UK’s new engineering dean, John Walz

Incoming University of Kentucky College of Engineering dean John Walz. PHOTO BY EMILY MOSELEY

When John Walz steps into the role of leadership at the University of Kentucky College of Engineering, manufacturers will be waiting eagerly for him to help them overcome the issue they cite as their most troublesome: the development — ASAP — of qualified, highly skilled talent (see also: Inside the Manufacturing Skills Gap).

And UK’s new engineering dean will be making a transition from an institution that offered no opportunities to integrate engineering and medical research to one where these disciplines, as well as others, have been in collaboration for decades.

“That’s one of the things that attracted me to Kentucky,” Walz said in an interview as he was preparing to move from Blacksburg, Va., to Lexington. “You have a great medical school and a dental school and a pharmacy school. So the opportunities for collaborating with those programs are right there, and that’s fantastic. Not many places have that. I’m at Virginia Tech right now, and we do not have those types of opportunities.”

Walz has resigned as professor and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Virginia Tech to succeed Tom Lester as dean of the UK College of Engineering. Lester recently resigned after serving in the role since 1990, but he is remaining on the UK faculty, delivering undergraduate course work in mechanical engineering.

“I will be continuing to teach specialized courses in technology and society, engineering leadership, and working with colleagues on such initiatives on expansion of international educational opportunities for engineering students,” he said. Lester said he will be involved in the creation of a new advanced manufacturing partnership between UK and the University of Louisville, in addition to strengthening K-12 math and science education in the public schools through an initiative now underway in partnership with Fayette County Public Schools.

Walz received his B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Tulane University in 1982 and worked as a process support engineer for Shell Oil Company. He spent five years on the chemical engineering faculty at Tulane, followed by eight years on the faculty at Yale University, including three years as department chair. In 2005, he moved to Virginia Tech as department head.

The 21st-century engineers he is now charged with sending out into the world are all about collaboration across a variety of disciplines, medicine and pharmaceuticals in particular.

“A lot of the really exciting problems that have developed in my field have been at that interface with medicine: advanced drug delivery tools; novel ways of getting drugs into specific parts of the body; or tissue engineering, where we’re looking to develop implants that can replace bones or other tissues in your body. Those use fundamental engineering skills, yet they also incorporate medical technology, and you work with people to understand both sides of the problem,” Walz said.

He is moving to a department and a campus that have been engaging in multidisciplinary collaborations for many years. Among those leading the research is Kimberly Anderson, Ph.D., Gill Eminent Professor of Chemical Engineering.

“UK is really unique in that we have a top-notch College of Pharmacy and a medical center right here on campus, within talking distance of each other and with the College of Engineering,” Anderson noted. “So the fact that we are so centralized on campus has really promoted the interaction across the disciplines. And that is unique. Many other universities will have their medical center 30 minutes from the main campus, and that can make it difficult to interact.”

For 25 years, Anderson has studied, through the lens of an engineer, the movement of cancer cells through blood vessels. She has seen significant growth in collaboration among faculty and students from pharmacy, engineering, chemistry and biochemistry, particularly since receiving a five-year, $3 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program (IGERT) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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