Campus & Community

Frans Spaepen named interim dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

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Materials scientist Frans Spaepen will serve as interim dean of Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) effective Sept. 15, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, announced today (Aug. 15).

Spaepen, the John C. and Helen F. Franklin Professor of Applied Physics and director of Harvard’s Rowland Institute, will assume administrative duties from Venkatesh Narayanamurti, who has served as dean for the past decade. Earlier this year Narayanamurti announced his intention to step down as dean in order to focus on assessing undergraduate education and university management while on a yearlong sabbatical at Harvard Business School.

“I am pleased that Frans has agreed to serve as interim dean – especially during such an exciting time for interdisciplinary science and engineering at Harvard. Given his breadth of experience as a researcher, teacher, and administrator, SEAS will be in excellent hands,” said Smith. “What’s always impressed me about Frans is his almost innate ability to meld leadership with partnership. Those who have been fortunate enough to work with him, whether in the lab or the classroom, always emphasize his skills as a mentor and collaborator.”

“Moreover, Frans’ work in materials science is part of a long tradition of world-class research at Harvard that spans not only engineering, but physics, chemistry, and biology. His ability to understand and appreciate such intellectual breadth makes him ideally suited to support SEAS’ continuing mission to foster links at Harvard and connect with the wider world,” Smith added.

Spaepen’s research interests span a wide range of experimental and theoretical topics in materials science, such as amorphous metals and semiconductors, the structure and thermodynamics of interfaces, mechanical properties of thin films, and the perfection of silicon crystals for metrological applications, and the use colloidal systems to simulate the dynamics of crystals and glasses.

Spaepen has served as director of the Rowland Institute at Harvard since 2002, the year the research laboratory merged with the University, and has long played an active role in several interdisciplinary research centers on campus, including the National Science Foundation-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and the Center for Nanoscale Systems.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to serve as the interim dean at SEAS,” said Spaepen. “I was fortunate to have been a part of the marvelous transformation of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard over the past three decades. The open, collaborative, and interdisciplinary spirit that guided the activities at Rowland is the very philosophy that has made SEAS such a unique place among engineering schools. I look forward to working even more closely with my colleagues to continue this tradition and to build on Dean Narayanamurti’s many accomplishments of the recent years.”

At the Rowland Institute, located on the banks of the Charles River near the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spaepen was committed to carrying out the vision of its originator Edwin H. Land. The acclaimed researcher, entrepreneur, and Polaroid Corp. founder, who died in 1991 at the age of 81, sought to create an ideal laboratory by encouraging discovery between traditional disciplines; supporting small-scale laboratory science; emphasizing technical support of the highest level for experimentation; and enabling the best young minds to be creative through proper and sustained support.

“Frans will bring the same energy and drive to SEAS that he fostered while at Rowland, and I am thrilled that someone of his intellectual stature has agreed to serve,” said Narayanamurti, who continues as the John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “At the same time, when it comes to leadership, Frans possesses a thoughtful, quiet wisdom that will serve SEAS well, especially as it continues to blossom into its new role as a school. He is well known for enabling talented people to pursue excellence in all areas.”

Spaepen, elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2008, is a fellow of the American Physical Society (where he served as chairman of the Division of Materials Physics in 1992), a fellow of the Metallurgical Society of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, a member of the Vlaamse Academie voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, and a fellow of the Materials Research Society. He is also co-editor of “Solid State Physics,” principal editor of the Journal of Materials Research, and an editorial board member of a number of other materials science journals.

Spaepen received his undergraduate degree in metallurgical engineering at the University of Leuven in 1971, and received a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University in 1975. He joined the faculty of the then-Division of Applied Sciences in 1977, was appointed associate professor in 1981, and professor in 1983. From 1990 to 1998 Spaepen was director of the Harvard Materials Research Laboratory/Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.