Solving for greater good

Message from the Dean, August 21, 2023.

Three Seasons team members Fadeel Khan, Charlie Gorton, Vanessa Garlepp, Ahalya Lettenberger and Chris Heuser.

As of this writing, I still haven’t been able to find tickets with good seats to Oppenheimer. The movie has already set a box office record, likely due to the public’s fascination with an event that changed humanity and the world forever. After the first atomic bomb detonated, J. Robert Oppenheimer famously said “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” quoting a verse from an old Hindu scripture. The atomic bomb was at once a triumph of science and engineering and a societal failure of epic proportions.

Addressing the world’s most pressing problems requires ingenuity and innovation similar to or surpassing those needed for creating the first atomic bomb. But history tells us we must think proactively and systematically about the unintended consequences and ethical implications of our innovations.

Research in our school is driven by grand challenges the world faces and the unique opportunities that Houston offers. The three dualities of (i) global health challenges and the largest medical complex in the world, (ii) transitioning to clean energy and the energy capital of the world, and (iii) designing resilient communities and the most diverse city in the country fuel our research themes of health and well-being, energy and sustainability, and resilient and adaptive communities and position us ideally to tackle them. Innovation in these three areas requires significant advances in materials and computing, the two themes that round out our five research thrusts. Not only are our faculty conducting cutting-edge research, but they are also translating their research into technologies and products for maximum impact. From the recently launched Avenge Bio, DexMat, and Motif Neurotech to Syzygy Plasmonics and ThirdAI, all were founded or co-founded by Rice Engineering faculty or based on Rice Engineering research. Accelerating the transition of research from lab to market is a top priority of mine for our school.

In addition to innovative research, our faculty are proactively addressing through research and education various aspects of responsible engineering. Professor Gang Bao and colleagues recently published a study on the efficacy and safety of gene editing (Science Advances 8(42), 2022). Professor Jacob Robinson and colleagues recently wrote on “building a culture of responsible neurotech” (Neuron 110(13), 2022). The NEWT Center, led by Professors Pedro Alvarez and Qilin Li, systematically studies and addresses the adverse impacts of materials and technologies used in water treatment. Professor Moshe Vardi remains one of the most prominent voices on the ethics crisis in computing, in particular in the age of generative artificial intelligence. Recognizing that technologies often affect demographic groups differently, having diverse voices within our research groups is crucial for responsible engineering — a motivation behind the establishment of our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Outreach Center.

Solving for greater good means unparalleled education that emphasizes both great technical skills and responsible and ethical practices. We are proud of the world-class education our faculty offer in the classroom, in the lab, and in research groups. Our school offers several courses on ethics in engineering, and “Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science” is now required of all computer science majors. Our experiential learning programs — the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), the Data to Knowledge Transformation Lab (D2K) and the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) — play a critical role in preparing tomorrow’s responsible engineering leaders.

Improving the quality of life through responsible development of innovative technologies is solving for greater good and it is our school’s mission. I’m excited to kick off the fall semester with you and look forward to all we’ll accomplish together.

Pictured at top: Engineering senior design team Three Seasons members Fadeel Khan, left, Charlie Gorton, Vanessa Garlepp, Ahalya Lettenberger and Chris Heuser.

The Message from the Dean of Engineering at Rice University is published quarterly during the academic year, and is shared with our students, faculty, staff and friends.