Campus News

Inaugural Bloch Symposium will highlight new science and engineering department


Published May 31, 2017

portrait of Krishna Rajan sitting outside in front of green shrubbery.
“We are approaching materials science in the broadest terms.”
Krishna Rajan, Erich Bloch Endowed Chair
Department of Materials Design and Innovation

The new Department of Materials Design and Innovation (MDI) in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has just completed its first full academic year of operation and it's marking that milestone with the Erich Bloch Symposium in Materials Design and Innovation.

The event takes place May 31-June 1 in Davis Hall, North Campus. It is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

The symposium is dedicated to the late Erich Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and UB alumnus who helped endow the new department. The conference will focus on innovative strategies for research and education in the field of materials and related sciences, with the overarching goal of identifying accelerated solutions to address a broad range of societal needs.

The event will honor Bloch’s legacy and embody the essence of his philosophy that “… science is changing, the tools of science are changing, and that requires different approaches.”

Some of the most innovative thinkers in the country will be at the symposium to push the boundaries of conventional paradigms, as the meeting will explore some of today’s most pressing societal problems. “Their presence is also a testament to our department and our university,” says Krishna Rajan, the Erich Bloch Endowed Chair of the Department of Materials Design and Innovation.

The list of speakers includes:

  • Rita Colwell, distinguished professor at the University of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health; president and chairman of CosmosID Inc.; and the 11th director of the NSF, who will speak on “Climate, Human Health, Cholera and CosmosID.”
  • Neal Lane, senior fellow in science and technology policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy; Malcolm Gillis University Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University; former director of the NSF; and former science adviser to President Clinton, who will speak on “Giving the president advice on science and technology – and why it’s getting harder.”
  • C. Daniel Mote Jr., president of the National Academy of Engineering, who will speak on the “NAE Global Scholars Program.”
  • Sanjay Padhi, principal at Amazon Web Services' Global Scientific Computing Team, who will speak on “Amazon Web Service: Evolution of Predictive Analytics: From bosons to the bottom line.”
  • Gavin McIntyre, co-founder and chief scientist for Ecovative Design, who will speak on “Design and Innovation for Materials Science.”

Terry Sobolewski, senior vice president and chief customer officer for National Grid, and Brian Storey of Toyota Research Institute’s Accelerated Scientific Discovery Program and professor of mechanical engineering at Olin College, also will speak.

Each talk will be followed by panel discussions involving leading experts representing many scientific disciplines in explorations of the convergence of interdisciplinary perspectives of materials science with grand societal challenges.

A new kind of department

“We are approaching materials science in the broadest terms,” Rajan says. “We have a very ambitious agenda, as we are exploring how innovation in materials science can lead to major breakthroughs for the grand challenges facing society in areas such as health, environment, policy and energy.”

There are many academic materials science departments, but UB’s is unique in that it is “merging materials science with information science to promote accelerated discovery for accelerated impact,” he says.

That big-picture approach has involved creating a new graduate curriculum unique among materials science academic programs, he explains, and the hiring of “an exciting cadre of 17 new faculty in less than two years. We are revolutionizing approaches to teaching materials science as we develop new paradigms for conducting research.”

The department was launched in 2015 with a $1.5 million donation from Bloch, who became a high-ranking executive at IBM and is credited with greatly expanding the capabilities of computers. He was director of the NSF from 1984-90.

The new department started classes with six students last fall and expects to have 25-30 students in its master’s/PhD program in the coming academic year. A majority are expected to go on to the PhD program. An undergraduate curriculum is also being planned.

Rajan’s vision for the department reflects the changing dynamics of engineering and education in general.

“It took nearly a century to lay the scientific foundations to make steel. Well, we don’t have a century for new discoveries to meet the ever rapidly changing challenges of society. At the end of the day, we have to make things work based on a rigorous but accelerated pace of scientific understanding, and concurrently have a positive impact on solving grand challenge problems quickly. MDI is putting into practice Erich Bloch’s vision.”