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Dean Charts Vision for Natural Sciences

January 18, 2012

Dean of Natural Sciences Juan Meza began his tenure at UC Merced in September, and he wasted no time in meeting with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff to learn about the areas where the school is doing well and look for places to improve.

Meza studied at Rice University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics. Before coming to UC Merced, he worked at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as head of the High Performance Computing Research Department and also served as acting director of the Computational Research Division.

At LBNL, Meza helped grow research funding levels and established collaborations with the lab’s earth sciences, environmental energy technologies, physics and genomics divisions.

Meza, named one of Hispanic Business magazine’s “Top 100 Influentials of 2009” and one of the “Top 200 Most Influential Hispanics in Technology” by Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology magazine in April, is the son of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college student.

Most recently, he was elected to serve as a board member to the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and appointed by U.S. Undersecretary for Science Steven E. Koonin to serve as a member of the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee.

The following is a brief question-and-answer session with Meza.

What is your vision for the School of Natural Sciences?

I have three major components in my vision for the School of Natural Sciences: research, education and innovation. I’d like to have the school be one of the leaders in multidisciplinary research. So many of our nation’s biggest challenges are a result of a combination of complex interactions between disciplines that we as scientists need to take a new and broader view on how to solve them.

We also need to maintain a reputation for academic excellence at both the undergraduate and graduate student level. I would be especially happy if we were remembered for providing a bridge for all those first-generation students that may be taking those beginning steps toward a science or technology career. Finally, I’d like to have us be seen as innovating all of our administrative and business operations. It’s important to realize that in order for us to be successful, we need to have excellence in our administrative support as well.

How do you plan to help make the vision a reality?

The only way to make this vision a reality is to have everybody working together: faculty, staff and students. These are challenging times, and we all need to be pulling in the same direction. From what I’ve seen so far, this may not be too hard. UC Merced seems to attract a certain type of person – those who thrive in challenging situations.

What centers or institutes would you like to see developed?

I’m a big believer in computation. This field has changed tremendously in the last 20 years, and we’re on the verge of yet another revolution. The two major developments are parallelism and big data. The role of modeling and simulation has changed the way we do science, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The other major trend is in the availability of data. This trend has been around for several years in the scientific community, but it will soon reach other areas. The main impact here is that as a society we will have an enormous amount of data, but not the easy tools for making sense of it.

Do you plan to continue your research while dean? If so, what kind of research do you plan to do?

Absolutely. My field is in the area of high-performance computing and mathematics. I still have a couple of grants that I’m spending some time on. One is in the area of understanding the robustness and vulnerabilities of the electric power grid. Another is in developing machine-learning algorithms for predicting events such as cyber attacks and finding hidden patterns in large data sets.

What qualities make someone a successful dean?

For me, one of the most important qualities is being a good listener, followed closely by being a good communicator. We need to listen carefully to what people are saying, because it’s just too easy to assume that you already understand what you’re hearing.

You also need to be able to think creatively. So many of our challenges come from new types of problems that don’t have ready solutions. I like to encourage everybody to think creatively about approaching problems. If we’ve been following some process for the last 10 years and we’re not getting the results we want, we need to explore new methods. And many times that means dreaming up new ways of doing business that don’t necessarily follow standard procedures.