Interim engineering dean not just there to ‘keep the lights on’


When Sanjeev Shroff took over as interim dean of the Swanson School of Engineering this summer it was with the understanding from the provost that he wouldn’t be there just to “keep the lights on.”

In July, Shroff replaced James Martin, who served as dean for fours years and is now vice chancellor for STEM research and innovation in the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research. Provost Ann Cudd has said that the search for a permanent engineering dean won’t start until after a new chancellor is named, which is expected sometime next year.

That will give Shroff at least a year and a half to two years in the dean’s chair. He said the provost and chancellor have said “they don’t want the engineering school to be stagnant for those two year.” But the test will be when he makes his request for resources.

Emphasis on bioengineering

Shroff came to Pitt from the University of Chicago in 2000 and most recently was chair of the Department of Bioengineering.

Because of the school’s ties to UPMC and Pitt’s Health Sciences, it has been moving more in the direction of bioengineering — “That is a strategically right thing to do,” Shroff says — but in a more broad sense.

“Every department in varying degrees, but every department, has some research activity and things that are related to biomedical or the human condition in general,” he said. “And that is a combination of purposeful effort to develop those ties, and organic, because many engineering disciplines can contribute to making the human condition better.”

It’s not that all engineers are going to become bioengineers, Shroff said. Instead, “they are using their expertise to address problems that reside in the biomedical space. And for that, connecting with the people across the street is a natural way to do it, where you can really see your thoughts and your concepts making a difference.”

Evolution of engineering

From Shroff’s perspective, engineering education has moved away from “providing technical expertise in a narrow field to students — engineers in mechanical and chemical or civil or whatever — to more broader problem solving and engineering design thinking, using team-based approaches, multidisciplinary approaches.”

This has led the people who develop curriculum to focus on the most challenging problems of society — the grand challenges — and how engineers can contribute to solving those problems, he said. “Then can we give the technical knowledge in the context of solving those problems?”

Before, engineering schools would give students the technical knowledge and “then let’s see what problem your knowledge can be applied to.” Now, the problems are identified first and the curriculum is built to solve those problems.

The key is having a multidisciplinary approach, he said. The grand challenges rarely are just mechanical or chemical or electrical problems.

He uses an example from bioengineering to explain how the modern engineering student should approach the world.

“In our body, there are millions of cells. Each cell or each class of cell is very good at doing a certain thing; that’s their core,” Shroff said. “But on the surface of each cell, there are receptors that communicate with the outside world very effectively and keep collecting knowledge about it, and then they give out their own information outside other cells.”

In engineering education now, “we talk about multidisciplinary, … but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a solid core. … You have to say I’m an expert in this particular area, but I have the sticky outside surface, which is the receptors that can communicate with people (with other areas of expertise). Because I cannot be an expert in … everything, but I can talk to them and then together we’ll solve a problem.”

Bioengineering grew out of this multidisciplinary approach to biomedical problems, which often involve mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering aspects. Shroff points to the work of Amir Alavi, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Pitt, who created a device to monitor the health of buildings and other structures like bridges.

“But he had ideas of why should it stop there,” Shroff said. “He used the same material, similar concept, of creating this intelligent material to monitor the recovery of bones after spinal surgery.”

Similarly, chemical engineers who were managing big reactors, petrochemicals, plastics and more are using their knowledge to create vehicles to deliver proteins and drugs to cells, “because they know how to create these nanoparticles.” In the same way, bioengineers are using what they know about how the brain works to help people control their prosthetic devices and to try to improve reaction times of driverless cars.

What comes next?

Now that he’s had time to assess the status of the School of Engineering and to make sure the school is on a sound financial footing, Shroff is ready to move ahead on three specific areas he wants to address. He presented these to the Swanson School’s board of visitors at the end of October.

1. Enhancing and reclaiming the school’s research identity. Shroff said the pandemic caused much research to be put on the back burner. Now he wants to look at “What is Pitt engineering known for?” Two research areas he and the department chairs have agreed to focus on are biomedical — where Pitt is considered a “powerhouse,” he said — and energy-related issues, from electrical to nuclear to hydrogen to renewable. 

On the biomedical side, he said they have plans to partner with the School of Public Health and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute on joint projects, and he wants to establish a Center for Biomedical Innovation and Translation that will help bring ideas from academia to the real world.

Energy was selected as the other focus area because of the wide variety of expertise in the school on these issues and growing connections with two national energy laboratories in this area — the National Energy Technology Laboratory and the Naval Nuclear Laboratory.

2. Education innovations. Shroff said the schools Ph.D. programs are doing quite well and have grown, but the master’s programs have shrunken significantly. He said the days of generic master’s in chemical or civil or mechanical engineering are gone. “You have to have focused masters with a purpose,” he said, citing a master’s in medical product engineering that was created in the bioengineering department. “It is very focused — how to develop medical products, innovate, bring them all to reality.”

He said they’ve consulted with industry officials to figure out what types of programs would work. “I’m hoping we have two or three such new programs by next fall,” Shroff said.

He’d also like to see undergraduate enrollment grow. There is demand for programs, Schroff said, and he could see growing by 30 percent but there has to be more resources to accommodate more students.

3. Student experience. The dean wants to look at “What can we do more to develop a sense of partnership and ownership and on the part of students in their own education?”

“The traditional model is, you are the expert. We came here. Teach us, make us better. Tell us what to do. And then we’ll go out and do that,” Shroff said.

He wants them to be active participants in their education, which could mean participating in professional groups or bringing in community projects students work on as part of their senior design or interacting with high school or even younger students to teach them about engineering.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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