Department Chair's Blog

Basking in Reflected Glory

October 15, 2013

"What do we call the day when a Yale Professor wins a Nobel Prize? We call it Monday!" were University Provost Ben Polak's opening words at yesterday's reception honoring Yale Professor of Economics Robert Shiller, who had just been announced as a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The gathering followed by exactly one week a similar event honoring Yale School of Medicine Professor James Rothman, upon his announcement as winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Combine these awards with a Presidential Inauguration and a record breaking financial gift to build two new residential colleges, and you could say it has been a pretty good couple of weeks for the Elis.

Beyond the headlines, these developments speak to two wonderful and unique aspects of the Yale culture. One is a culture of scholarship that is equal parts discovery and discourse. Like most Nobel awardees, both Shiller and Rothman dominate and define their fields, through pivotal research to be sure, but also through years of thoughtful and diligent teaching of students, colleagues, and the public. President Salovey noted that Prof. Rothman departed early from his press conference to teach his seminar course, and that Prof. Shiller is scheduled to teach a large introductory freshman (freshman!) course this spring (typical enrollment 300, perhaps now to exceed 600!). In his inaugural address, President Salovey reaffirmed the institution's unending commitment to education, citing the upcoming college expansion as an opportunity to bring the unique Yale College experience to even more of the world's qualified and deserving students. This dual devotion to the pedagogical and research sides of scholarship is deeply embedded in Yale's culture and, I believe, unequaled elsewhere.

Another is a culture of what President Salovey refers to as "basking in reflected glory," a term defined by psychologists as a "self-serving cognition whereby an individual associates him/herself with successful others, such that another's success becomes their own." [1] Like sports fans and music groupies, members of the Yale community are both inspired by and share in the successes of their colleagues. When one of us is honored, so are we all, from president on down. Awards and donations excite and unite, but a culture of teacher-scholars and shared success truly distinguishes Yale.

[1]Aronson, W. A. (2007). Social Psychology 6th Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

Letters from China

June 12, 2013

Not long ago, professional travel to China among American academics was deemed exotic. Like all things China, this perception has rapidly changed of late, so when presented with an invitation to lecture at Zhejiang University, I eagerly embarked on my first visit to the land of Confucius.

Zhejiang University is located on five campuses in the city of Hangzhou (population 8 million, 100 miles southwest of Shanghai), numbers 45,000 students, and is generally considered among the top 3 universities in China. Prof. Wen-Jun Wang of the Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering, a leading expert in polymers and fluent speaker of English, is my host, and the visit involves meeting with university representatives and lecturing on my area of expertise, biointerfacial engineering.

I have visited many universities over the years, but have never enjoyed such special treatment. We (I am accompanied by my wife) are escorted from cultural outing to scenic location to tasty meal by a gracious and knowledgeable cadre of university graduate students. Highlights include Impression West Lake, a theatrical production (literally) on the city's waterfront (the stage is a few inches below the water) depicting a traditional (tragic) Chinese love story, and an elegant dinner with scenic views atop the historic New Hotel. Why such hospitality? Our host friends are warm hearted by nature, but it also appears Zhejiang is seeking to rise even further among world universities, and sees ties to the West as key. Potential academic collaborations and student exchanges figure heavily in our discussions, and appear to be of great potential benefit to both institutions.

While urban skyscrapers and historic sites astound, most impressive are the people of China. Young men and women – indistinguishable in dress from their American peers – fill the streets and parks of Hangzhou, and emanate a delightful combination of fun, joy, and optimism. Discussions of life or work are always upbeat, and American ways are held in high esteem. While all is very orderly – no litter or antisocial behavior of any kind – the ambiance is fairly laid back, more Berkeley than Britain. Although we stand out a bit as Westerners (and are asked several times to be in photos), we feel not the least bit uncomfortable.

Yale and Zhejiang Universities have a lot to offer one another, particularly in terms of student exchange. Although much bigger than Yale, Zhejiang shares its exceptionally high standards: only the top few thousand of the 9 million students taking China's National Higher Education Entrance Exam may enter Zhejiang. Zhejiang students will find in Yale a venerable, world leading intellectual center increasingly exerting itself on the international stage, and Yale students will find in Zhejiang an ambitious institution poised for greatness in the coming century (and, a most gracious host!). To the faculty and students of Zhejiang University, my heartfelt thanks for an unforgettable visit. I look forward to hosting the next time around!

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

Under the Deep (Yale) Blue Sea

March 16, 2012

Yale University recently announced its intention to partner with the US Armed Forces in returning a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) to campus, ending a 30+ year absence. As a good-will gesture, the US Navy extended to Yale two invitations to join a submarine excursion from Andros Island, Bahamas to King’s Bay, Georgia. Somehow, one of these invitations made its way to me, so over spring break, while professors grade papers and students spy beaches, I embarked on a three day underwater voyage aboard the USS Missouri.

First, a few words on the sub. A nuclear powered naval submarine is an impressive engineering feat indeed. Nearly 400 feet long and 8000 tons, our Virginia Class sub is home to 130 officers and crew. A nuclear reactor is fueled for the life of the sub (33 years), and provides propulsion and electricity. (Radiation levels are kept lower than those of everyday life.) Oxygen is produced via electrolysis of water, carbon dioxide is removed via amine scrubbing, water is purified via forward osmosis, and a battery pack and even a diesel engine is available for back-up power. A photonic / fiber optic based imaging system replaces the traditional periscope, enabling superior viewing. Sound sensor arrays allow passive and active sonar detection of maritime vessels and ocean floor topography. Each of these features is by itself impressive – together, under 500 feet of water and packed to optimal efficiency, the ensemble is staggering.

Even more impressive than the military hardware are the officers and crew. Admiral Breckenridge is our host, and while not the Commanding Officer of the sub, is the dominant figure on board. A strong and natural leader with a human touch – think football coach meets minister – the Admiral communicates freely, generously, and gregariously, constantly teaching and sharing experience with officers and guests alike. Captain Rexrode, the sub’s Commanding Officer, is focused and knowledgeable, and manages to spend some time with us despite his extensive duties. Some of the officers are very young: Lt. Sullivan is 25, and while his civilian peers are finishing school or searching entry level jobs, he commands a full division within a US Navy submarine.

Whether commanding the ship or cleaning the mess hall, these men “own” their jobs like no one else. Knowledge, dedication, and a sense of responsibility lead to a certain “presence,” as evidenced by the confident and eloquent responses given when asked about their duties. Training, mentorship, and recognition all contribute to this successful formula. Joy and pride were front and center one evening as the Admiral and Captain recognized young officers and crewmen for superior performance during a makeshift award ceremony. What (if any) these men trail Yale students in academic breadth and depth, they make up in purpose and experience.

The control room is the most fascinating place in the sub. Here the captain, pilot, co-pilot, and several others collaborate in the important business of operating the vessel. The atmosphere is focused and serious, yet calm and controlled. Twelve or so of the roughly twenty individuals present attend to sonar, passively tracking surface vessels. Only angular information is available; absolute positioning can only be estimated, and this involves consideration of the time dependence of the external vessel’s angular sonar profile, and the known sub position and velocity. High technology indeed, but also an art! The most exciting moment is the dive, a well choreographed and surprisingly drawn out process (preparation begins about 45 minutes in advance). After numerous checks, the audible “dive” command is given, along with the expected siren, which triggers flooding of the main ballasts. The actual dive is quite rapid: a depth change from 55 to 500 feet in about a minute, with a maximum tilt angle of about 14 degrees. The atmosphere remains calm and peaceful – more like men watching a Hollywood movie than men acting in one.

Morale aboard the sub is exceptional. 90% of the men on board are under 30 (and for the moment, it is all men), but cynicism and sarcasm are totally absent. In its place, a refreshing combination of pride, confidence, humility, respect, good-humor, and “wonder” pervades. Rapport among the men is interesting to observe; support and teamwork are balanced with respect and duty. Although hierarchical, the atmosphere is never tense and not even that formal. I smile repeatedly at the good natured banter, like two young officers self-deprecatingly discussing the pros and cons of the ROTC versus Naval Academy entry routes to the Navy, or a crew member demonstrating a safety procedure joking about the “child size” gloves worn by his “gravitationally challenged” colleague. The closest analogy from civilian life is probably an athletic team, but even there discipline and honor can succumb to swagger and machismo. I’ve never been called “sir” more often in my life (if only my children would take note!), and in no encounter did I ever feel anything but welcome. 

What to take home from this experience? The US Navy and Yale University, as institutions, have a lot in common – centuries of world leadership, commitment to excellence, international focus, and willingness to re-invent. The university has a long history with the Armed Forces: from the many students having fought in our wars (just walk through Woolsey Hall) to the number of military leaders having taught in our classrooms. Yale is increasingly focused on science and engineering, and now re-joins ROTC. While the structure and certitude of military life is not for everyone – as impressed as I’ve been, I confess to having no regret for the different path I chose – engineering wonders such as US Navy subs offer unparalleled technical and leadership opportunities to students looking for challenge, open to adventure, and wishing to serve. Three days wandering an underwater war machine’s corridors, and shadowing its dedicated keepers, and three nights of bunking with five men in a room the area of a kitchen table, has provided an unforgettable and eye-opening look at a rich and storied institution, and one of its true engineering marvels.

To the officers and crew of the USS Missouri, for your kindness and hospitality, my most heartfelt thanks. I close with a few memorable quotes:

  • “Speed is like salt – it’s easy to put on, hard to take off” – Admiral Breckenridge, referring to the balance of maneuverability versus response time in choosing a submarine’s speed in narrow waters
  • “Get in, get out, taste it later” – ship doctor, referring to speed-dining in the crew’s mess hall
  • “Rule number one: the admiral is always right” – Admiral Breckenridge, explaining the rules to Uckers, a traditional Naval board game, before a match among the sub’s officers and guests.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

A Moment in the Spotlight

December 16, 2011

The holiday season brings many traditional happenings to Yale – concerts, receptions, … final exams – but an emerging not-to-be-missed event on the seasonal calendar is the Robert M. Langer Graduate Student Symposium. Now in its ninth year, this annual event provides a forum for doctoral students in chemical and environmental engineering to formally present their scholarly work to their university peers. The event is completely student run, from speaker selection to program format to dinner wine (doctoral students here … all over 21), and draws attendees from the sciences and engineering at Yale, and from the outside (this year’s guests included Prof. Carl Thompson from MIT and Dr. Terry Lieb from GE Global Research).

The Langer Symposium occupies an important space in the intellectual life of our department. Doctoral students here have access to world-class courses and laboratories, and spend their days in pursuit of new knowledge and discoveries. These scholarly endeavors – while clearly important to intellectual development – tend to occur in relative isolation, confined to the shadowy inner corridors of Yale’s gothic towers, and while discussions among fellow students are common, opportunities to proclaim ones ideas and findings in a public setting are rare. The Langer Symposium provides students this “moment in the spotlight.”

I’ve been to all nine Langer Symposia, and am always impressed by the level of scholarship, intellectual maturity, and poise of our doctoral students. That said, this year’s program was absolutely off the charts. One could easily mistake the talks – covering topics ranging from solar energy to water purification to algae derived diesel fuel – to be those of seasoned professors, if not for the speakers’ youthful faces. To all who participated: Bravo!

Now, who is Robert M. Langer? Currently 86 and living in Boston, Dr. Langer is a Yale alumnus (BS ’45, PhD ’52) who made a generous donation to the Dept. of Chemical and Environmental Engineering a few years back, and with the Chair at the time (John Walz), conceived the idea of a student-organized research symposium. Dr. Langer attended a very different Yale than we know today, during the WW II time period. His career was spent mainly with The Badger Company, a leading world-wide engineering firm ultimately acquired by Raytheon, where he rose from Process Engineer to Vice President. I keep in contact with Dr. Langer, and prior to this year’s symposium, he wrote to me saying how proud he was of our students’ efforts, how impressed he was by their research topics, and how delighted he was to see such diversity. (Seven of this year’s fourteen talks were given by women, and eight by international students; both groups were nonexistent during Dr. Langer’s college days.) We’re proud too, Dr. Langer, of a successful engineer and alumnus with the vision and generosity to give – to a talented cadre of young scholars – a moment in the spotlight.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

The Dynamic Duo

August 24, 2011

Fall is drawing near, and soon another class of Yale students will confront me with a range of questions, many focusing on whether an engineering major, and more specifically a chemical engineering major, may be right for them. Let me provide some quick thoughts.

Why engineering? The simple answer is … for fun and profit. Engineering majors are always among the highest paid bachelors level positions (see e.g., and while technical tracks offer comfortable (albeit terrestrial) salaries, engineering degree holders are uniquely suited toward very high reward ventures such as technological entrepreneurism and management. But of course, it is not really about the money … it’s about the opportunities. High salary follows high demand, and high demand translates into choices, in e.g. nature of work, job location, type of company, graduate school options, etc. Even more importantly, engineering is fun. Where else can one combine a love of science and math, interest in the latest technologies, and desire to make a difference, into a rewarding and enjoyable career?

Why chemical engineering? The chemical engineering discipline developed hand-in-hand with the chemical industry, one of America’s strongest industries, representing about $400 billion per year in economic output. (Although seldom in the press, the US chemical industry is a great national success story, every year in strong trade surplus (contrast to US automotives!) and with most jobs kept state-side (contrast to employment in electronics / computers). This success has led to the adoption of chemical engineering methods in related industries, such as microelectronics, pharmaceuticals, and biotech. Looking to the future, energy, the environment, and health care represent grand challenges facing humanity, and (arguably) no single discipline is better suited to confront these challenges than chemical engineering. By the way, did you notice chemical engineering at the top of salary charts!

Why chemical engineering at Yale? One down side to a technical profession in the global age is stiff competition from around the world. Indeed, technical skills can be found in all corners of the globe, and any professional advantage due to familiarity with the American culture – while quite significant in law, medicine, and business – is less pronounced in engineering. (For example, when seeing a doctor or lawyer, one expects shared cultural values, but when buying a computer, one cares mainly about the final product.) As Tom Friedman would say, the engineering world is very flat. Does culture then play no role in engineering? … of course it does – and that is where the Yale advantage enters in. For three centuries, Yale has focused on educating leaders, and offers an unrivaled intellectual and social environment for developing these broader, “softer” skills. Yale engineers emerge from their studies with exceptional technical backgrounds to be sure, but also with a breadth of skills, experiences, and contacts that their state and technical school counterparts – and international competitors – cannot match. The Yale College degree and the Chemical Engineering degree have long been among the highest valued professional credentials; together, they make a truly dynamic duo.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering

A Day of Pride and Hope

May 23, 2011

Hundreds of proud family members braved the New England spring rain today at Yale’s 310th Commencement. Most attended multiple events, as students were recognized altogether at a large, university-wide extravaganza on scenic Old Campus, and again at smaller ceremonies at the individual residential colleges and within certain academic units. Highlights included President Levin’s clever allusions to Mean Streets and Goodfellas while awarding Martin Scorsese an honorary degree, a mother with three children in tow handed her doctoral diploma, and stories of senior projects as varied as cardboard furniture for the poor to a working one quarter scale hovercraft.

62 Yale Engineering students were awarded bachelor’s degrees, and withstood (well-deserved) heaps of praise over academic and extra-curricular achievements. (Among the Engineering Class of 2011 were Ivy League golf and squash champions, and swimming and track team captains.) Despite the impressive achievements, modesty was the order of the day, and rare (but wholeheartedly welcome) were loud outbursts of celebration. Graduating Engineering Majors – always among the most “employable” Yalies – now go off to graduate and professional schools, to start up and consulting companies, to humanitarian and community organizations… Throughout the day, everywhere I turned, two points rang clear: pride in the accomplishments of a talented and devoted cadre of students, and hope for the future they have worked so hard to create. No place better prepares young people for success in today’s world, and few send them off with a more fitting farewell.

Paul Van Tassel
Department of Chemical & Environmental Engineering