“I’m the kind of person who likes change — I’m a controlled dynamics researcher, so I like to look at the trajectory, not just the current point,” said Frank Doyle, the incoming dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I think the trajectory looks really exciting here, and I’m delighted to be able to play a role and participate in the planning and execution of that forward trajectory.”

Photo by Eliza Grinnell/Harvard Paulson School Communications

Campus & Community

Incoming dean, rising School

long read

A Q&A with Frank Doyle, who will lead the rapidly growing Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Shortly after he accepted the offer to become dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Francis (Frank) J. Doyle III received a call from his new boss. Michael D. Smith, the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, had some confidential news to share: The School was about to receive the largest gesture of philanthropic support in Harvard’s history. Days later, Doyle was on campus for his first visit since his appointment to help celebrate a $400 million gift from John A. Paulson, M.B.A. ’80, to endow SEAS, now known as the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It made for quite a first day on the job.

Actually, interim Dean Harry R. Lewis won’t hand over the keys to the dean’s office, and Doyle won’t officially start, until July 1. Currently associate dean for research at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) College of Engineering, where he also chairs the department of chemical engineering, Doyle recently spoke about what attracted him to Cambridge, his own groundbreaking research, and his vision for Harvard’s newest School.

SEAS COMMUNICATIONS: What attracted you to Harvard?

DOYLE: It was a multifaceted decision, but the most exciting thing for me was that this is a community of superlative researchers, with very few boundaries between the areas. This School achieves that interdisciplinary ideal. It’s a community that is poised for some very exciting developments and change with the Allston campus expansion. I’m the kind of person who likes change — I’m a controlled dynamics researcher, so I like to look at the trajectory, not just the current point. I think the trajectory looks really exciting here, and I’m delighted to be able to play a role and participate in the planning and execution of that forward trajectory.

SEAS: Things have changed a bit since you accepted the position. How have you begun thinking about the opportunity that the gift from John Paulson presents?

DOYLE: The very generous gift from Mr. Paulson was a complete, and very pleasant, surprise to me. It’s a hugely enabling gift, and I’ve only begun to grasp the magnitude of what this can do for the teaching enterprise and research enterprise, for all of SEAS’ constituents: faculty, students, staff. I intend to have a lot of conversations within SEAS and with others at Harvard when I arrive, to really understand the visions and dreams of the faculty and researchers here and fold that appropriately into the priorities for how we use those funds in the most effective manner.

SEAS: What do you view as the biggest challenges facing engineering schools?

DOYLE: The successful schools going forward will be the ones that break out of the mold of traditional siloed departments. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy an environment like that at UCSB. While we have departments at UCSB, they’re very permeable, nearly transparent. That’s a big part of what attracted me to SEAS, which has gone to the even further extreme of not having departments at all. There’s lots of cross-listing of interests and areas. I think that has to be the future of engineering education and engineering research. The interesting material is not in some core nucleus, but rather interfacial across disciplines, be that traditional engineering and applied sciences, or business, medicine, law, etc.

SEAS: Your thoughts on balancing the teaching and research missions?

DOYLE: Certainly the great research universities of today — and Harvard has laid the template — have found that perfect balance between promoting the research enterprise and letting that permeate and cross-pollinate the educational enterprise. That’s a crucial balance that is hard to strike in most places because you get the Nobel Prize winners on one hand and the teaching and pedagogy experts on the other hand. I’ve always found that holding the two in closer balance has been rewarding professionally. The contact with the students is invaluable; you don’t get that kind of experience in the research world. By the same token, you can bring those very eager, hungry students over to the research world, and they can accomplish tremendous things. I know that at Harvard there is lots of thinking and discussion about that balance. I’m not going to propose any grand vision now, but I definitely want to learn more about everything, from the wonderful CS50-type courses to getting undergrads into labs and internships.

SEAS: You’ve led a big cross-disciplinary initiative at UCSB. What are the keys to effective collaboration?

DOYLE: The Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies has 60 faculty — not very much smaller than SEAS — but with the additional hurdle of being spread across three campuses: UCSB, Caltech, and MIT. A lot of [effective collaboration] is organic; it’s the chemistry between the PIs [principal investigators], the labs, and students. As a leader and administrator, I’ve got to facilitate that, to create the funding opportunities, physical space opportunities — the collision points to enable those things. The growth and success of those things are dependent on the interests and personalities of the people involved. But if I can do everything in my power to lay the groundwork, and if those things take off, then that’s a measure of success.

SEAS: A significant portion of the SEAS budget depends on government funding. What are some ways to respond to the decline in federal research support?

DOYLE: I have two thoughts on that. One is that center-level funding can be a very successful model. It’s often more stable than single-investigator funding and can have an aggregating effect, bringing faculty together in interdisciplinary collaboration and collisions. There’s a style to doing successful center proposals. UCSB is renowned for this, and I hope to import some of that domain expertise. There are a number of agencies that provide substantial center-level funding. Having said that, such an emphasis does not compromise single-investigator, high-quality, single-lab research. Those individuals have roles in centers as well. The second thing that is important for Harvard is to more effectively tap sponsored research from industry. That has gone up and down with the economy, so we should be in the right phase now. For all the great applied research accomplishments at Harvard, I see an opportunity to build in that area through closer ties to industry. I envision an industrial advisory board that brings in high-level industry leaders, which will lead to networks that will lead to funding, help faculty, identify internship opportunities, and ultimately develop long-term partnerships.

SEAS: Tell us about your plans for continuing your research.

DOYLE: With the opportunity to come to SEAS, the encouragement to continue my research was hugely enabling. I have a lot going on in the lab with medical trials right now as well as with basic discovery, in fields that are very strong at Harvard, especially systems biology. The people in my lab group who will move with me will find fertile ground to take root here and kindred spirits to collaborate with. I know I have to be more efficient with how I manage that group while also working with the faculty, with donors, and all of the other responsibilities of the dean. But I feel comfortable that the group I’m moving here will really tap the resources of not just Harvard but Boston at large. It’s a tremendous community for medical research, and I think the group can really flourish and keep conquering new hills.

SEAS: A central focus of your research has been development of an “artificial pancreas.” Do you have personal experience with diabetes?

DOYLE: My grandfather had type 1 diabetes, for which he would take insulin through a needle, and I remember that as a kid growing up. So when a colleague at Purdue came to my office some 22 years ago and said, “I have a really interesting medical problem that we should work on together,” I was immediately captivated. That was Nicholas Peppas, now at UT Austin. Through the years of doing this, my inspiration for this work has been not so much the elderly like my grandfather, but the children. It’s really touching to see young kids [afflicted by diabetes] and their parents, and that just further cements my enthusiasm for working on this important medical problem.

SEAS: Describe your leadership style.

DOYLE: In the spectrum that has micromanagement at one extreme and paralysis by committee work at the other, I work at a comfortable medium in between those two extremes. I am a detail person; I like to see details, but I don’t get bogged down micromanaging. I’m a big proponent of consensus, but not to the point where we stall things out completely. One of the things I pride myself on is striking the appropriate balance. When we need to do a deep dive and examine the details, I can do that. It’s important to build consensus, but we’re not going to derail something just because we’re not getting a consensus decision.

SEAS: Are there one or more persons who influenced your career?

DOYLE: I would have to start with my father, a fellow chemical engineer, who early in my life taught me the value of fundamental engineering training as a springboard to do anything I wanted. He was a great role model, in that he took his training and excelled in multiple diverse fields in industry over time, including polymer products and oil refining. The other guy I learned a great deal from is Dan Morse, who is at UCSB [formerly on the faculty at Harvard]. Dan and I started the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies in 2003. He was the inaugural director, and I was the inaugural associate director. I was a young full professor, new to UCSB, and Dan took me under his wing. He was a far more seasoned and experienced researcher on the campus. He taught me a lot about building consensus with faculty, about representing a wide array of sciences outside one’s domain specialty, about collegiality, and working with the administration. We accomplished a lot together, and I benefitted immensely from that.

SEAS: Chemical engineering seems to be the family business?

DOYLE: Right. I have a brother who’s on the faculty at MIT, and our father is a chemical engineer as well, now retired from industry. It seems to go down the male lineage of the family. I have a daughter who is very excited about mechanical engineering, so soon we’ll have a woman engineer in our family tree.

SEAS: What do you do to relax?

DOYLE: Basically, three things. First, I enjoy spending time with my wife, Diana, and three kids, Sara, 19, Brianna, 17, and Frankie, 15, doing outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, and sailing. Next, I am a very passionate soccer referee. I’ve been refereeing soccer for a little over a decade. I have a national certification on the recreational league side, and I’m working my way through the professional ref certification ladder. I do not know how much time I will have for that now, but it is very therapeutic. A colleague did say that he felt that that was my greatest background experience coming in as a dean — to be able to referee the faculty. Finally, I have also been racing sailboats ever since I was a little kid sailing with my dad on the Chesapeake Bay. I did a lot of ocean racing in California, including one race from L.A. to Hawaii. Now I’m handing the baton to my son, who’s been doing a lot of national and international sailing. I hope to be able to get back into some sailing in New England, whether recreational or competitive.

SEAS: Is it too early to ask if there have been any surprises about SEAS?

DOYLE: I’ve talked with a number of people already about the near-term challenges, and nothing has got me packing my bags back to California — not by any stretch. Probably the most pleasant surprise is the depth and capability of the SEAS staff. Meeting people and working with them over the last few days has been terrific.