A conversation with Ketul Popat

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CEC Communications:  Why were you interested in this position?

Ketul Popat:  As a chair position obviously, it comes with great responsibility, but with also a lot of ways that you can make positive changes in the department. For example, how do you see the department growing and what will it look like five years from now? I think that was the opportunity that excited me the most. It was also exciting to be joining a department with great faculty, great researchers, great staff, and a good student body. I felt like being in the Washington, D.C. area, there are many advantages in terms of the kind things I was looking to do. I was excited to help grow the department and when I came for the interview, Mason seemed very much on board with this whole idea of growth.

CEC Comms:  What do you bring to this position that you think will make you successful?

KP:  I feel like the experience I had as director of the biomedical engineering program at Colorado State University, managing the school and the undergraduate program and working with staff and faculty while going through ABET accreditation, made me realize that, yes, I can be a chair for a whole department. I was ready.

One of my other passions for many years was the globalization of engineering education. Our students get an excellent engineering education. But they're not prepared to jump into global challenges. I developed several study-abroad programs at CSU. I want to give Mason students that global exposure to challenges in the field of biomedical engineering because solutions to many of these problems lie in global collaborations.

CEC Comms:  What do you think the biggest global challenge we face is?

KP:  It's very hard to say. One of the very simple things that I realized after teaching the global challenges course is that students don't really know how to talk to people from different countries—it's all about the technical exchange. When I talk about communication, it's not just normal talking. Students need to realize that there's not just one way to solve problems, there are many ways.

CEC Comms:  What are some of your goals for your time as department chair?

KP:  I think one of my main goals is outreach and recruitment. I want to push that quite a bit. I know faculty and engineering is already doing that. But I want to explore how can we expand some of these outreach activities. How can we reach out to the student populations who may have never thought about bioengineering, STEM, or engineering? How do we let them know that they could be great engineers? We want them to know that we care, we want them to succeed, and that they will have the resources that they need to be successful. I think that assurance, especially for first-generation students, is critical.

My other area is curriculum. I think curriculum is a moving target that is always evolving. And I think there's always time to keep on looking at innovative ways of teaching. We need to ask, are we teaching what the demand is? Our students will graduate and will be working in industry, and we want to be sure that we prepare them.

CEC Comms:  What is your strategic vision?

KP:  I think the strategic vision I have is that five years down the road we will have a department with freshman enrollments of about 100. I think right now it's a little bit below 100. My goal is that each research, active faculty member should have at least three PhD students.  And as a department, we should have a master’s online degree program that serves students who are not in the Washington, D.C. area.

I also think our ranking is important because that helps get more applications. I’d like to improve our ranking and aim to move up 20 points in the ranking in five years, strategically thinking about undergraduate programs, partnerships, and our research enterprise.

CEC Comms:  How would you describe your leadership style?

KP:  My style is democratic leadership. I do take everyone's opinion very seriously. But at the end of the day, as a department chair, I need to make decisions, and sometimes I must make decisions unilaterally because that's what is called for. At the same time, I want to create an atmosphere in the department where people trust when you make those kinds of decisions.

CEC Comms:  How did you get interested in bioengineering?

KP:  That's a very interesting question. My undergraduate is in chemical engineering, and I got into chemical engineering because it was the hot engineering field in at the time. But then I got interested in more in research. I came to the U.S. and did my master’s in chemical engineering, and I got reacquainted with biology. I came back to biology because I had a different appreciation for biology after being in engineering. In a way, the human body is a machine. It's one of the best examples of an engineering machine. Everything that happens in our body is a mechanical, chemical, or electrical process. One thing led to another. My advisor took a chance on me when I was doing my master’s. She encouraged me to pursue bioengineering and I ended up earning a Ph.D. and completing postdocs in bioengineering, and now, here I am.

CEC Comms:  What do you do outside of work for fun?

KP:  My passion is traveling, and learning about different cultures, different places, and different countries. I really enjoy visiting new places, and for me, it's not even like being a tourist. The most exciting part for me includes doing things like just going to the grocery store and seeing how people interact and how people live life. I like to connect with people. I like learning languages. I always try to learn about a language before I visit a country.