

Q. What got you interested in pursuing biomedical engineering?

A. Growing up there was always a mantra that whatever you do, you want to make the world a better place. I was very motivated by doing things to help other people. I was a Gold Award winner in Girl Scouts and did lots of different volunteer work through my time in Scouts and through my church activities. Volunteering was a really important part of my life. And in pursuing engineering, I felt like I was helping make the world a better place. Biomedical engineering was a very natural fit for that.

Q. You’ve had many professional accomplishments, but what do you think is your most important accomplishment, and why?

A. One of the research projects in my lab at Rice University focused on development of a new set of nanoparticles for cancer therapy. [Read about the research that led to a targeted treatment to destroy tumors without chemotherapy, invasive surgery or radiation.] The discovery went all the way from the very initial conception through now being in human clinical trials and moving toward becoming a commercial product. It’s exciting to see the entire spectrum of the development of an idea, but the most important thing is making a difference in an area where the needs are just so tremendous. When you look at the cancer patients who really don’t have treatment options, there are things that we will be able to do to help them and their families.

After the first paper on our animal studies was published, we got a lot of media coverage, and I received literally thousands of emails and phone calls from families of patients. We had to actually set up special phone lines to handle all of the incoming phone calls. I remember getting calls from mothers with children who were dying, who wanted to figure out some way that we could help them. At that point we couldn’t; we had just done a study and we were very far from being able to help them. But the need that was out in the world that we were hopefully starting to address was profound.

It was also an interesting time. Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in the early days of this research project, and the Texas medical center experienced devastating flooding. One of the consequences was that most of the medical center’s MRI instruments were put out of service because they were in the basement. The MRI instrument we had been using for our animal studies, which was one of the few in the medical center that had survived the floods, got converted from being used on animals to being used for patients. We were still able to get in and use it for animals in the evenings, and a couple of the grad students who were working on the project had to sit in a waiting room with the patients until it was their turn to go in and do their animal studies. And the grad students came back to our lab and said, ‘We feel so motivated. Sitting with these people and their families just reminded us of this impact that we can potentially have.’ That highlighted again that we were addressing real needs and developing brand-new solutions to solve problems that have plagued cancer patients for many decades.

Like every family in America, my family has been touched by cancer. One of my cousins died of melanoma in her 20s. She had been initially helped by an experimental therapy, and we had hoped that she was cured. Unfortunately, her cancer returned. That was at a pivotal point in my career and really added to my dedication to the work.

Q. You are UVA’s first female dean of engineering, and a highly accomplished woman in a profession that struggles with gender and other types of diversity. What have been some of the challenges you have faced along the way that might relate to your unique perspectives?

A. I was the only woman in my lab in grad school. And then in my faculty career, for a very long time, I was the only woman in my department. At the time, I would have said, ‘Everything is fine, there are no gender issues. We all get along. We’re great friends, everything’s wonderful.’ I think I had seven years of being the only woman there.

Then, in very short period of time, we hired two more women, and suddenly there were three of us and there was this shift in the dynamics and the interactions from being the only one to being part of a group of women. Some of the shift was feeling like I didn’t have to be the representative woman to all the students. There were other people who could be role models. I no longer felt this burden to always give an image of perfection, and I wasn’t the only person female students had to turn to anymore. So, there was a great sense of relief.

But even just the dynamics, such as in faculty meetings – there was a subtle shift that felt like a much more inclusive space. I gained an appreciation for how reaching a critical mass of diversity in our different engineering spaces is really important.

Q. Many people have opined on the lack of diversity in STEM fields and the possible solutions. How do you see the challenge of widening the pipeline for people from diverse backgrounds in engineering?

A. The pipeline is certainly an issue, right? We can show that starting in middle school, there are proportionally fewer girls and students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM pursuing math, and this definitely has impacts all the way up the career chain. So that is part of the problem. But even when you look at students starting as college freshmen who want to be engineers, we typically see that we lose women and students from other underrepresented groups during that four-year period before they graduate as engineers.

There is also a significant drop-off in representation of women and other underrepresented groups in graduate programs.

And then, when we look at students coming out with Ph.D. degrees in engineering and going into faculty positions, we see another drop-off.

So while we often talk about the need to go all the way back to K-12 and deal with the pipeline issue, we’ve got pipeline issues in the university system. We can still contribute to changes in K-12 and do wonderful things there, but we have complete ownership of what’s happening in the university setting. And we can really work on some of the issues to improve the experiences of women and other students from backgrounds underrepresented in engineering and improve their retention in the pipeline.

Q. When you talk about improving the experiences for students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in engineering, what does that mean to you?

A. I think that in talking with students who choose to move out of engineering majors, they often express a sense of isolation. If they’re in a department where only a small percentage of the majors look like them, it’s very easy for them to feel a profound sense of isolation. Then, if they’re not seeing role models that they can look to, or if they are experiencing overt or more subtle forms of sexism, implicit bias and racism as they move through, those can impact how they proceed through the university pipeline. And so working across the spectrum with faculty, staff and other students to make sure that people have the right training and sensitivity to provide a really inclusive environment for all students is important to their success.

As we start looking at graduate school and students moving into the professoriate, we need to be addressing work-life balance issues. Many graduate students today are starting their families while they’re in graduate school. What can we do to help make that possible? What can we do to best support those students? And again, as graduate students are moving into the professoriate, we want them to view engineering schools and departments as places that look like inclusive and supportive environments.

Q. Why did UVA attract you?

A. All of the schools I’ve chosen over my career have been places that strongly value both research and education. And when you look at the spectrum of universities, many skew one direction or the other. I really value the merger of these two; I value universities that put a high priority on having excellent student experiences and student outcomes, but strive at the same time to be world-class research institutions. That’s what I see in UVA, and what I found really exciting.

UVA Engineering also has had a tremendous period of growth and transformation and is ready to move from prominence to preeminence as the University’s “Great and Good” strategic plan challenges us to do. The progress UVA Engineering has made in research, especially over the past five years, is truly impressive. The opportunity now is to continue that momentum and to make sure that we can realize all of the amazing outcomes the progress presents.

Q. What do you see as the key challenges and opportunities for UVA Engineering over the next three to five years, and what do you plan to focus on?

A. We need to continue hiring fantastic new faculty, and we need to make sure that our research infrastructure can support the level of research that our amazing faculty want to accomplish. We need to recruit the best and brightest graduate students to be part of our research teams. And we need to engage undergraduates in research opportunities so they can see the tremendous opportunities and hopefully develop the passion for engineering and research.

I also think this growth in UVA Engineering’s research program is now naturally leading to a lot of interest in entrepreneurship. We have these fantastic ideas that faculty have been developing that are ready to spin out into companies and can really contribute to economic development and opportunities for our graduates, so we want to make sure that we have the processes, policies and support to make those ventures a reality. For example, could we provide them with networking opportunities, which could in turn help them to identify seed funding or find leaders for their new companies? How can we help them tap into the resources that will help our faculty establish businesses?

We also want to make sure our students have the background and training to participate in entrepreneurship throughout their careers. I think UVA has a set of students who are interested not only in a cutting-edge, world-class engineering education, but who have interests that span much more broadly. Our ethics and business courses give us great starting points, allowing us opportunities to add content that helps our students prepare for entrepreneurship. This means not only thinking of the concept for the design of some engineering product, but what would a business plan look like? How would this compete in the marketplace? What are the impediments? UVA students really come with a unique phenotype to make a positive difference in the world, and we need to embrace that.

Q. How are these priorities related to big challenges for engineering higher education in general, beyond just UVA?

A. I’d say that one of the opportunities I see for engineering is the ability to focus on some of society’s biggest challenges, from health care to climate change to dealing with our growing cyber infrastructure. We need interdisciplinary teams that can come together, see the big ideas, and see them all the way to fruition. Adding the entrepreneurship piece ensures that our fantastic research translates into products and technologies that can help society. Building the resources to help students and faculty achieve success is critical to realizing engineering’s potential to make the world a better place.

Media Contact

Elizabeth Thiel Mather

School of Engineering and Applied Science