WPI's 17th president reveals what attracted her to the position, what's surprised her so far, and how she relaxes.
What is it about WPI that attracted you to this position?
WPI is a great institution. Our founding principle of theory and practice absolutely resonates with me, and has throughout my career. I’m excited about the impact that the ideas and technology coming out of WPI are having in making our lives better, but also in addressing significant societal challenges. The WPI approach is very distinctive, particularly as it relates to the WPI Plan. When we are looking at current STEM workforce needs, this approach is more timely than ever and that’s why joining WPI at this critical juncture is very exciting to me.
Our students have the opportunity to travel to global project centers, work on real problems in a real-world setting during a dedicated time frame with a group of fellow students who come from many different disciplines, and be mentored by high-caliber faculty and staff on site. That’s definitely distinctive. The outcome is a highly concentrated, high-touch experience with a clear global perspective, not just in STEM, but incorporating the arts and humanities. Our graduates are ready to tackle real-world problems as soon as they enter the workforce.
WPI has project centers all over the world. Which one would you like to visit first?
This is almost like asking, “Which child is your favorite?” I would like to visit all of them!
The project centers are a critical part of the WPI learning process and what sets us apart. The experience really helps our students see the world from different perspectives in an engaged, immersive learning environment, and, in many ways, that’s what education is about—realizing personal growth inside and outside the classroom.
What surprising things have you learned about WPI so far?
After I was named president but before I started officially in April, I visited WPI several times for a series of listening tours with many different groups in the campus community, something I plan to continue throughout my first year here. It is fascinating to learn more about WPI.
I was impressed by our students’ High Power Rocketry Club. I look forward to learning more about the nonprofit run by students, Gompei’s Goat Cheese. I was happily surprised at the extensive collection of Charles Dickens artifacts in the Gordon Library, which is unique for a STEM school. On one of my first visits, I was able to watch a student play and experience a chamber music performance—I’m amazed at how multi-talented our students are.
The world needs more STEM professionals, and diversity is a strength in both academia and the workplace. How do we get women and those from underrepresented backgrounds to be interested in STEM?
At every stage in my career, this work has been my passion. The fact that WPI values diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is another reason I was interested in this position. To enable creative thinking, innovation, and research and discovery, we need diverse perspectives, and that’s already in the spirit of WPI. We were one of the first STEM institutions to enroll female undergraduate students, and that forward-thinking legacy is ingrained in our history. The entire community must advocate, embrace, provide support, and act as role models to help everyone coming to our campus—students, staff, faculty, visitors—feel welcomed, included, supported, and part of something bigger. If we do that, we’ll be a magnet to attract diverse STEM talent to our community.
How do you relax and unwind after a hard day of presidential duties?
I love to read—all topics, but, of course, quite a bit in science and technology. I’m a big NASA fan and enjoy reading about space research and space exploration, and the information technology and semiconductor, microelectronics, and quantum technologies. I also love British literature, American presidential history, and books on leadership. I drink herbal tea, almost every day; peppermint is my favorite. And I exercise to reduce stress.
What would be your act in a talent show?
I have to say that I don’t have much artistic talent myself, but there are plenty of highly talented people already on this campus. That’s what makes ours such a dynamic, interesting community. In fact, many students have told me this artistic atmosphere is what attracted them to WPI and what sets us apart from other STEM-focused schools. A music professor told me how well used our pianos are by our students, which is quite different from the piano I have in my house right now.
When are you the happiest?
For me, it’s always been at Convocation and Commencement. You feel the excitement of students coming in at Convocation and it’s rewarding to hear them talk about what motivates them to join our community. And then at Commencement, we see how they have grown and how they are taking what they’ve learned and venturing forth into the world. I love to hear their stories.
Do you cherish any words of wisdom from a mentor, or an inspirational quote that gets you through hard times?
A great mentor and a really good friend told me years ago, “Don’t limit yourself.” I found that advice has been very helpful to me; I think that can also apply to a community, an institution, or a university. There’s so much we can achieve. WPI is a world-class institution, but the future is even brighter than we can imagine. With a tremendous community working together, I’ve always been amazed at what can be achieved collectively and collaboratively. That’s part of the excitement of coming on board at WPI—we won’t be limited, by any stretch of the imagination.
What are you looking forward to at WPI?
I’m particularly looking forward to working with the campus community. When I ask students what inspired them to join WPI, I heard mostly two things: our educational approach and the people. And it is inspiring to listen to our faculty and staff–they are so deeply committed to WPI and to our student-centric community. We are a close-knit, supportive, creative community and it’s going to be the collective team working together that will move us forward.
WPI has a very dynamic, high-quality research and innovation ecosystem with an entrepreneurial spirit.
WPI looks at education and research as purpose driven. We are motivated by the real-world, tangible impact of our innovative research and education. The world is facing so many challenges: climate, energy, food, water, national security, effective and affordable health care, and affordable education. These require not only technology solutions but social science innovation, policy innovation, and understanding of humanity. It’s more important than ever that research, particularly STEM-focused research, be highly interdisciplinary and large-scale, focusing on the impact. WPI has a very dynamic, high-quality research and innovation ecosystem with an entrepreneurial spirit. These are all tremendous assets we can build upon and continuously connect and integrate with our educational approach.
Worcester is gaining a reputation as a culinary hub. What type of restaurant recommendations are you looking for in Worcester and the surrounding area?
I’m getting to know the city, and I’ve already discovered nice Italian and seafood restaurants. My family and I are interested in all kinds of food—we try anything. Food is a key component in any culture and we’re interested in all kinds of cultures. Worcester has a fascinating history with its role in the American industrial revolution and the growth of our country. We look forward to getting to know the city better.