5 Questions with CEAS Dean Michele J. Grimm

CEAS Dean Michele J. Grimm sits at a table outdoors with a laptop in front of her and a coffee mug.
College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Michele J. Grimm (photo provided)

By Michael Parker

ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 8, 2022) — In July of this year, the University at Albany named biomedical engineer Michele J. Grimm as dean of the University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) after a national search.

Founded in 2015 as the first traditional public engineering option in the Capital Region, CEAS offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical & computer engineering, environmental & sustainable engineering and computer science, with additional degrees in development. The College recently achieved a major milestone when it garnered ABET accreditation for its undergraduate bachelor of science programs in computer science and electrical & computer engineering.

Grimm, who previously served as the Wielenga Creative Engineering Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Michigan State University, started in her new post at the growing college on Aug. 25.

Grimm’s arrival coincides with the launch of Albany AI, a $200 million public-private artificial intelligence supercomputing initiative that includes the renovation and transformation of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences building as well as the construction of a new supercomputer.

CEAS was created in 2015, and you are its second dean. What was it about the position and UAlbany that you found most appealing?

Having the chance to help build a young college of engineering into a strong and vibrant community of faculty and students is rare. I have spent a significant part of my academic career creating and advancing new academic programs, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and so the chance to lead a college through this process is exciting. When new leadership is named for long established schools and colleges, there is often a significant momentum that needs to be overcome if any changes are suggested.

CEAS has many highly engaged, early career faculty — individuals who are excited to pursue cross-disciplinary research and develop educational programs that truly prepare students for their professional journeys. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with them to create a college that will stand out from others in the region.

You came here from Michigan State University, a Big Ten university with 50,000 students. How are you finding life at UAlbany in comparison?

Campus is easier to navigate in terms of size, but I still find myself using GPS because the buildings on the podium are identical and don’t provide visual landmarks to help avoid getting lost. Obviously a Big Ten university — especially one the size of Michigan State — has a different atmosphere than the University at Albany. The College of Engineering at MSU had about 6,000 undergraduate students itself.

The benefit of a smaller university and a smaller college is that everyone has a chance to get to know people and be known by people. I have managed to already meet with all of the faculty and staff within the College. Students have the opportunity to take on leadership roles and open up dialogue with the faculty and Dean’s Office. While some of our classes are large, the majority of them have less than 60 students — and that makes it at least possible for a faculty member to learn names and interact with students. All in all, it is an environment that makes it easier to meet people, build connections and identify opportunities to work together.

Just before you arrived, UAlbany launched Albany AI. How do you see CEAS evolving as the AI initiative moves forward?

Albany AI and the Provost’s vision for AI+X educational programs within the University are very exciting, and they align with my vision of developing research and education that takes advantage of convergent problem solving. Convergence in this domain means bringing together experts from different disciplines to work together — contributing different experiences, frameworks and points of view — to develop solutions for some of the most challenging problems facing society. I talked about that idea during my interview: developing mechanisms at the undergraduate, graduate and faculty level to give members of the UA community experience with working with individuals who are from a completely different discipline.

The AI research initiative will do that by serving as a catalyst to get faculty from different domains of knowledge talking to each other to see how they can bring their fields together. Thus, faculty in the College will be key contributors to Albany AI research projects. CEAS has experts in both the “back end” advancements within AI — the algorithms and hardware that are necessary to apply AI methods at a reasonable speed and scale – and the application of AI to solve problems in other disciplines.

On the education side, CEAS will again play a key role by working with the Provost’s Office and colleagues across the University to develop coursework at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as professional development materials for faculty, that allow for individuals who are not experts in the field to learn the language of AI so that they can have productive discussions with collaborators in the future.

You recently served at the National Science Foundation and on a White House task force on aging adults. Can you tell us about these roles and how they might help you as you plot the future of CEAS?

I spent three years at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a program director within the Engineering Directorate. This was an amazing professional development opportunity for me. I was able to build a network across federal agencies, and really expand some of the collaborations between the basic research funded by the NSF and the translational research funded by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration. I learned more about what goes into a good proposal, which will be something that I draw on when discussing research opportunities with early career faculty.

Most importantly, I was introduced to the broader idea of convergent research, which is one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas. I had the opportunity to see how cross-disciplinary research (which has always been at the heart of my field of biomedical engineering) can be transformative in other fields of research and practice.

The opportunity to co-chair the White House’s Tech4Aging Task Force (that was our working title, as the official one was so awkward to use) was exciting — though also a lot of work, more than any of us expected when we started in August of 2016. The aging of the population — such that the population globally is shifting away from being dominated by under 18s to having an increasing proportion of senior citizens — is often called the “sliver tsunami,” and it has now been widely recognized that we, as society, need to do something to prepare for this.

The Task Force brought together individuals from many different federal agencies to really delve into what the federal government — in conjunction with private entities as well as local and state government — might best focus on if we want to be able to support the increasing number of individuals over 65 or 70 who want to remain active and independent for as long as possible. We ended up working during a period of administration transition, which was interesting. In the end, the report that we produced was built around the principal of user-centered design — making sure that we (as engineers, scientists and social scientists) talk with the individuals involved before we work to identify the next pressing question or design the next big thing.

A 28-year-old engineer is not likely to know what a 75-year-old retiree needs with respect to technology without actually sitting down and talking to them. Scientists who are having conversations about what is needed from the next technological breakthrough to advance assistive or health care systems can develop a research question that is more likely to have an impact than if they work in isolation. My work on the task force re-emphasized the importance of research which has an impact on society — whether that impact is immediate or may take a while to develop. And that is what engineering really is — developing solutions to actual societal problems. I hope that we can integrate the concepts of user-centered design into our educational programs and initiate conversations with our colleagues in other fields to help them to identify research questions that, when answered, will support needed advancements in addressing society’s greatest challenges.

What’s something that people at UAlbany might be surprised to learn about you?

I grew up around the racetrack — and by that I don’t mean the racing like up in Saratoga Springs, but auto racing. My parents volunteered at local, amateur races, which meant that I went along too. As soon as I was old enough, I think that I was 10, I started working in the specialty called “Timing and Scoring,” where we kept track of cars’ qualifying times and positions on the track during a race.

This was all done manually back then — transponders did not exist — with a stopwatch, time sheets and a lap chart to keep track of the racing order. Over the years, I also worked in other specialties — including as a scrutineer, or tech inspector. (Scrutineers are the ones who make sure that the teams are following the technical rules regarding performance and safety). I worked my first Formula One race in 1982, when the international series came to Detroit — and I worked my final Formula One race in Austin in 2021, when my mother retired as the Chief Scrutineer for international motor sport in the US after 35 years in that position.

Based on this experience, I served as the faculty advisor for Wayne State University’s Formula SAE team — where students design, build and race a small, open-wheel race car — from 2003 through 2019. I was the first woman internationally to serve as an FSAE faculty advisor, and the first biomedical engineer.