'Once-in-a-generation opportunity'

Meet Arvind Raman, the new John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering

Raman ready for challenges, opportunities as new dean

This was not the intended career trajectory.

When Arvind Raman made the decision to pursue academia in the late 1990s, he was happy being “in the trenches.”

He enjoyed teaching, research and interacting with talented students, and he chose to join the faculty at Purdue University’s College of Engineering because he knew it was the ideal place to excel in all three. He would be given resources and support to succeed, be encouraged to innovate and be surrounded by the world’s brightest undergraduate and graduate students.

And then came an opportunity to move into an administrative role in Purdue Engineering in 2014, and another and another.

Arvind Raman, the new John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering

It was “not at all” what Raman was expecting for his life in academia.

But it wasn’t by chance that he kept advancing, not with the leadership skills he’d developed in nearly 20 years at the College, not with the passion to pave the way for others to succeed, not with the insistence on maximizing the potential and impact for everyone within the Purdue Engineering, staff, students and faculty alike.

Then, in February 2023, the self-proclaimed “accidental administrator” was named the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering, effective April 1. Or, in other words, the leader of one of the most consequential colleges in the United States.

Raman is eager to strike that “one of the” label to simply “the” most. He believes Purdue Engineering can be just that, loaded with talent that’s “not anywhere else,” he said.

“What’s really exciting about this is, given where Purdue Engineering is at today, the success we’ve had over the last few decades even, what I see is amazing set of talents with our students — it’s never been better or larger — great faculty and staff, and the opportunities for engineering to make a huge impact on the world,” Raman said. “The world has been through difficult times recently. … If you look at these last few years, one might think things are gloomy. But the moments that have uplifted us in the last few years have been engineering marvels. They have made us reflect on how fundamental engineering is to the future of peace, prosperity, health, joy of living and planet. On top of it, we’ve got these massive federal investments that are coming down the pipeline. Whether it’s national security, the Build Back Better Program, the CHIPS and Science Act, a lot of it really is engineering-centric.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Look at the challenges ahead of us, look at the talents of our people, look at the resources coming down, what else do you need for making an impact? That’s why I’m excited. Our people, the time, this location, the support of our administration, this is the time to maximize our impact. That’s what we’re hoping to do here.”

The where Raman has been given this opportunity may carry as much weight as the job itself.

Purdue Engineering isn’t just the flagship college of the university — its undergraduate and graduate engineering programs are among the top 10 and top five in the country, according to the last two years of the U.S News and World Report college rankings, and roughly 30 percent of Purdue undergraduates are enrolled in the college — it’s where Raman was able to dig roots for the first time.

The early years

Arvind Raman was born to immigrants T.E Raman and Anuradha Raman in Uttar Pradesh in north India, five years after his brother. Both parents were college graduates.

Arvind Raman was born to immigrants T.E and Anuradha Raman in Uttar Pradesh in north India, five years after his brother, Rajeev. The family moved regularly because of T.E Raman’s job in civil services, leaving Arvind the feeling of perpetual immigrant. But through those circumstances, he learned the value of adapting to different cultures, languages and environments. Though he could never develop a sense of home related to a particular place, the constant always was family. That was enough.

Mom made sure the boys stayed focused on school, but she provided much more than motivation. Anuradha was “really, really brilliant,” Arvind said, so much so she skipped grades three times and graduated high school when she was only 15. Both Anuradha and her husband were college graduates, but it was her STEM interests — she was a chemistry teacher — that shaped the boys, ultimately breeding one engineer and one computer scientist.

Her intelligence was in their veins — and maybe some of her confidence and inquisitiveness, too.

Curiosity at his core, Arvind Raman was the kid who was as enamored with other kids’ projects at school as his own — asking questions, digging down, oftentimes resulting in his own studying later on topics that piqued his interest. The thirst for knowledge never stopped, just shifted, depending on the environment.

By the time Raman had completed his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the India Institute of Technology in Delhi in 1991, he was ready to test industry waters. An internship at a local Maruti Suzuki plant was “a blast” — so much so that he worked two shifts that summer, in part to take advantage of the free meals interns were provided, he joked — but also revealed he longed to be challenged. Graduate school, and its lure of research, was calling.

He applied to eight universities and was accepted to many. Purdue, well known in India, ultimately was the choice, with its significant status, academic rigor and excellent research reputation.

It was time to leave India.

It wasn’t easy. That was a time just before the economic liberalization of India, and opportunities were limited. Raman knew Purdue University presented challenges and opportunity, both expected and welcomed in their own ways.

But, first, challenges.

When Raman arrived in West Lafayette, he had only $600 and one suitcase. One of his first actions at Purdue was taking out a loan for $1,000, the most he could get as an international student, because his first paycheck as a research assistant wouldn’t come for months. He bought clothes from Goodwill that first semester in the States. He stretched money as he much as could, worked as hard as he could, learned as much as he could and explored his fascinations as he’d done for as long as he could remember.

His innate inquisitiveness was fostered working with master’s advisors Anil Bajaj and Patricia Davies in the School of Mechanical Engineering and blossomed during his PhD work under Dan Mote at the University of California, Berkeley, and during a brief postdoctoral work at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, under Peter Hagedorn. It deepened when he pursued academia as a career path, accepting an offer to come back to Purdue and join ME faculty as an assistant professor in 2000. 

Raman initially was hesitant to return to the same university where he’d completed his master’s, but a conversation with his dad solidified the decision.

“He said, ‘Where do you think you’ll be better cared for in your career?’ I said, ‘Here, of course. There’s a lot more support for me to succeed here.’ ‘Forget about everything else. You just have to go where you feel like you’ll have better support for what you’re trying to do.’ So I came here,” Raman said.

Purdue path

Raman had measurable success from the beginning.

He received the Purdue Teaching for Tomorrow Award that recognizes assistant professors for demonstrating talent for teaching in 2002. That same year, he earned a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award, the foundation’s most prestigious award in research and education. In 2005, he was honored with the College of Engineering Young Researcher Excellence Award. In 2008, he was named a University Faculty Scholar, one of 15 mid-career faculty recognized as being on an accelerated path for academic distinction. In 2010, he received the Keeley fellowship from the University of Oxford. In 2011, he received the Gustus L. Memorial Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for outstanding achievements in the field within 10 years of graduation. He was elected a fellow by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2012, for significant engineering achievements.

Arvind Raman did his PhD work under Dan Mote at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1990s.

The research was rewarding — in its merit, scope and dollars. The teaching was motivating — in its daily infusion of energy from the students and every light bulb moment. The environment was encouraging — in its aiding of collaborations and persistent fulfillment of curiosity.  

“(Curiosity has) been really, really key for me, and it spans even to this day. I have this natural interest in just any part of engineering or science or university. I’ll spend time to understand what people are doing,” Raman said. “Over time at Purdue, I’ve seen that. I have published with colleagues from five different colleges here, and stuff you wouldn’t imagine engineers publishing in, like biochemistry. Literally, I’ve had a chance to present these things and I find myself speaking in a language in which I had no idea I’d be able to speak five years ago. It’s a totally different community, totally different language. With colleagues, I’ve published in journals like Experimental Brain Research. Wow, right? It’s phenomenal.

“I think Purdue offers a fantastic opportunity, certainly within engineering, for people to stretch out, to collaborate extensively and to move into new arenas.”

Leah Jamieson made sure that courtesy extended to Raman.

When Jamieson was the college’s dean, she asked Raman to work with the Colombia-Purdue Institute for Advanced Scientific Research, established in 2010 in pursue global engagement between Purdue, the government of Colombia, its top universities and private sector and the U.S. Department of State. Within that role, Raman worked with Juan Ernesto de Bedout, a Purdue alumnus from Colombia and retired president for Latin American operations for Kimberly-Clark Corp, and Arden Bement, Purdue’s chief global affairs officer, as well as university presidents, vice presidents, provosts and deans. In January 2014, Raman joined a Purdue delegation to visit Colombia with then-Purdue President Mitch Daniels.

Raman absorbed the total experience, his eyes opened to see how CEOs work, how leaders interact and how collaboration and partnerships are nurtured.

“That was leadership-mentorship 101,” he says now, looking back. “I wasn’t thinking of leadership at the time, but you learn a lot from the vast experience of these people.”

When Raman returned from that 2014 trip, Jamieson asked him to become the college’s inaugural associate dean for global engineering programs. He started that role in May 2014 and held it until December 2017. He spent the next two years as senior associate dean of the faculty, appointed to that position by Mung Chiang, who became the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering in July 2017. Chiang promoted Raman to executive associate dean late in 2019, the position Raman held until being selected as dean in February 2023.

Raman is as surprised as anyone that this is where his career has taken him.

“When you’re in a position where you can pave the way for others to succeed and that happens on a daily basis and you see the success in front of your eyes, it’s a realization that, ‘Hey, perhaps, the impact you were hoping to have by the research is great, but it’s really through paving the way for others.’ That realization kind of slowing was creeping,” he said. “It’s a humbling sensation. Maybe faculty feel research is sort of fundamental, but you realize there are other ways to have an impact and then you feel, hey, life is short, let’s maximize impact in the time you have.”

Raman certainly did that during the decade of various associate dean roles. He led activities aimed at recruiting excellent and diverse faculty talent, enhancing the success of faculty and staff programs, elevating the prestige of Purdue Engineering and supporting the overall quality of academic programs and faculty development.

He secured a $2.5 million endowment to establish the Shah Family Global Innovation Lab, which supports technology development and translation for sustainable development. It has co-funded 33 research and innovation projects in 18 countries, resulting in four startup companies and patents.

Raman led the proposal that won a major USAID research competition, securing the largest award in Purdue Engineering history, up to $70 million over five years, for LASER (Long-term Assistance and SErvices for Research) PULSE (Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine). The center catalyzes a global network of universities, government agencies, organization and the private sector for practical solutions to development challenges in underdeveloped countries.

He led an overhaul of the promotion and tenure template to emphasize impact rather than numerical outputs.

He helped more than double the number of nominations of faculty for prestigious external awards and recognitions. In 2020 and 2021, a record six Purdue Engineering faculty were inducted into the National Academy of Inventors. A college record of 13 prestigious early career awardees (NSF CAREER, DoD YIP) were named in 2021-22.

He created and launched the Latinx and Black Trailblazers in Engineering Programs that attract top finishing PhDs and postdocs in engineering from historically underrepresented groups for a future faculty development workshop. Within two years, 17 secured faculty positions in engineering academia, three at Purdue.

As dean, he’s expanding the vision.

Future for Purdue Engineering

In his only public presentation before being selected dean, Raman talked about Purdue becoming “the most consequential engineering college in the nation in 2030.”

“Consequentiality is a word that speaks to the extent to which we’d have a positive impact on society. It really resonates with engineering because engineering, at its heart, is creating solutions for people in society,” Raman said. “That’s the element of creativity, the genius, the da Vincis and Lillian Gilbreths among us. It’s about adding value significantly. It’s about finding solutions or adding value, and it’s for people in society. So when you speak of consequentiality in terms of maximal extent to which we’d have a positive impact on society, that’s what engineering is about.

“It simply means, ‘How do we maximize our impact?’ It’s not about thinking impact, it’s not about having impact, it’s about maximizing the impact — the positive impact we can have on society.”

Raman looks at that in three parts: Education, research and economic development.

Purdue is currently the second-largest source of the nation’s graduating engineers, Raman said, and how Purdue educates its students can have a resounding effect on maximizing impact. There’s little argument Purdue Engineering excels in technical education — “we are pioneers in all kinds of experimental learning programs,” Raman said — but he wants to produce more than rigorously trained, technically smart engineers. He wants great engineers, who are technically excellent but also separate themselves with development of professional skills, communications, ability to lead, customer discovery and work with interdisciplinary teams.

Raman would like to see an increase in internships and other experiences that provide authentic, real-life settings to learn from, and by scaling those up, he said it’d make Purdue Engineering “second to none in experiential learning.”

“We should unquestionably be regarded as the No. 1 for experiential learning because on the technical side, we already are. So that’s a space we can really try to push the needle, and that would be impactful because we’d be producing great engineers and a huge part of the nation’s workforce at a time when the nation needs more, not fewer, engineers,” he said.

It’s not just how students are educated, though. The who is being educated also is essential to the equation, Raman said. He wants to increase the number of women, first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities within the college.

“When you’re educating a woman engineer or a first-generation college student, the impact is not just on the student. The whole family is uplifted. In many cases, communities get transformed from that one person,” he said. “So it has an exponential impact.”

Discovery of knowledge and research excellence is intrinsic to Purdue, Raman said. In order to be truly consequential on the research side, Raman wants Purdue Engineering to lead the nation in research centers that are dealing with some of the most challenging problems of our time. Whether it’s examining how artificial intelligence actually helps enhance productivity rather than have harmful effects; doubling down on how Purdue can lead the nation in the future of space, both commercial and space exploration; setting up the next generation of how cancer therapy is engineered; and much more, Raman sees it as a core to the mission of a research university to have major centers and “be the leading edge of all these things.”

Maximizing impact in research also looks at who is being impacted, in what way and the evidence of impact.

“I hope that our research will become consequential in the scientific community — that articles we write are going to be highly cited, software we write is going to be highly downloaded. I hope that our PhD students are going to be placed in the top institutions as a great acceptance of the impact on the scientific community. I hope the impact is on industry, tech transfer, not just patents but the licensing of patents,” he said.

“Maximizing impact on research will naturally lead us to the place where I hope many would like us to be, which is the majority of our programs are ranked in the top five. We’re not there yet.”

Maximizing economic development, advancing Indiana and the nation, is another key piece of Raman’s vision for the college.

Raman is pleased with the job Purdue Engineering has done to partner with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and to bring major research and development efforts to campus. That has to continue and grow, but he also wants to keep an eye on entrepreneurship, specifically by undergraduate students. Purdue Engineering hasn’t been intentional about that to this point, he said, but even if one in every 100 of the current undergrads would start a company each year, that’d be more than 100 companies opening every year in Indiana.

“We need to think differently about this,” Raman said, “but if we can do this right, we could help make Indiana the startup heartland of America, and that would be consequential.”

Challenges, surely, but opportunities also waiting to be seized.

And to be able to lead those kinds of efforts here, at his alma mater? It’s almost too much to absorb.

Raman and his wife, Laura

Raman didn’t quite realize the impact the news would have beyond Purdue until the university officially announced his new role. Then his WhatsApp started lighting up — high school friends, college buddies and family offering congratulations. The major newspapers in India covered the news, and Raman, again, saw the power of Purdue.

“Purdue Engineering is a huge brand,” he said. “I didn’t appreciate it until recently.”

But Raman clearly is moved by the significance of his new role. Perhaps because it prompted him to reflect on how he got here.

Remembering the curious kid whose mom encouraged and so loved, remembering the almost nomad-style life he left in India, remembering what stepping on Purdue’s campus felt like that first time 30 years ago, remembering those meager beginnings in the States, remembering all he has overcome, and, really, how he has thrived at every turn.

“I can’t believe the fortune I’ve had in this country,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

Raman paused, then, the emotion taking hold. His chin started to quiver. He took a deep breath, worked to get collected.

“Look at this country. It’s an amazing country,” he said, voice still unsteady, needing another pause before finishing the thought. “I think the Purdue education started it for me in this country. It’s a pretty special thing. So maybe it’s a chance to give back to Purdue.”

It is home, after all.

“The longest I’ve stayed in any one place, by far, anywhere in my life is West Lafayette, Indiana. By a decade more than any other place in the world,” he said. “If I were to say where are my roots? They’re here, in West Lafayette, Indiana.”