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+ By Pierre Home-Douglas
+ Photo by Chris Hamilton
Don Giddens - Photo by Chris Hamilton

Creating Buzz

Don Giddens wants ASEE to become a key player in engineering.


A few years ago, Don Giddens chaired a National Academies study on ways to improve Americans’ perception of engineering. Among the image-changing messages it proposed was a declaration that engineers “help shape the future.” The report didn’t offer Giddens’s own career as proof, but it could have. From aerospace engineering in the mid-1960s, when missiles were hot, to the expanding field of biomedical engineering and the helm of a top engineering college, Giddens has matched the tempo of a profession grabbing hold of big challenges. Now, as president of ASEE, he wants to help shape a future for the society as a central player in the field.

Growing up in Augusta, Ga., Giddens was in some ways a model future engineer, the kind many engineering faculty wish they saw more of nowadays. Not only did he love math and science in high school, drawing inspiration from an outstanding math teacher, but he loved tinkering around with his chemistry set, model airplanes, and trains – “not virtual things but real things.” Yet he credits an English teacher with instilling enthusiasm for the humanities and an enduring indoor pastime of writing short stories – short, he says in a deep, silky drawl, because “I don’t have the time to write anything longer.” (His outdoor passions are camping, hiking, and white-water kayaking.)

Specializing in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech, Giddens got an undergrad coop job at Lockheed Aircraft in Marietta. After obtaining his Ph.D., he spent two years designing missile re-entry systems at Aerospace Corp. in San Bernardino, Calif. It was a logical career path at the height of the Cold War and the space race between the United States and Soviet Union, and Giddens wanted to get industry experience. But he had enjoyed his first taste of teaching – a first-year math course while he was a college senior – and missed the research freedom offered by academe.

In 1968, he returned to Georgia Tech as an assistant professor. While ascending the ranks to Regents Professor and chair of aerospace engineering, Giddens underwent a metamorphosis in his research interests. He was drawn to the kind of engineering where, he says, “turning ideas into reality has an immense impact directly and indirectly on society.” His background in fluid mechanics enabled him to make a gradual transition in the 1970s into biomedical engineering, using engineering principles to study disease mechanisms and blood flow with a view to improving early detection and treatment. His work would gain increasing recognition over the next two decades. In 1999, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for “contributions to the understanding of the ultrasound and fluid mechanics of arteriosclerosis, and enhancing academic bioengineering education.” Looking back on his career shift, Giddens reflects, “When I was working on missiles, I was hoping that as an engineer my work would never get used. As a biomedical engineer, I hoped that what I worked on would be used.”

“When I was working on missiles, I was hoping that as an engineer my work would never get used. As a biomedical engineer, I hoped that what I worked on would be used.” — Don Giddens

Giddens’s research required cross-disciplinary collaboration with physicians and biologists, but that fit the way he liked to operate. “He’s definitely a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts guy,” says Michael Johns, chancellor of Emory University, who has worked closely with Giddens for nearly two decades. “He sees the opportunity for bringing together people who might not otherwise collaborate but when they do, a lot can happen and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Recruited in 1992 as dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, where Johns was then dean of medicine, Giddens found that as an administrator, “you get satisfaction in a less direct way than in teaching a class or writing a good research paper, but there’s a lot of satisfaction nonetheless.” He made a deliberate effort to continue working directly with graduate students. Monica Hinds had started her Ph.D. with Giddens at Georgia Tech and didn’t hesitate to follow him to Hopkins, as did two other students. “He was phenomenal to work with,” recalls Hinds, now an assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department of Oregon Health and Science University. “He would listen to your ideas even if they were kind of out there and still find something good about them and be very complimentary. Then he’d steer you in the right direction.”

 

Building a New Department

Georgia Tech lured Giddens back with a challenge that he found very appealing: launching a biomedical engineering program with Emory University, a unique partnership between a public engineering school and a private medical school. Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough, who was then president of Georgia Tech, recalls: “He had a great relationship with Emory and knew all the major players there in the medical program.” Clough adds, “Don brings a lot to the table. He’s very bright and an engaging person as well as a good fundraiser.”

Michael Johns, by then executive vice president for health affairs at Emory, was surprised that Giddens would leave Hopkins but thought him a perfect choice for the complicated assignment. “When you’re doing something that’s risky and you have to navigate tricky waters, it’s very helpful if you have someone who is not only extremely helpful and competent but also someone who understands both institutions and someone you trust. The biggest thing was trust. [Provost] Michael Thomas had complete trust in Don, and so did I.”

Giddens developed a framework for the new program and won approval from both the Board of Regents of the state system and the Emory trustees in three months – a lightning pace for large institutions. He then set about preparing curricula, hiring staff, and getting a new building constructed. Marvels Johns: “He created a unified department, created it from scratch, and today it’s one of the top three in the country. What more can you say?”

After five years running the new department, Giddens says, “I figured it was time for a new person to come in to the biomedical engineering department with the same kind of energy I had at the outset and take it to the proverbial next level.” The next level for him was to become dean of engineering, a major leap in scale from the position he had held at Johns Hopkins. Georgia Tech graduates more engineers than any other college in the United States, and consistently ranks among the top 10 schools in the country across all engineering disciplines. “I have a couple of departments at Tech that have more students and faculty than the entire engineering school at Hopkins when I was there,” Giddens says.


Confronting Society’s Problems

Giddens earned accolades from his colleagues as chair of ASEE’s Engineering Deans Council (EDC) from 2007 to 2009. “Don is very thoughtful, thorough, fair, and seeks consensus – basically all the qualities you look for in an academic leader,” says Kenneth Galloway, dean at Vanderbilt University, who succeeded Giddens as chair. Leah Jamieson, dean at Purdue University, says he possesses “the perfect mix of deep understanding and a sense of humor.” Invariably, whatever the topic, “all of us would be waiting to hear what Don would have to say.”

The EDC drew Giddens more deeply into public policy, as did his chairmanship of an 18-month National Academy of Engineering study of new messages to inform the public about engineering and encourage more young people – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – to join the field. Jamieson, who participated in the panel, says Giddens pulled together “about as diverse a group as you can imagine: people involved in K-12 education, experts in media, public relations people, as well as representatives from industry.” In a departure from most National Academies studies, the NAE panel enlisted market-research and communications pros, Madison Avenue style, to conduct focus groups and test new messages. He hasn’t let the panel’s 2008 report, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, gather dust on a shelf. He’s been active in the subsequent creation of an online tool kit to help engineering educators and professional societies become better communicators.

One way Changing the Conversation seeks to alter public perceptions is to stress how engineering contributes to prosperity, quality of life, and health. Engineering education, Giddens predicts, will take this contribution a step further. At Georgia Tech and elsewhere, it will focus on big problems, “ones associated with important societal issues such as the better distribution of energy, how to supply humanitarian aid after a disaster, and the field of healthcare stretching far beyond just biomedical engineering.” All these issues will require people with a wide range of expertise, since, as he puts it, “no one discipline can lay claim to being able to solve these complex problems.”

Recently retired from Georgia Tech, Giddens, 70, wants to help ASEE forge robust relationships with the NAE and National Science Foundation, as well as with professional societies, to play a key role in this multidisciplinary challenge. Based on what he has achieved so far, few would underestimate his ability to turn this latest idea into reality.

 

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

 



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