Francis J. Doyle III, the new dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has spent his career studying large, complex systems as a “control theorist” in biology and chemistry.
Now, after a semester of acclimating to Harvard, Doyle is formulating a plan to make his mark on the vast and dynamic system that is Harvard engineering.
“I’m shifting gears from being almost a sponge and having to soak up the knowledge of what the place is all about and how things work to now operationalizing that knowledge,” Doyle said.
Arriving at Harvard by way of the University of California at Santa Barbara—where he served as a dean for research at its College of Engineering and director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies—Doyle has taken the helm at a unique time in SEAS’s history. The school, a subject of skyrocketing student interest and enrollment, is planning a historic cross-river expansion to Allston in 2020 and enjoys a prominent place in Harvard’s capital campaign.
Doyle said that when he accepted Harvard’s offer, though, administrators kept quiet about some record-breaking news: a $400 million gift from hedge fund magnate John A. Paulson.
“They shielded me completely from that information. They wanted to have me make an unbiased decision with my career,” Doyle said of Paulson’s gift. “I will say it was the most delightful news that I received after accepting this offer.”
Doyle’s shortlist of priorities includes overseeing a smooth transition to the new Allston engineering campus, hiring new faculty, overhauling undergraduate research, exploring joint-degree and other “bridge-building” opportunities within Harvard, and fulfilling “unrealized targets” in the School’s portion of the $6.5 billion University-wide capital campaign.
Touted as a stellar fundraiser when he was appointed, Doyle has also been active on the development circuit as SEAS attempts to meet its “unrealized [capital campaign] targets” for “current use funds.” Though it has technically surpassed its campaign goal, the Paulson gift has been funneled entirely to the school’s endowment.
“I’ve made myself as open as possible to the needs of development,” Doyle said. “I’m finding that I can be very generous with the time that I can offer to development…. That’s really been a top priority.”
On the faculty front, Doyle has already hired computer scientist Cynthia Dwork from Microsoft Research and is in the midst of three additional searches—two for junior faculty and one for senior faculty. Despite the school’s desire to increase faculty, the lengthy search process and competition with “a very tough peer group” precludes rapid growth.
“You’re always duking it out with all of the other schools that are looking at the same candidates that you’re looking at,” Doyle said. “As we’ve risen in stature...that peer group has gotten more competitive, so now we’re duking it out with schools in the top 10.”
In addition to these agenda items, Doyle has one major project independent from administering SEAS: creating an “artificial pancreas” to revolutionize the treatment of Type 1 Diabetes.
In what Doyle describes as a “cruel irony,” his research group, which for over a decade has focused on developing the artificial pancreas, received $12.7 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health for long-term clinical trials in 240 patients. The trials are a crucial step in the commercialization process and widespread use of Doyle’s almost career-long project.
“Right at the point where the artificial pancreas is taking off and we’re doing massive clinical trials... I have less time to give to it,” Doyle said. “So it means I have to lean on the team to be a little more independent and pursue those things kind of with less of my time.”
Most of the members of Doyle’s research group moved with him from Santa Barbara to Cambridge. Joon Bok Lee, a graduate student in the group who moved from UCSB before his final year of studies, said that Doyle is an exemplary researcher and adviser.
“If you ask anyone in the lab, they will all agree that Frank is an ideal adviser to work with,” Lee said. “Why do you think I would’ve moved here with just one year left if I didn’t feel that way?”
Both Doyle’s research group and SEAS are enjoying unprecedented growth and interest. While SEAS’s undergraduate enrollment grows exponentially, its faculty grow gradually, and new office and lab space will be unavailable until the Allston move.
“We’re in a tough spot, because we’ve got this burgeoning enrollment of students, we have this wonderful growth in the undergrad population, a corresponding growth in interest on the graduate side,” Doyle said. “Until we go to Allston, we’ve got a bit of a space jam so we’re working with a zero sum like almost every other campus in the country.”
One of Doyle’s plans for serving this “burgeoning enrollment” is overhauling and expanding undergraduate research opportunities, calling undergraduate research an “unmet opportunity.” Doyle did not rule out offering course credit for research experience, a practice in place at a number of peer institutions.
Another of Doyle’s priorities is identifying “joint-degree opportunities” and additional ways to collaborate with other Harvard departments. The school is acting on this priority both inside and out of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences umbrella. Currently a joint-concentration proposal from German Languages and Literatures is awaiting approval, and Doyle has met frequently with Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria to discuss potential partnerships.
Though the Business School and SEAS won’t be neighbors until 2020, Area Dean of Bioengineering Robert D. Howe says Doyle is thinking deeply about the move.
“SEAS is going to be operating on two campuses with a large fraction of the people in Allston, but there’ll still be efforts here. How do you organize something like that?” Howe said. “I know he’s putting quite a bit of effort into thinking that through and putting in place the structures so that it doesn’t fragment, it remains coherent.”
Sunil Deshpande, a postdoctoral fellow in Doyle's group, said Doyle’s research acumen will serve him well in administration.
“As a control engineer, he plans ahead,” Deshpande said.
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