Campus & Community

A Q&A with Stevens Engineering Dean Jean Zu

The First Female Dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science Reflects on her First Year

Jean Zu is the first female dean of Stevens Institute of Technology’s Charles V. Schaefer Jr., School of Engineering and Science. Dr. Zu came to Stevens from the University of Toronto, where she served as a faculty member in the mechanical and industrial engineering department, and was the first woman to be appointed chair of the department at that prestigious university. She has published more than 340 refereed papers, including 172 journal papers, and attracted a significant number of grants and contracts from government and industry to support her work. She has also worked tirelessly to raise awareness and funding for engineering programs, serving as president of the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) from 2012 to 2014.

Dr. Zu began her tenure at Stevens on May 1, 2017. In her own words, this is what her journey has been like.

Q: What is most important about being a dean?

The Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science is known for its history of groundbreaking, world-class innovation. The Schaefer School has been continually focused on growth and achieving excellence for nearly 150 years, and it is my great hope to continue nurturing that growth as dean. It has meant so much to me to be entrusted with this enormous responsibility.

Q: What have you accomplished in your first year as dean?

Before I say what I have accomplished, I want to say that, having been dean for one year, it is an incredible honor and privilege to serve all of the world-class faculty, dedicated staff and outstanding students in the Schaefer School. I hope to build on the school’s culture of excellence by proposing and developing initiatives that enable the faculty members, staff and students to grow.

One accomplishment I am very proud of is helping to build a distinct culture that prioritizes collaboration at the Schaefer School. There are already long-standing examples, such as our nationally renowned Davidson Laboratory and its forecasting work with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a ten-year partnership between Stevens and Public Service Enterprise Group committed to science and engineering education as well as sustainable energy technologies. Stevens has committed to a new partnership with PSEG focused on developing three areas of strong mutual interest: energy innovation; public service; and, developing science, engineering and math (STEM) talent. There is also the creation of the new Stevens-wide Institute for Artificial Intelligence that will bring together an interdisciplinary, tech-driven cohort of more than 40 engineering, business, systems and design experts to solve pressing global problems in industry and society as a whole.

Another is maximizing the resources of the Schaefer School. One way I did that was by creating the Dean’s Lab Improvement Fund. This fund is a multimillion dollar investment that will enable our students and faculty members to pursue cutting-edge research in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity, biomedical engineering and quantum science and engineering by improving our teaching and research labs. To date, those funds are being put toward creating a state-of-the-art robotics teaching lab, renovating the Experimental Quantum Info Processing Lab to expand our investment in quantum technologies and building a small-scale biodiesel plant to help produce alternative, sustainable fuels. Another way was by restructuring the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Biology into two separate departments. I believe the creation of these two departments—the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology—will strengthen the branding, identity and development of their respective research areas, as well as work to attract more top-notch researchers, faculty members and students.

I am also very proud of cultivating Stevens’ new agreement with Tsinghua University to create joint educational initiatives. Tsinghua University is ranked as China’s top university and 25th best in the world by QS Top Universities. It is also my alma mater, and I have firsthand experience of its rigorous standards and commitment to excellence. I am facilitating the creation of a summer research program starting this summer, and helping facilitate the creation of joint Ph.D and co-Ph.D. programs, as well as dual M.S. degrees, with a focus on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and deep learning programs. I hope to explore additional opportunities in sustainability management and construction management as well.

Most importantly, my biggest accomplishment was stepping back to let the Schaefer School community come together and create its very first strategic plan. The process was very inclusive, receiving input from every department within the school as well as its students. I believe that inclusiveness created a plan that will guide us all as we pursue new heights of success together. The Schaefer School 2023 strategic plan features a renewed commitment to student centricity, exciting new initiatives for research and innovation and a focus on increasing cooperation across multiple fields at the school level as well as with industry, other institutions, government and the private sector to provide greater career development opportunities for our students. I, and the rest of Schaefer School leadership, am strongly committed to the resource development required for its successful implementation.

Q: What new areas will the Schaefer School expand into strategically, going forward?

We are making a strong push into artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science, which is very exciting because it is the perfect time for the university to do so.

Stevens already possessed a strong collection of faculty members working with these technologies in diverse areas across the university: developing a number of medical applications and analysis tools; producing systems and logistics research; training robots to navigate unfamiliar environments; analyzing financial data and consumer trends; detecting fraud; doing pathbreaking computer science research; hardening air and maritime security; and so on.

Now, the creation of our new Stevens Institute for Artificial Intelligence will help consolidate these resources and lead to new fruitful relationships, drawing not only from the Schaefer School but on the strengths of all four of Stevens' schools. We expect to create powerful relationships with corporate entities, government agencies and fellow research universities through this new institute, as well, to mutual and societal benefit.

Sustainability research is another area where we will become even more focused and authoritative. Our students have already proven their mettle by taking home the top prize in the Department of Energy's prestigious Solar Decathlon contest a few years ago. We have faculty teams working with the government right now on a major project to help reduce and cleanse waste streams in military facilities, testing technologies ranging from new algae biofuels to novel and natural ways of filtering toxic materials out of wastewater. And we have one of the world's leading experts in green infrastructure on our faculty, Dr. Elizabeth Fassman-Beck, building a functional green roof atop a campus building to test new ways of collecting, diverting and cleansing stormwater after heavy urban rains. We hope to share the knowledge gleaned from these projects directly with our Hoboken community.

Biomedical research is yet another area we hope to make greater strides. As I previously stated, the creation of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology will enable faculty members and students to better focus on their respective research areas. That focus, combined with Stevens’ proximity to prominent medical schools and centers, positions us well to pursue biomedical research opportunities from both the engineering and science perspectives.

Nanotechnology is a promising area where we will stretch our wings further. We have a real nucleus of talent in nanotech and materials science at Stevens, and some of these faculty members are finding that they can work together to attack diverse problems such as energy efficiency, solar-cell design and fuel-cell design.

We are also rapidly developing leading expertise in quantum communications technologies, something very few universities in the entire world are working on. In fact, Stevens recently demonstrated a small three-node hybrid quantum communications network on campus, making it the first university in the nation to do so.

This is a proof that a small university with very smart and focused faculty can make worldwide research impact.

Q: One of the real strengths of Stevens' pedagogy and research is its application to real-world challenges. What specific societal challenges do you expect the School and the university to address in the near future?

I think you will see a number of powerful medical research findings and innovations coming out of this school and the university in the near future, on a fairly regular basis.

I am continually amazed by the diverse and useful work that is going on at Stevens to attack healthcare questions all of us can relate to: how to better treat breast cancer and blood cancer patients, for instance. How to help stroke patients rehab more quickly, both in the hospital and afterward. How to treat Parkinson's disease more effectively. Improving our understanding of concussions, and engineering better protections against them. Detecting deadly viruses more quickly.

We're working on all of these things, and more, and frequently appearing in medical and engineering journals and the national press about it.

Weather and climate change is another area where we will become even more prominent in advancing solutions that help save lives. Stevens' forecasting tools have proven critical for federal and local officials as they plan for coastal emergencies in areas like metro New York.

Related to this, we are in a prime position to advise on resiliency engineering, which is the designing of structures and urban areas that are better prepared to cope with extreme weather. When you see the devastation of hurricanes and floods in areas like Houston or Puerto Rico, you realize that planning is critical, and that the way we build in the future must be different from the way we have done it in the past. This school and this university will be there, positioned to lead and advise.

Q: What do you think the biggest measure of future success will be for the Schaefer School?

Students. Students are the heart of our institution. I believe that making the Schaefer School a top-tier university will happen through providing the best educational experience and opportunities for our students. To that end, we try to involve students on different committees and have students participate in faculty hiring. During our recent strategic planning process, we widely solicited students’ input. We organize regular student town hall meetings. I am even in the process of forming an undergraduate student advisory council right now. The entire reason we strive so hard for excellence is because of our students. Their success is our greatest success and lasting legacy.