By Chelsea Yates
On November 1, Dr. Nancy Allbritton will join us as the new Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of the College of Engineering. A faculty member, researcher and chair of the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and North Carolina (NC) State University, Allbritton brings an impressive record of leadership, teaching, research and innovation to the UW.
Allbritton joined UNC in 2007 after 13 years on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. In 2009, Allbritton became chair and expanded the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, a single unit that spans UNC and NC State and includes faculty from UNC’s School of Medicine and College of Arts & Sciences and NC State’s College of Engineering. She has received excellence in teaching awards and has advised 42 graduate students and trained 33 postdoctoral fellows.
Allbritton’s research has been funded by more than $60 million in grants. She develops technologies and platforms for biomedical research and clinical care, including the study and analysis of single cells for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, macular degeneration and HIV. She has co-founded four startup companies and holds 43 patents that have led to 15 commercial products.
After earning her doctorate in medical physics/medical engineering from MIT, Allbritton completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. She holds a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and her bachelor’s degree in physics from Louisiana State University.
The College of Engineering’s Chelsea Yates recently spoke with Allbritton about her background, career highlights and vision for engineering research and education at the UW.
How did you become interested in engineering?
I think I was born an engineer, even though it was years before I learned what engineers do, or that engineering was something I could do. As a child, I liked to design and build things. My grandfather and I would take apart and reassemble TVs and build bookshelves together. I designed quite a few rabbit hutches on my own. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of solving problems — understanding, designing, building and testing solutions.
After years of teaching and research, what drew you to administration?
I’m driven by the question, How can I do more? Having a positive impact has always been core to my teaching and research, and I felt I could have much broader impact as an administrative leader.
What are characteristics that every leader should possess?
The ability to articulate and execute a clear vision, but more than anything, an effective leader puts others first and empowers them to succeed. Strong leaders are honest and trustworthy, they listen, and they work to develop a rich community of problem-solvers.
What attracted you to the UW? What opportunities most excite you here?
I see the UW as a fantastic, forward-looking institution — it’s internationally known with numerous awards and accolades, values collaboration, research and innovation, and has a real commitment to diversity.
There also seems to be strong industry and state support for engineering in Washington that will enrich student experiences and faculty research. And, cross-campus collaboration is a strength that I’m looking forward to broadening, in particular with Arts & Sciences, the Foster School of Business and UW Medicine.
Finally, how do we make engineering education scalable and affordable? There’s great opportunity for the UW to become an international leader in transforming engineering education.
Tell us more about the opportunities and challenges facing engineering education, as you see them.
Making engineering accessible for people of all backgrounds is one of the biggest. High school education varies greatly, and so how can we ensure that all creative, bright minds know that engineering is an option. We also need to increase public understanding of engineering, and what engineers do. In terms of teaching and curriculum, we need to embed social responsibility, professional skills development and hands-on, real-world learning opportunities into engineering education at all levels.
We can also think more broadly about how to de-silo traditional engineering disciplines and teach engineering students to become cross-disciplinary engineers.
You’ve led large cross-disciplinary initiatives. What are the keys to effective partnership?
Collaboration requires diverse teams that represent diverse viewpoints — of disciplines, backgrounds and experiences. It’s not enough that diversity is represented; it also must be respected. The most successful collaborations understand and embrace this.
What are some of your personal career highlights?
Seeing my students succeed and grow into leaders. I’m also very proud of the Biomedical Engineering department I’ve led for the last ten years. It now grants dual degrees across two universities and I feel confident it will continue to soar. As a researcher and innovator, I love identifying unmet problems in biomedical research and developing solutions. One of the best feelings is visiting someone’s lab and seeing tech I’ve designed in use — especially when they have no idea that I developed it.
At the UW, you’ll hold an appointment in Bioengineering. Tell us about your plans to continue your research.
I’m planning a scaled-down version of my current lab’s work with deeper concentration in single-cell enzymatic assays and organ-on-a-chip technology. The latter will be our core focus; we’re developing a large intestine-on-a-chip for better drug screening and disease modeling.
What are your thoughts on balancing the College’s teaching and research missions?
Both are fundamental. Universities are economic and innovation engines; we have an obligation to develop impactful research, create new technologies and solve society’s greatest problems. Similarly, we’re preparing future generations of engineers, innovators and leaders. Society has given us these responsibilities, and we need to do both exceptionally well.
Join us in welcoming Dr. Allbritton to the UW Engineering community and read more about her here.
Originally published October 1, 2019