LOS ANGELES — Vijay K. Dhir, dean of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, took his father's directive to make education a top priority very seriously. He has spent 34 of the past 35 years of his engineering career in academia. While many engineers are eager to see their research translated into commercial products and dollars, the lure of the private sector and all its potential riches holds no appeal to Dhir.
"I'm not interested in leaving academic life," said Dhir.
That is not to say that Dhir's research hasn't had an impact on the world beyond the ivory tower. The dean's work on boiling heat transfer and nuclear reactor thermal hydraulics and safety has already made an impression on both the computer chip and nuclear industries and has most recently helped him get elected into the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional honor given to an American engineer.
"It is a great honor and I am thrilled and humbled to be included in [this] incredible company," said Dhir of his induction to the academy. "But I feel the most immediate importance of my election into the NAE is the recognition it brings to UCLA engineering and the school's truly outstanding faculty, students, and programs."
Dhir's statement is indicative of the current focus of his career. Since March 2003, when Dhir was appointed dean, much of his energy has been directed at improving his school's standing as well as leaving his stamp on the engineering program. So far, on both counts, Dhir is accomplishing his goal.
The engineering school is now in the top 10 — it is ranked ninth — of all public engineering schools in the country. Three years ago, its ranking was number 16. Amongst all schools, both public and private, UCLA's engineering school has moved up to 15 from number 22 three years ago.
Vijay K. Dhir, Dean of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, has graced UCLA’s campus, above, with his focus on improving the engineering school’s standing. Since he took over as dean in March 2003, UCLA engineering has risen to a number nine ranking among all public engineering schools.
Dhir's emphasis in his tenure as dean has been upon multidisciplinary research and education. "Most of the problems we see in the future are complex and multidisciplinary," he said. "We need to train a new generation of researchers. If we want to solve bigger problems which are challenging, we need to bring together people who can cross disciplines."
Under Dhir's leadership, the school has developed six interdisciplinary research centers, all funded by federal and private agencies. These centers examine space exploration, wireless sensor systems, nanotechnology, nanomanufacturing and nanoelectronics. According to Dhir, each center is worth between $4 million to $5 million.
"I want UCLA to be the leader in the country in multidisciplinary research," said Dhir.
To that end, Dhir has also created internal centers in the school in which faculty from different disciplines are brought together to work on a project. For instance, faculty working on fusion, fission, hydrogen, solar and wind power were brought together to work on an energy conversion and conservation project. "My goal is to bring them together to do what they're doing better. It positions us for better energy research," said Dhir.
The state of California recently gave the school a $1.5 million grant to bring faculty from different departments together to work on improving the ways in which the state's water is desalinated.
Another multidisciplinary approach was taken when faculty from the engineering school worked with faculty from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to develop sensor technology that would allow a production to be reset without interruption.
"We talk amongst the deans and see what's an area of future growth," said Dhir.
Among other areas where Dhir believes a multidisciplinary approach would work are bioinformatics and electronic transaction security.
Dhir's belief in a multidisciplinary approach is deeply rooted in his own experiences. He grew up in Punjab with parents who never finished high school but who emphasized the importance of a good education. Dhir received his bachelor's degree from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, and his master's degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. When he was accepted into the University of Kentucky's doctoral program in mechanical engineering, his father scraped together the money for the plane ticket. "That was a priority," said Dhir.
Dhir received his doctorate in 1972 and spent the next year in the Kentucky Institute of Mining and Mineral Research.
But he heard that UCLA had an opening for a faculty member and, as he said, "that was it."
Almost immediately, Dhir got involved in the nuclear energy department and it was here that he believes his ideas on research were formed. "I brought a fresh way of thinking because I was coming from a mechanical engineering angle," he said. At the time, experiments in the nuclear field were large and expensive. Dhir started doing smaller experiments using simulant materials. "I was able to anticipate the reaction," he said. " I saved money."
Dhir's research ultimately did more than that. The focus of Dhir's work has been to understand the boiling process and how to remove heat efficiently. The results of Dhir's research — which has been patented — has been applied to understanding how water boils on the surface of fuel rods in a nuclear reactor.
Dhir's research also has applications in the computer chip industry. As the computational power increases one of the key issues, said Dhir, is how to cool the chip. "If you can keep the temperatures lower, the chips are more reliable and the life is longer," said Dhir.
Dhir's lab — he heads up the Boiling Heat Transfer Lab — has developed jets of liquid that can remove the heat. The research is in its early stages, said Dhir, but has been tested out in elevators and has proven to be "very effective."
Life as a dean means that Dhir's former 30 hours of research a week is now only seven to eight. But, said Dhir, "I don't miss it. This is a different challenge. My challenge as a dean is to move the school forward. I'm enjoying this. It's a great opportunity. "