Class In Session

UC Davis Dean of Engineering Jennifer Sinclair Curtis on her vision for the program’s future

Back Q&A Jun 16, 2016 By Rich Ehisen

For decades, the UC Davis College of Engineering has consistently ranked in the top 35 engineering programs in the nation. That’s definitely good, but not remotely good enough for new engineering dean, Jennifer Sinclair Curtis, who took over the post last October. We recently sat down with the highly accomplished chemical engineer to discuss her vision for making the program even better.

You’ve said that not enough UC Davis engineering students take advantage of the internships available to them in both the private and public sectors. What is being done to better connect students with those opportunities?

One key way is having practicing engineers come back to UC Davis to talk. Some of our departments have an industry seminar series, but it’s not uniform across the college. One of the things I want to work on is starting an industry seminar series for all engineering students, because I think the practicing engineers are going to be the ones to best tell students about the opportunities and the different roles they can have, and how important it is to have those internships. A lot of companies now won’t even interview you for a permanent job unless you’ve had a previous internship. That message is not getting across to students who indeed want to go into industry, as opposed to furthering their education in grad school.

You’ve talked a lot about the need for engineering students to get outside their comfort zones and embrace opportunities that will make them better leaders. What are some of those opportunities and how do they find them?

In Her Own Words

Jennifer Sinclair Curtis

  • I consider the world’s most impressive engineering feat: The space shuttle
  • I most admire: My late husband Gavin Sinclair, and his strong faith and perseverance during cancer and various other health trials over a 15-year period
  • My greatest fear: Drowning
  • The best advice I’ve been given: Never overestimate your own importance
  • If I could have any other profession, I’d be: Dance studio owner and instructor

Well, the study abroad [program] is certainly one key way — moving outside of California, experiencing a completely new culture and environment … Many of our students are low-income, first-generation students, so they don’t have their family telling them these messages [about different opportunities]. I was one of those types of students. My own undergraduate adviser at Purdue was the one who told me about getting into grad school, what I needed to do to apply [and inviting me into the lab] to see what research is like. But if I didn’t have a mentor like that telling me the importance of trying out research, I would have never known.

You’ve noted a desire to get more students to take advantage of the entrepreneurial programs the university offers. How do you get them involved?

We have an engineering student startup center where we are teaching students entrepreneurship skills, both formally and informally. Those classes are in high demand so we’re looking to expand the offerings. We’ve hired another person who is going to be directing that center. We’re also moving the facility to our engineering student design center, where they can take design and build, prototyping, 3D printing and … collaborate on and develop technologies. I think that’s an area of growth. Students seem to be already interested. We also have a technology management minor offered by the Graduate School of Management … That combination of the business with the engineering is very powerful.

Many people in this region feel the biggest difference between CSU engineering grads and UC grads is that CSU students come out with better hands-on, practical knowledge that more easily transfers to the real world, while UC students tend to be more theoretical and less ready to step right into a job. You probably disagree, but how do you ensure your undergrads are really prepared for the realities of the workplace?

I know exactly what you’re talking about, because at a lot of top engineering schools the curriculum is perhaps more theoretical and aimed at preparing students for graduate school. I can’t speak for the other UCs but I can definitely tell you, the culture here is that the kind of training they get is very hands-on. I don’t think it’s all theory.

“A lot of companies now won’t even interview you for a permanent job unless you’ve had a previous internship. That message is not getting across to students who indeed want to go into industry, as opposed to furthering their education in grad school.” Jennifer Sinclair Curtis
Engineering still tends to be something of an old boys’ club, and many women say they don’t see the pathway to advancement they see in other fields. Do you agree? If so, how do we change it?

Women students need to see the role models. They need to see the path. For instance, after I finished my undergrad degree I went to graduate school at Princeton, and I happened to be fortunate that one of my instructors was one of the first women professors in chemical engineering. At that time, she was pregnant with her first child. She never mentored me, but that’s all I needed to see. I saw a woman professor who I knew was married and having a child. For me, just knowing she did that, I thought, ‘I can do that too.’ And we’ve placed a huge emphasis here at Davis on hiring women faculty. Right now, we’re third in the country in terms of women engineering faculty. Hiring role models so students can see the path, I think, is really important.

People of color are also underrepresented in the field. What is UC Davis doing to reach out to those communities to bring them into the college?

The place we see the most promising avenue for increasing our underrepresented minorities is through the transfer programs through community colleges. We have just initiated a very comprehensive program for targeting three community colleges and facilitating interactions between our faculty and their faculty, to make the pathways seamless and to make sure those students have a very smooth transition and that the knowledge base they bring with them to Davis is appropriate for success here. Because you hear a lot about ‘transfer shock’ when students transfer, and we want to get them through that.… Thirty-two percent of [the university’s] transfer applicants are now underrepresented minorities. So it’s huge. And that’s where we think we can make the biggest impact the quickest. We’ve already received $1 million from the Koret Foundation and we’ve just submitted a very large proposal — multimillion dollars — to two large corporations, which we should be hearing back from soon, who have already expressed interest in partnering with us on this. So this is going to be a huge area of focus for us, both in engineering and the campus.