Purdue News

Science dean focusing on culture, large-scale research

January 29, 2010

Jeffrey Roberts, the Frederick L. Hovde Dean of the College of Science, lists among his goals ensuring that junior faculty members receive excellent mentoring. (Photo by John Underwood)

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Jeffrey Roberts, an accomplished scientist in the fields of physical and materials chemistry, joined Purdue this past fall as the Frederick L. Hovde Dean of the College of Science.

Roberts succeeds interim dean Jon Harbor. Most recently, Roberts was chairman and Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, where he also held a graduate faculty appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Roberts says among the reasons he was attracted to Purdue is that it is one of the great land-grant universities.

"Purdue's mission and goals are well-aligned with both my experience and my values," he says. "I feel strongly about the importance of publicly supported higher education and our society's obligation to create plausible, affordable and accessible higher education pathways for all its members. Purdue and its president have made it clear how seriously the University takes its responsibilities in this regard."

Roberts joined the University of Minnesota in 1990 and was named chair of the Department of Chemistry in 2005. He received his doctoral degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1988 and performed postdoctoral research in chemical engineering at Stanford University. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1982.

His goals for the college include ensuring that all junior faculty members receive excellent mentoring; increasing support for students underrepresented in the sciences; and encouraging more large-scale group research efforts supported by multi-investigator grants.

"The recent Department of Energy grant for an Engineering Frontier Research Center on biomass conversion led by Maureen McCann in biological sciences is an excellent example of the kind of effort I'd like to see more of," Roberts says. "These kinds of centers are where much of the new funding is, and we need to pursue them."

In addition, he says he would like to see Purdue and the College of Science interface more with two-year colleges to help ease the transition for students coming into the college from those institutions.Other needs he cites in the college include improving the research infrastructure, continuing to encourage interdisciplinary research, and increasing the college's endowment.

Roberts says that although his duties as dean will keep him busy, he plans to pursue his research interest in the surface chemical properties of aerosol nanoparticles. His research is concerned specifically with the fate and properties of anthropogenic (human-derived) nanoparticles when they are emitted into the atmosphere, and the deliberate synthesis of nanoparticles for materials and catalysis applications.

A proposal for a study on the catalytic activity of gold that he recently submitted to the National Science Foundation has been recommended for funding, and the work would be conducted at Purdue. The project would include student exchanges at the graduate and undergraduate levels with the University of Karlsruhe in Germany.

Roberts says he has been "extremely gratified" by all the support he has received from College of Science faculty and staff.

As a leader, he says, he likes to begin working with people to come up with a broad set of goals the group can agree on, then give them latitude to do what needs to be done.

"I spend a lot of time thinking about and working on 'culture,'" he says. "The key is to strive for an environment of high collegiality, high transparency, and high expectations. Once you have those, everything else falls into place."