Rice names new dean

Edwin “Ned” Thomas, the chair of the country’s No. 1-ranked Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will become dean of Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering July 1.

Both a materials scientist and a mechanical engineer, Thomas has spent the past 22 years on the MIT faculty. MIT’s School of Engineering and Department of Materials Science and Engineering have been ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report all 22 years.

“I’m thrilled to welcome to Rice someone of Ned’s accomplishments and proven leadership at the world’s top-ranked engineering school,” Rice Provost George McLendon said. “Ned has interdisciplinary vision and understands the value of cultivating more collaboration between engineering, the sciences and other disciplines at Rice.” 

Coming from a department with a research budget of $35 million, 32 faculty members, 225 graduate students, 140 undergraduates and 83 postdocs, Thomas said that Rice’s Brown School of Engineering is “the right size.” 

“I’ll be able to remember the names and faces of everyone on the faculty,” he said. Like scouts in sports who can spot players with talent, Thomas said he has “a good gene” for finding talented people. “I’ve been successful at helping people who are really good get even better, get promoted and get tenure.”

Thomas said colleagues have asked why he’s leaving the top-ranked materials science department. “At Rice, there’s a chance to move the university forward. It’s in my DNA to try to lead and make things better, and this is a great opportunity to do that,” he said. “I think I can take the School of Engineering in a new direction, and I’m eager to give it a shot.” 

He views himself as a catalyst and likes to give young faculty “really hard problems,” he said. “The harder the problem, the more interested they are.” And that factors into why engineering is central to society. 

“Many really critical problems need passionate, well-educated, innovative and versatile engineers to solve them,” he said, “and leading the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice will certainly be a great opportunity to help make this happen.”

In addition to his role as dean, Thomas will be the William and Stephanie Sick Chair and a professor in both the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Thomas said he will remain a Red Sox fan after he moves to Houston. Thomas and his wife of 40 years, Dee, have three daughters and three grandsons.

Thomas will succeed Sidney Burrus, who has served as interim dean of engineering since Sept. 1, 2010.

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