SEAS Dean Doyle Moves 'Full Steam Ahead' In Face of Challenges

From his time at Santa Barbara as a professor, researcher, and director, to his time here at Harvard as dean, SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III’s colleagues have consistently praised his ability to prioritize students and mentorship while also balancing administrative commitments.
By Ruth A. Hailu and Amy L. Jia

Dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Francis J. Doyle III.
Dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Francis J. Doyle III. By Courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Francis J. Doyle III began his tenure as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a lot on his plate.

It was 2015, and the school had only just announced that roughly two-thirds of SEAS faculty members — mostly from the Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering departments — would relocate across the river to a soon-to-be-built campus in Allston.

But SEAS was expanding internally too. Harvard’s youngest school had ended the previous academic year with its highest number of concentrators to date — 832 undergraduates — and now had to contend with increased demands on faculty members and teaching staff.

Despite the formidable challenges that loomed before him, Doyle said he was excited to take the helm of SEAS at a time when the school was on a “dynamic.”

“To move to another place and hold an institution at steady state in some position — even if it’s a high position — is not nearly as exciting,” he said in a February interview. “Being part of change and the dynamic associated with program evolution is really exciting for me as an administrator.”

In the three years since Doyle assumed deanship at SEAS, he has overseen a number of projects and initiatives, including finalizing plans for the impending expansion into Allston, supporting efforts to promote diversity at SEAS, and strengthening the school’s industry ties and partnerships with local corporations.

From his time at University of California, Santa Barbara as a professor, researcher, and director, to his time here at Harvard as dean, Doyle’s colleagues have consistently praised his ability to prioritize students and mentorship while also balancing administrative commitments.

John H. Abel, a postdoctoral fellow who was advised by Doyle at UCSB and Harvard, said in an interview December that Doyle’s mentorship has extended beyond the scientific aspects of his work.

“I feel like I got a lot out of his scientific training, but I also got a lot out of the kind of training that he gave me on not just how to conduct science, but how to be a conscientious member of the scientific community,” Abel said.

EMERGING AS A LEADER

Prior to his tenure as dean of SEAS, Doyle served as the associate dean for research at the UCSB’s College of Engineering and the chair of the school’s Chemical Engineering department.

Doyle said in an interview November that his training and teaching experiences over the course of his career have exposed him to an “interesting mix of styles and models for programs.”

Through these experiences, he observed firsthand “how leadership was more effective and less effective in various circumstances, how to balance faculty governance with central administration, and how to prioritize the needs of the students in the classroom” — lessons that, in turn, influenced his approach as dean of SEAS.

In particular, Doyle said his time directing the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies in Santa Barbara, Calif., gave him the sense that facilitating the careers of younger faculty members “was where my passion or my energy would lie.”

“I truly derive more pleasure in seeing that I can help direct resources for younger faculty who are in startup mode to get their program launched than any of the excitement associated with getting a grant in my lab,” Doyle said.

Bioengineering Professor Samir Mitragotri, who worked with Doyle at UCSB, said in a December interview that he has witnessed Doyle grow into an effective leader over the 15 years he has known him.

“He emerged as a leader largely through his unique skills in coalescing people around teams that connect people,” Mitragotri said. “What he was really good at is talking to people who are doing different things, their own work, but identifying a common theme that connects all of them.”

BALANCING RESEARCH AND DEANSHIP

Often, when transitioning from professorship to deanship, professors give up their research activities. Doyle, however, still actively conducts research in his lab on campus to generate an “artificial pancreas,” which is currently in clinical trials.

“In some regards, that couldn’t be put on hold,” Doyle said, regarding his decision to maintain his lab. “There’s a medical need, there’s a human need, and we had to go full steam ahead to continue to do that.”

Doyle’s prowess as a leader also manifests in his management of his lab, according to two former lab members.

Abel, who began working under Doyle at UCSB in January 2014 and followed him to Harvard in 2015, said one of his main reasons for choosing Doyle’s lab was that it seemed “exceptionally well-run.” He added that many former lab members shared very positive stories about working with Doyle.

“All of them had remarkably kind things to say — not just about Frank, the scientist, but also about Frank, the person, and especially Frank, the leader of the group,” he said.

Eyal Dassau, a senior research fellow in Biomedical Engineering who trained under Doyle as a postdoctoral fellow at UCSB and followed Doyle to Harvard, echoed Abel’s assessment of Doyle as an effective leader in an email.

“His ability to quickly zoom and identify the engineering challenges always impressed me,” he wrote.

Abel said the way Doyle runs SEAS parallels the way he runs his lab. Central to both is Doyle’s idea that “many different people with different perspectives, different backgrounds can come together and approach the same problems from different angles” to yield the best solution.

He added that Doyle was incredibly supportive as a mentor and never pressured him to immediately have results or come up with some idea.

“I would say that the degree to which he supports or that he gives you the space to try new things and fail is pretty remarkable,” Abel said. “He really doesn’t add a lot of pressure and lets you have the freedom to make the progress that you make in whatever you’re excited about.”

'ON THE PULSE'

Doyle said in a February interview that maintaining a close connection to the student body at SEAS is one of his foremost priorities.

“Twenty-seven years ago, I became a professor because I love teaching,” he said. “Pulling myself out of the classroom was a sacrifice I made to take this job, but I try to replace that with lots of contact with our students.”

In addition to meeting regularly with student leaders of engineering-related organizations at SEAS and the College, Doyle also serves as a concentration advisor for 15 to 20 undergraduates studying Bioengineering. He said this role has allowed him to “keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the program.”

Several of Doyle’s student advisees praised his commitment to ensuring that the student experience at SEAS is as rewarding as it can be.

“Dean Doyle really tries to get to know each student, which is quite ambitious considering his multitude of responsibilities,” Shelby C. Yuan ’19 wrote in an email.

Yuan wrote that Doyle was always willing to chat with students about their personal interests, with many meetings ending up as an “animated discussion about soccer or running” — two of Doyle’s hobbies.

She added that Doyle often gave students advice about internships, labwork, and post-graduation options, and encouraged them to take advantage of his connections at Harvard and beyond.

“Overall, I think his efforts at maintaining strong advising relationships with students are remarkable, and I hope it’ll stay this way as SEAS grows,” she wrote.

Augusta C. Uwamanzu-Nna ’20 wrote in an email that Doyle once lent her a laptop for three weeks after hers abruptly stopped working. This was especially important, according to Uwamanzu-Nna, since “many of my assignments in multiple classes involved coding and the need to collaborate with peers.”

She added that, as a founding board member of the National Society of Black Engineers, she also meets regularly with Doyle to discuss SEAS’s commitment to promoting diversity, inclusion, and belonging at the school.

“Navigating SEAS as a black woman in engineering is definitely not trivial, but being able to be supported through organizations like NSBE and fundamentally by individuals like Dean Doyle has been great,” Uwamanzu-Nna wrote.

Uwamanzu-Nna wrote that she has appreciated Doyle’s receptiveness to constructive feedback, especially in regards to supporting underrepresented communities. She cited an instance in which she told Doyle she had concerns that none of the five panelists at her SEAS Sophomore Convocation last year was a person of color. This year’s panel reflected her feedback — one of the two panelists, Jeffrey M. Allen ’06, is a black engineer.

Uwamanzu-Nna wrote that Doyle has greatly contributed to her experience at SEAS over the past two years.

“The nature of some of my SEAS courses and the overall SEAS atmosphere has sometimes made me feel robotic and forced to push my emotions and humanity to the background,” she wrote. “However, all of my interactions with Dean Doyle have been the exact opposite, as I feel my voice, emotions, and humanity as a person have been heard, recognized and acknowledged.”

Correction: April 13, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Francis Doyle directed the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute. In fact, he directed the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, which worked closely with SDIR.

—Staff writer Ruth A. Hailu can be reached at ruth.hailu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_hailu_.

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

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