A commonality among successful academics who went on to positions of academic leadership is that they were not necessarily looking to take on responsibilities, but agreed out of a sense of service when the opportunity presented itself. The leadership qualities successful administrators present are a combination of innate people skills, the experience of a life immersed in academia, and on the job training. As Frank Doyle quips below, despite being "very good at saying no," he said yes at one pivotal moment, which put him on a path from his initial appointment as a professor of chemical engineering to his brand-new post as Provost of Brown University. As he reflects, the secret to administrative success is to stay close to one's roots: stick to the research and keep an active and dynamic group of graduate students, and teach whenever possible.
Born and raised in Delaware, Doyle began his education at Princeton which helped to solidify his interests around chemical engineering, undoubtedly assisted by the fact that his father was a chemical engineer. After a formative year at Cambridge, and the wonderful opportunity to spend time with extended family in Ireland, Doyle entered graduate school at Caltech, where he worked with Manfred Morari in exploring nonlinearity in process control at a time when computational advances were offering exciting new research possibilities. After his postdoctoral appointment at DuPont, which provided a great opportunity to pursue his scholarly interests with an industrial setting, Doyle went on to join the faculty at Purdue and then the University of Delaware, both of which he recalls fondly asf enriching experiences. It was at UC Santa Barbara where Doyle first entered the world of administrative leadership, and where he became more fully engaged in biotechnology and an academic consortium partnership that included Caltech and MIT. When the opportunity to become Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences became available, Doyle - who loved Santa Barbara and intended to retire there - accepted this singular opportunity, where he soon got to work with the investor John Paulson to create new directions and partnerships within and beyond the school.
Doyle reflected on his career up to this point in a moment of transition. In December 2022, Brown University announced that Doyle would be its next provost, and he describes the many initiatives and possibilities at Brown which made this an exciting and compelling next chapter in his life. Undoubtedly Doyle will continue to draw on his experiences and Caltech education in his new appointment.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, June 8th, 2023. I am delighted to be here with Professor Francis J. Doyle, III. Frank, it's great to be with you. Thanks so much for joining me today.
FRANK DOYLE: Thank you for having me here.
ZIERLER: To start, will you tell me your current title and institutional affiliation? And, because this is a moment of transition in your career, your future title and institutional affiliation?
DOYLE: Happy to, sure. I am presently the John A. Paulson Dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, where I am also the John A. & Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
ZIERLER: Where are you headed?
DOYLE: Come July 1st, I will have a new title, a new home, and new responsibilities. I will become the Provost at Brown University, with an appointment in the Engineering School as well as a secondary appointment in the Medical School.
Joining Brown as Provost
ZIERLER: Tell me about some of the exciting initiatives at Brown and how that might have fed into this becoming a compelling opportunity for you.
DOYLE: That's a wonderful place to start. I will say that when I was first contacted, I made the somewhat bold statement to leaders at Brown that I had the best engineering dean's job in the country. I genuinely believe that, and we can get into the details of how I might quantify that. So, I was not in the market; I wasn't looking, I wasn't applying, for provost positions. But I had a number of conversations with folks there, and had a genuine sense of a moment in time, a moment in history, if you will, where there was a tremendous inflection point at Brown, where there was about to be an incredible liftoff in terms of the research agenda, what the campus was trying to accomplish, all the while rooted in the power of a liberal arts institution, which I resonate strongly with from my undergraduate days as well as my current dean days. In sum, the future, the opportunities for growth, the opportunities for leadership, of an initiative like that, became so compelling that I followed through and engaged in the process and was humbled to be picked to be the next provost.
ZIERLER: To gain an understanding of the overall trajectory of your career, when did academic administration and leadership really become a part of what you do? When did that happen in your professional career?
DOYLE: I would say that I had become very good at saying "no" to those kinds of things for a good part of my career. I think the real immersion into that space, the first sort of taste of administration for me, was running a very large biotech center when I was at UC Santa Barbara. I was one of the founding principals of what had been at the time, and I believe is still today, the largest research center on the campus, something called the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. I'm particularly proud of this one in this context, because it's a three-campus effort. UCSB was the headquarters, but Caltech and MIT were partners in the initiative. That was really the beginning of whetting my appetite for getting involved in leadership, getting involved in resource management. Having the resources from the Army grant—it was an Army sponsored institute—and being able to bring those resources to my faculty colleagues and enable them to do the amazing things they do in the research world.
ZIERLER: As a dean at Harvard over the past seven or eight years, have you been able to retain an active research agenda? Do you teach? Do you have graduate students?
DOYLE: I guess it would be yes, no, yes, if I got the questions in the right order. [laughs] I'm proud of the fact that with considerable effort I was able to maintain virtually the same level of research productivity that I had before the deanship. I really credit that with the powerful team that moved with me. You might have thought that leaving the Santa Barbara Mediterranean climate would be a bit of an uphill challenge to move people to Boston, but nearly every single member of our team picked up and moved with us, and so we kept the momentum somewhat unchecked. I found a very receptive environment at Harvard where the faculty and my fellow leaders were supportive of the idea that a dean would be, if you will, in the trenches, and experiencing the same challenges, the same rewards, of a faculty member doing research. So really coming out of COVID was the beginning of things slowing down, where I had so much to manage on the university side that I began to be not as active in grant writing and new projects, and that's when the group began to shrink a bit.
Harvard Engineering and Interdisciplinarity in its DNA
ZIERLER: Looking at your research, it's so multifaceted. There's math, there's biology, there's chemistry, there's engineering, there's computer science. What would be the umbrella discipline where you'd say all the things that you've worked on fit under it in one way or another?
DOYLE: You know, it's interesting—as dean here at Harvard, I find myself in the unusual position that my field of training, chemical engineering, is not represented as one of our "Areas" at Harvard. At Harvard, we don't have departments; we have what we call Areas. We're a very fluid, boundary-less environment. I like to align myself with nearly each of the individual areas we do have at Harvard. I wouldn't say that I'm 100% under the Bioengineering moniker. That is my faculty home for voting on cases and things like that, but in my professional life, I spend most of my time with the IEEE. I align with the electrical engineers and the work they do in feedback controls and automation. The research that we do working with medical doctors and life scientists is really applied mathematics, and we're bringing modeling tools, we're bringing analytical methods. Lately, we've been working on embedded systems that you would put directly on a chip in a device, and so I've had computer science PhDs working in my lab. In many ways, we really have embraced this Harvard approach to boundaryless science and engineering, and my lab really has floated across many different spaces where we needed the expertise to pull in to solve a particular problem at hand.
ZIERLER: I'm sure it remains to be seen, but moving to Brown, do you at least aspire to remain active in research, or as provost, that really might not be feasible?
DOYLE: I think I'm a bit more grounded in this transition, in recognizing that I can't think of, at the moment—and you may correct me, or one of your listeners could correct me offline later—I can't think of too many provosts who are active in research. It is such an all-consuming responsibility when you have that holistic level of oversight for all academic operations on the campus, it's hard to imagine that you could do that and simultaneously freelance research. By the way, I didn't fully answer your earlier questions. I'm not teaching. That was a sacrifice I had to make when I came to the job at Harvard. I imagine I might be able to sneak in to teach a seminar course, or who knows, maybe a course over in Chemical Engineering or Bioengineering. I hold that hope that I can get back in the classroom. I am an author of a textbook. We are actually beginning to work on the next edition of that. So, who knows; maybe I could get back in the classroom. But the lab is going to be on pause for a bit.
ZIERLER: In looking over all of your research, what aspects would you say are purely fundamental, basic science, and where have you really been motivated by applications and societal impact?
DOYLE: That's a great way to frame things, David. When I originally got interested in life sciences, back in my postdoc days, it was really to try to get at eliciting understanding of how things worked in nature by bringing tools, methodologies, perspectives from engineering, but it really was at advancing our understanding of fundamentals. In my lab, that took root in problems with a focus on circadian rhythms, where we tried to understand, at a molecular basis, at a gene regulatory basis, how those circuits in your brain were responsible for and gave rise to the remarkable robustness in the mechanisms of timekeeping in your body. That involved bringing engineering insights, methodologies, tools, perspectives, together with the data and the collaborations with life scientists to advance our understanding of what was underlying human biological rhythms. I'd say at the translational end of the spectrum, it has really been our work with diabetes, where we first got into this—I had the occasion to dig up my original proposal from 1994, nearly 30 years ago, where we opined that we thought we could put together a system that would automatically, in a closed-loop manner, deliver insulin into the body to keep the blood sugars on target. At the time, we didn't have the various technological components—sensors, pumps—but we went ahead and we built math models. We worked on the algorithms.
Maybe it was applied research in the beginning, and then it became ultimately translational in the last decade, where we did clinical work and eventually played a crucial role in putting a product in the market.
Biotechnology in Academia and Industry
ZIERLER: Have you been involved personally with startups, or have you seen your research take on an afterlife beyond your lab?
DOYLE: We had a false start with one startup, so I won't say the name of that entity. It was, I would say, a naïve approach where a bunch of folks who were scientists and medically oriented had marvelous expertise on that side, but we didn't have somebody who understood the business side, and that was a glaring weakness in our failed first attempt. We came at this a second time, and this was happening right as I was being recruited to go to Harvard, so I couldn't directly get involved. I knew that as a fledgling dean, I had to really focus on the new institution, so I remained an advisor to the company. That entity was called Mode AGC, AGC being an acronym for automatic glucose control. That's the company that wound up executing a license with one of the big insulin pump companies and contributed to putting a product in the market at the beginning of last year, early 2022.
ZIERLER: With Boston being a biotech hub, has that really been an asset for your research, for your group?
DOYLE: Oh, it has been huge, absolutely. Between the companies that we work with in the region, the neighboring schools; I think the power of being at a place like Harvard where we've got the medical ecosystem has been transformative. I have an appointment in the Division of Sleep Medicine, and that's where my circadian rhythms collaborations are anchored. But we also have the Joslin Diabetes Center here as well. They became valuable, strategic clinical partners, working with us to test the different algorithms and modalities we had in human clinical studies.
ZIERLER: I want to ask—I'm sure you're in reflection mode during your deanship at Harvard—a few overall questions about what you've built, what you're leaving behind. But first, to stick with your own research, obviously a theme of your work has been interdisciplinarity, breaking down these boundaries between the disciplines. To what extent did you really promote interdisciplinarity at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, just as a way that this is where science and higher education was going?
DOYLE: I think that I was lucky to come into Harvard where that was already in the DNA. From the beginning, the Engineering School was effectively a department, a modest sized unit that just had all of the engineers and applied scientists under one roof. But even as we grew to approaching the size of a college or a school at a peer institution, we stayed under a single umbrella. We had faculty voting as a single body. We had graduate students being recruited to work with faculty across the entirety of the school. So, I can't take credit for the Harvard DNA, but I certainly came in, recognized that that was the proverbial secret sauce, and continued to expand that. I would say where I was able to perhaps push it in some new directions was the fact that each of the new graduate degrees that I championed, that I helped sponsor as dean—three at the master's level and one PhD—each were bigger than engineering; they were in fact formal partnerships with other Harvard schools. The first one was a joint degree with the Graduate School of Design, a master's of Design Engineering. The second one was a joint degree with the Business School. We had this vision that it wasn't a new degree that we wanted to create, but if you will, a melding or partnering of a traditional MS with the MBA, so that students got both credentials in that experience. The third joint degree was a master's of Data Science, and that was bridging across to Statistics and the Division of Science, outside of Engineering. Then the most recent one we stood up was a PhD in Quantum Science and Engineering, which is a powerful, powerful alliance of chemists, physicists, as well as electrical engineers, applied physicists, and computer scientists on my faculty.
As a leader on the academic side of things, I strongly promoted building up new programs, new degrees, that spanned not just disciplines but spanned schools, at Harvard. I would say the same is true of the big research initiatives that we were able to launch during my deanship. They included initiatives in quantum. We started with something called the Harvard Quantum Initiative, and that has grown now to have a building, to have major sponsorship from big tech companies like AWS, to having faculty lines, recruiting, the new PhD program. The other program which is far more recent, just in the past year and a half basically, was a new center in AI. It's called the Kempner Institute for Natural and Artificial Intelligence. That spanned neuroscience, computer science, applied math, statistics. So, I came into an environment that already promoted and encouraged breaking down walls, working beyond the siloes that we typically have in the Academy. But I was able to flourish, if you will, in that environment as an administrative leader, by building new programs that further broke down these traditional barriers.
Science and Engineering in the Context of National Policy
ZIERLER: Of course, all of these disciplines have significant national policy, science policy implications. Did you see your role as dean as being particularly responsive—was it important for you to part of those national policy conversations?
DOYLE: David, thank you for asking that question, as I have been doing the reflection that you mentioned earlier, and something that I will characterize as one of the most significant things, certainly one of the most impactful and rewarding things that I did during my deanship, which was to establish a working group with the late Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who passed away last fall. He and I teamed up as soon as he came back from Washington in 2016 to be on our faculty. He also had an appointment at MIT. I'll never forget, he showed up in my office one day with a security detail, and he said, "Dean Doyle, what can I do for you?" And I looked across the table, and I said, "Secretary Carter, what can I do for you?"
DOYLE: It really was the beginning of a profoundly stimulating and rewarding experience and partnership. Ash and I pulled together across the Boston ecosystem thought leaders in policy, in technology, from the private sector, from the academy, from the government. The idea was we met on a monthly basis with a cadence of fall meetings that unearthed and unpacked very difficult technology problems, and a series of meetings in the spring where we thought about solutions that could be brought to bear. Really over the years that he and I had been doing this, I guess since 2017, just a wealth of really fascinating conversations. To your point about connecting to policy, we would write up white papers. We had an amazing staff who worked with us out of the Kennedy School. I should have said that Ash's appointment was in the Kennedy School, and so this was another marvelous bridging. As a dean I think my reputation as I'm leaving is that I was a bridge builder; I was a collaborator. I built across what had traditionally been pretty highly walled silos at Harvard, the individual schools. Ash and I were really effective, I think, in pulling the Kennedy School together with the Engineering School, with a number of kindred souls who joined us from MIT, from the other Boston region universities, and we put together these white papers that were sent to Washington that we hope are having impact with legislatures and lawmakers, and trying to navigate the very complex space of technology policy.
ZIERLER: As you mentioned, the Paulson School under your leadership grew and diversified dramatically. I want to ask how you manage growth, how you make sure that a particular school or even a university does not get too big too fast. How do you do that?
DOYLE: David, that's an interesting question. Because at a place like Harvard, the undergraduate students are admitted in the first year without a declared concentration, which is Harvard-speak for major. So, we don't control the undergraduate pipeline; they vote with their feet. At the beginning of the sophomore year, they then elect and they pick their fields of study, as we call them, or concentrations. So, in a way it's kind of a wild variable, right? We can attempt to model it, we can attempt to predict it. When I got there, we were already in a growth phase. If you go back to 2007 when the school was founded, we were a mere 5% of the student body of Harvard College, the undergraduates. We are presently approaching 25% of the student body, which is just a remarkable trajectory in 16 years. I'll say before COVID I thought we had hit our equilibrium. We began to slow down—17%, 18%, 19%, 19%, 19%. I thought, "Eureka! At last, we have the equilibrium." To your point, I can do the planning for faculty recruiting and so forth based on a stable undergraduate population. Then lo and behold, COVID happened, and it began to creep up again; it was 23%, 24%, 24%. Now we've got what looks like a new settling of sorts. But, who knows? With the amazing explosion of interest in computer science and applied mathematics and other parts of engineering and applied sciences, this fraction may still grow. The challenge really on managed growth is thinking about, what is the teaching and research faculty and staffing that we need to support and enable a program like that. I've come to really be a firm believer that it's not just things like student-faculty ratios that we want to think about. There are so many more pieces of the infrastructure to enable active learning across laboratories and classrooms, the kind of infrastructure you need to run large PhD- and postdoc-based research endeavors. So, there's not a strict kind of formulaic ratio-based model of growth here. It's really thinking very creatively, in a nimble way, about how we cross-resource in multiple directions.
I mentioned that a place like Harvard is quite boundary-less, and that plays out in things like teaching. In applied mathematics, which is the third largest concentration based on sophomore choices, I have seven faculty who are card-carrying applied math faculty. There's no way you can manage that size of undergraduate cohort with such a tiny faculty count. The way we pull it off is, our other faculty all pitch in and contribute to the teaching mission. So, the applied mathematicians are supported by computer science, by environmental engineering, by applied physics. I would say the good and bad of having a place that's boundary-less is you don't have to then be siloed and say, "Okay, let's have this ratio of students to faculty in CS, this ratio in EE, this ratio in Mechanical Engineering." You can think about the larger enterprise, and whatever we derive—synergies, and efficiencies—and grow accordingly. That's where I think we have grown, in a healthy way, as a faculty. I think we're still sub-scale in terms of the size of the student body—the master's students, the PhD students, the undergraduates. So, we still need to continue to grow, but that will be the remit of my successor here at Harvard.
ZIERLER: All of this growth of course requires faculty recruitment. What have you learned about recruiting the best and retaining the best?
DOYLE: That's a great point. I think of recruiting and retaining as two sides of the same coin, in the sense of what I have found to be the most compelling draw to pull people in and to have them stay is to create the right ecosystem. As a dean I'm not looking to recruit an individual who will go lock themselves up in their laboratory and just work by themselves with their students and teach their boutique course. I really want to bring somebody in who's going to be part of a collaborative team. Not everybody joins big 10-PI or 12-PI type project teams, but somebody who is going to come in and collaborate in the classroom. Somebody who will come in and cross-mentor, be on PhD committees. Selling to people like that the power of an ecosystem, where we have core facilities, we have shared labs, we have resources that benefit the community, becomes the way that I can then invest as dean, as opposed to just thinking about investing in the single PI. Obviously, there's a balance—single PIs need to be supported; they'll get their startup packages—but really I think the secret sauce is creating the ecosystem, and in the right ecosystem then you have centers and institutes that flourish. I've given you a couple examples already of where we were able to do that, and they will serve as magnets to not only pull in but to retain that next wave of faculty who will play in that sandbox.
ZIERLER: In reviewing the motivations and desires of undergraduates and graduate students, the kinds of things that they want to go into—graduate school, industry—what opportunities have you had to shape the curriculum and structure of the Paulson School to be responsive to those interests?
DOYLE: I'll share with you two thoughts there. If you'll permit, I'll reframe that a little bit and rephrase in the form of the number one question I get asked as dean, which is, "My kid got into Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Harvard. Why should my kid come to Harvard? Seems like a small program." Maybe if we take Caltech aside, but compared to the MITs and the Stanfords, we are a small-sized engineering program. "What's the advantage of that?" I would argue that that our small size is indeed an advantage, because we have a very intensive hands-on learning experience, and that has been a part of the program that I have been able to invest in and grow, where now, a huge fraction of our courses have an active learning component, have a hands-on component, where the kids are either being immersed in the maker space, or the specialty labs and are being supported by a staff that we have built that enable this active learning mode. That's difficult to do with a large-scale program. You just can't provide that sort of hands-on experience. So, I would say that's one of the first advantages. The other two steer a little bit away from your original question but I'll share with you nonetheless, and that is, I think the ecosystem at Harvard is really unparalleled. The fact that we have the Medical School, we have the Law School, the Business School, where our students can interact and collaborate across these activities, means they can do their senior thesis in Bioengineering with a medical doctor in the Med School. They could work on computer science ethics or policy issues with an expert at the Law School or the Kennedy School. That's another advantage. The last advantage is one we've already talked about: we really are boundary-less here. We don't have departments. That creates a uniquely boundary-less experience where students don't feel like they are narrowly trained in one subset of engineering, but they've been exposed to the experience, the wealth of opportunity that comes when you look beyond boundaries and you reach across and you collaborate with other fields. Really, that's where we have been investing in the academic program in a way that I think even with the growth we've been able to keep up with that and provide this very interactive, very intensive active learning experience.
ZIERLER: Another major initiative across higher education, especially in the past five years, has been enhancing diversity and inclusivity in academia. Leading the Paulson School, what opportunities have you had to promote these values at Harvard?
DOYLE: David, that's a great point. We are very proud to say that our team pulled together and were one of the first entities within Harvard to formalize a DIB [Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging] plan. We are actually in the fourth year of a detailed five-year plan. My successor will get to write the next five-year chapter of that. This came partly out of a convening of my cabinet, an advisory group of leaders in industry, alums of the program, who work with me closely to provide feedback and give me guidance on the challenges and opportunities ahead in the school. I put the question to them for one of our very first sessions, "Help us think about how we can be a more excellent program, a more inclusive, a more diverse program." They had this wealth of suggestions. Some of them were prefaced with comments like, "Well, we can do this in the private sector. I don't know if you can do this in the academy." Honestly, I took it as a challenge. One example I'll never forget—Nate Blecharczyk, cofounder of Airbnb, a graduate of our program, was hosting us for the cabinet meeting. He said, "Frank, I can reward my managers for hiring diverse groups with things like bonuses and so forth. I don't think you can pull that off in the academy." I said, "The bonus system is completely at the discretion of the dean. Of course I could do that." The very next year, I talked to the faculty, and I said I would be using the bonus pool that year to focus on successful activities in diversity, inclusion, and belonging. I said, "Before too many people react to that, let me make clear that you can bring DIB practices into teaching. You could bring practices into how you run your research lab. You could bring those practices into mentoring, into outside activities. There is a wide array."
We put together a deck of examples, just to give faculty an idea that there's a full roadmap out there, and you can find your way to how you can contribute and engage here. The faculty reacted quite positively to this, and it was a challenge for me just to pick some of the highlights, to be able to reward that year for DIB activities. It then became something that cross-pollinated at Harvard. I did this in the Engineering School that year, and then the broader faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is the main body, the corpus of Harvard faculty, took up the idea of putting a diversity question in the annual report in their annual review. So, this spread and became a sort of virtuous cycle that expanded on the campus. I was pleased that we had the right team, not only this external advisory team but my internal team, that recognized the prioritization of what one can achieve when one has an excellent, diverse student body, faculty body, staff body. We really rolled up our sleeves and put together this five-year plan. I think we had something like 42 discrete action items. I'm proud to say we've made great strides on something like 36 of them at this point, and we are making good headway on the remaining six. It took a community. It took changing the mindset, really building a culture of recognizing why this was important.
Chemical Engineering as Family Business
ZIERLER: Let's go back now and develop your personal narrative. Even before we get to undergraduate, growing up did you have anyone in the family that came from an engineering or a science background? Was that part of your childhood?
DOYLE: Well, the joke was that Thanksgiving conversations got a little nerdy between my father, my brother, and me; all three of us are chemical engineers.
ZIERLER: Oh, okay! Family business. [laughs]
DOYLE: There's a little bit of a family business. Although we've each taken it in very different directions. Our father worked on the industrial side. He started his career with Stauffer, which was a chemical company. They manufactured polyvinyl chloride, and then used that as a base for a wide array of products. He eventually rose to become the manager; he ran the entire plant that was producing this in Delaware. Then, he had sort of a second wave of his career where he was working in a refinery. Likewise, there, he rose through the management ranks and became the IT manager for the refinery, so he ran automation and controls for this entire—it was a Getty refinery at the time, became Texaco, and I think it's now Saudi Aramco. So, dad is an engineer. Dad certainly was a bit of an influence. I'm the eldest of five, and so I did take up the family trade, although I will say that I really wrestled hard with considering—English was my second calling. I had a marvelous, marvelous English teacher in high school and she had convinced me of the excitement, the allure of tearing apart a complex poem, of unraveling the meaning in a deep novel. I really went into Princeton wavering between those choices. Of course, a little bit of a bias on the home front there, hearing from dad on what a chemical engineer could do, helped sort of steer me in that direction. Then, seven years later, my younger brother Pat also took up the mantle. He specializes more in microfluidics and transport, but like me, he is a faculty member across town. There's a small tech school that has three letters in the name on the other side of Cambridge—
DOYLE: —that he works at. [laughs]
ZIERLER: Frank, as an undergraduate, is that when you realized that engineers could be professors? Did you think from your dad growing up that it was purely an industrial vocation?
DOYLE: Oh, I would say there was no hint in my mind of pursuing professorial ranks until well into graduate school. Coming out of undergrad, I worked in industry. I worked for DuPont, which was the company in the backyard in Delaware growing up. Did my internships there. I knew I liked research, but I thought I would do applied industrial research. When I set out to do my PhD, it was really with an eye to getting that experience to launch into an R&D type position in industry. I interviewed for a couple industry roles coming out of undergraduate, and I found that the things that I was drawn to, particularly R&D, were out of reach with only a bachelor's degree, and so that was really the main motivation for me to continue my studies, was to think about positioning myself for applied industrial research.
From Princeton to Cambridge
ZIERLER: At Princeton, were there any faculty members who you would consider mentors, or were there any classes that looking back were really formative in your development?
DOYLE: I would say on the mentor front, my thesis advisor, Roy Jackson, was tremendous. He taught the kinetics class. He was one of the most influential instructors. I think eventually when I did get the bug and decide I wanted to be a faculty member, I tried to channel the amazing experience I had of sitting in a classroom learning from Roy Jackson, to what I might aspire to become in teaching. Roy was a terrific mentor, a wonderful human being. We still swap Christmas cards. I think class wise, as I reflect back on it now, I think there was an experience in what most places would call the unit ops lab, so the place where you do some hands-on work, where we did a dye experiment where you were titrating how much dye you put into a stir tank, with a spectrophotometer. You were trying to control how much dye would get you the right color reading on the device. In hindsight now, it was the beginning of thinking about control. It was a dynamic experiment. It was doing mixing, and trying to get to the right target, which is what I eventually wound up pursuing in graduate school. I was intrigued enough with that that I took the controls class at Princeton, which was one of the very few schools in the country where controls was not required to get a chemical engineering degree. It was an elective, and it was largely a course taken by graduate students, so I was a bit of an outlier in there. But I really got a taste of something. Even though, as I've joked with him later, Professor Sundaresan was not a controls expert—he was clearly just assigned to cover the class—and yet there really was something in that content that was inspiring and led me to then think about graduate school specifically in the field of controls.
ZIERLER: What did you do during the summers as an undergraduate? Did you work back home? Did you stay on campus?
DOYLE: I went back home. A couple of summers, I worked for a contractor. The name of the company, again, was prophetic. It was Process Controls Incorporated, PCI. They were pipefitters. They were laying the instrumentation in the DuPont plants and the other plants in the region. Really, I was a glorified laborer. I wasn't union; I wasn't actually doing pipe-fitting. It was almost like working construction, but within a chemical plant. I was getting experience. I was tripping over and moving control valves long before I understood what a control valve was and its purpose in automating a chemical plant. I did that during my summers, and then eventually as I began to build a little bit of knowledge, I became capable of working for DuPont, so the last couple summers, I actually worked at DuPont. Lived at home and drove into the facility.
ZIERLER: To clarify, did you graduate and pursue industry jobs and only then realize that you wanted to go to graduate school, or did you do graduate school right away?
DOYLE: I was one of these incredibly indecisive individuals at that stage. As with other stages of my life. [laughs] But at that particular stage, boy, I applied to business school, I applied to nuclear engineering grad school, I applied to chem-e grad school. I interviewed with companies. I really covered the waterfront, because I really just wasn't quite sure of what it was I wanted to do. Then I applied for these international opportunities, which is where I eventually started the next step, because I just wanted to explore and figure out what resonated. I think I pretty quickly winnowed the field down. I decided nuclear was too narrow. I liked nuclear engineering a lot, but chemical engineering is a very broad discipline. It really covers virtually all aspects of physical sciences and engineering, and life sciences, as it turns out. But I really did explore the waterfront before I then decided I was going to do this international experience. After that, I wind up in Pasadena.
ZIERLER: How did Cambridge get on your radar? How did you learn about the program?
DOYLE: I think I was in the office at Princeton where they had various paraphernalia about scholarships and tripped across this one for the Churchill Fellowship, and thought, "Hmm, this could be an interesting fit." I went back and I spoke with my mentor, Roy Jackson, who had been Cambridge educated. He was singing the praises of the opportunity to be in Cambridge, to learn in that environment. In my mind was shaping up a plan that would be the best of both worlds, where I could get into a PhD program here in the States but defer and go abroad for this one year. Not just traveling abroad and experiencing international life, but really studying while being immersed in another culture and learning. Roy convinced me that that would be kind of the best of both. I applied and I was fortunate enough to be picked for a Churchill Fellowship. At the same time, I got into Caltech and a handful of other graduate programs, and then had to begin what turned out to be a painful conversation of eliciting a deferral. Without naming names, I'll simply say there was one stubborn faculty member at Caltech who said, "Ah! You can go do a postdoc at Cambridge! Don't waste your time now. Come here! Come right to Caltech for your PhD."
DOYLE: I went back to Roy, and I remember saying to him, "Oh, man, I'm crushed. I want to do Cambridge then Caltech." Roy said, "Oh, it's a recruiting ploy. Call their bluff." And I did. I said, "Okay, well I guess I'll have to reapply next year and see how things go," and the person said, "Oh, no, no, no, it's okay. We'll defer for a year, and you can come here after you do your year in Cambridge." It was an interesting recruiting tactic that I must say I've never practiced myself. In any event, I was off to England for the next chapter in my educational journey.
ZIERLER: The program at Cambridge, was it explicitly a terminal master's? Could you have stayed on for the doctorate if you wanted to?
DOYLE: I could have. In fact, that was a really intriguing part of the whole proposition, because at Cambridge, that entry into the graduate program was effectively skipping what is the first year of the graduate program here in the States. Cambridge, in the last year of the undergraduate, it's almost like the master's training that we have here. Had I stayed at Cambridge, it would have been a three-year PhD. That fellowship did offer me either the PhD track or to do the one year—it's called a CPGS, effectively a master's. It was tempting, because of course I was facing five years back at Caltech. It would have been one in Cambridge plus five at Caltech—six years—or three years just at Cambridge. I think I really thought hard about the fact that I had cut out a crucial part of the educational experience, that foundational first year in the U.S. or final year in the English system. Furthermore, that if I wanted to land a job in the States, I felt—and I don't think it's true today but back at that time it did make more sense, to get your degree in the States and then get recruited to a U.S.-based company.
ZIERLER: Frank, just from a cultural perspective, what was the value of that year living in England for you?
DOYLE: Oh, it was beyond compare, David. I know we're in a Caltech context here, but I'll say that of the ten years that I spent, between my undergraduate and my master's and my PhD, that was by far and away the most rewarding year. Just to be immersed, overseas. Obviously, it was the same language, so I didn't have the language kind of cultural opportunity. But it was a year where all kinds of interesting international things were happening that had such different perspectives on the other side of the ocean. For example, that was the year that Reagan bombed Libya. Gaddafi was in power. Bad things were happening there. In the U.S., Reagan was at an all-time high on popularity for having done that. In Europe, he was uniformly denounced for basically aggravating a war in the Mediterranean that would disrupt trade and so much of life in Europe. To experience from the other side of the ocean that different perspective on world events I think to me was transformative in opening up my eyes to appreciate there's something—I knew I had a bit of a sheltered life in Delaware, a tiny state — but growing up in the U.S., there was a much bigger cultural geopolitical landscape that I was exposed to and began to really appreciate. I would also say that even when it came to sports and other activities, I—some of the Americans right away ran to the basketball courts, or I would throw a football around on the fields. I really resisted that and only did things that I thought were unique to my experience in England. So, I played cricket. I jumped in a crew shell and I rowed for the first time ever. I played tennis on grass courts, which were just available in the college for kids who wanted to just play a pickup game. Over here in the States, you could only do that at a premier country club or something. I think all the way around, I really tried to make it a year of embracing new things, new ideas, new connections. To this day, some of my dearest, closest friends from university days were from that year in England.
ZIERLER: Did you have an opportunity to backpack around the continent?
DOYLE: Well, that's another funny story, because what I did instead of backpacking around the continent is I went across to Ireland. My roots, as you might guess from my last name, are Irish. I'm about 75% Irish. It's actually on my mother's side that my grandparents emigrated. My mother's cousins were still living in Ireland, and their children being my second cousins, we got to know each other. So, instead of backpacking around Ireland, I would take a ferry across. It was in the north of Ireland that my relatives lived. For context, we're talking mid-eighties, so—there was this thing called The Troubles happening in the mid-eighties, and here was this naïve American going right into the thick of things, not far from Derry. I'm from a Catholic family. My relatives are Catholic, living in the north. It was a very let's say interesting time. It's the only time in my life that I've had a small caliber machine gun pointed directly at me in a car. I was crossing a checkpoint in Northern Ireland. My advisor at Cambridge used to make fun of me, because he said, "You Americans, you Yanks, you're supposed to go wander the continent. What are you doing, going to Northern Ireland for holiday? It's ridiculous!" [laughs]
ZIERLER: Frank, born and raised on the East Coast, I'm wondering if Caltech loomed large in your life at all. Had you heard of it? Were you aware of names like Linus Pauling and Richard Feynman? Or was that all new to you for graduate school?
DOYLE: A lot of that, I have to say, was new to me. I had put together a list. I applied to five graduate programs in the States. I have to say, I did what I tell my own advisees not to do today, which is I began to think in a very specialized way, and I applied to five programs that all had strong process control faculty, within the chemical engineering faculty.
ZIERLER: Applying to faculty as opposed to a program.
DOYLE: Exactly. I tell my students, my advisees, "Don't do that. Keep your options open. Go in openminded. You don't know what that subfield really is."
ZIERLER: Or the personality with the faculty member.
DOYLE: Oh, exactly. Exactly! But I really had narrowed the field to doing a process control PhD. I had five really powerful schools. In those days, it wasn't these weekend convenings that we do for graduate recruiting; it was you set up a personalized itinerary. So, I arranged with these five schools to do one single trip across country in my spring break week, and literally went from Boston to Houston to Madison to Berkeley down to Pasadena. It was the last stop. One might say I saved the best for last.
DOYLE: Maybe it was the weather. I was really blown away with the folks I met in the Chemical Engineering Department. I had friends from Princeton who had gone on to that program at Caltech, so I actually knew some people there. All the way around, I was so impressed with the setting of the campus, that kind of intimate feel. It wasn't a big sprawling state campus like a couple of the other places I was looking at. It did have that intimate feel. It had an intellectual powerhouse sense as well, that I knew that for that period of my academic studies this would be a really immersive, intense experience. I have to say, something that I don't think I could with any degree of accuracy say that I pinpointed at the time, but many people have pointed out to me in hindsight, was that the focus on undergraduate versus graduate programs was clearly skewed towards the undergraduates at Princeton, but at the time I was at Caltech, it was definitely a skew favoring the graduate students. Now, some of that may have balanced or reset in the days since, but really, I left an undergraduate-strong campus for my undergraduate degree, to go to a PhD-strong campus for my graduate degree, and maybe I just had a sense of that without really thinking too analytically about ratios.
ZIERLER: What do you think the year in Cambridge did for your preparation for graduate school? In what ways did it supercharge or advance what you had come to Caltech to do?
DOYLE: I think it was a mix of things. Certainly, there was a bit of a challenge in the sense that my core training, my junior and senior year courses, in things like kinetics and transport and thermodynamics were now one year removed, so I didn't have the same momentum as somebody else coming right out of senior year with everything fresh. So, coming into things like the PhD qualifiers, I felt that at some level put me at a little bit of a disadvantage because I had been further removed from the material. But I would say two things in particular about the experience in Cambridge really did prepare me. The first is the work I did there was actually an experimental project. I enjoyed that—it was rewarding—but I also realized that was not what I was most excited about. I was more of a computational modeler analysis person. So, that part of the project, I especially enjoyed back in Cambridge, but the hands-on part, I just didn't have the patience for some of that. It would take forever to fabricate components, and some of the data collection was tedious. With profound respect for my colleagues who do experimental work, it just wasn't for me. So, I at least could eliminate that as what I would focus on in my eventual PhD studies.
The other part that I think is profound about the English system and very different from the American system is how much it instills self-reliance. For example, there wasn't homework assigned throughout the semester, throughout the term, in England. You had to self-motivate. There would be problems, there would be material you could access, but you didn't have the little incremental assessments that we do here in the States. Then it all becomes, if you will, sink or swim when you take the exam, for the degree at the end of the year. That really motivates you to go to help sessions, to attend tutorials, to really stay on top of things. At the end of the day, that's really what the PhD is all about. It's not a lot of handholding. It really is encouraging independence, encouraging you to think and explore, and those were skills I think I began to lay down some foundations in England, because of the very nature of the English system.
Manfred Morari and Control Theory
ZIERLER: Once you got your bearings at Caltech, the program or the area of strength or even the faculty member that you were attracted to, did that remain on track, or did you change course at Caltech?
DOYLE: It became interesting. If I have my numbers right, there were 12 of us that came in, in the cohort, that were doing chemical engineering PhDs, and I think the faculty at the time were either 8 or 10 faculty, including some really just superstar prominent individuals. Frances Arnold was just beginning her career at Caltech, for example. This person that I wanted to work with, Manfred Morari, it turned out that five of the twelve kids put him as their first choice. Normally in PhD matchmaking there's a little more distribution across the faculty. Here's one faculty member who did not run a huge group, so five in a given year would have been abnormal, certainly. Five of us put him down. I think in the end, he took four of us, and the fifth found an alternate. So, I stayed the course. I absolutely came in and stuck with it, even though it looked daunting that first year with too many people expressing interest. Eventually, I landed in that lab, had an amazing experience, and still to this day stay very close to Manfred. We met in Philadelphia a few weeks ago to kind of catch up on where things were going with me. He has moved. He went from Caltech to ETH, and now he's at Penn. But I stuck with it and haven't thought twice about it since that experience. It was the right thing for me. Maybe I was just odd that I had specialized and narrowed my thinking coming out of undergraduate despite what I tell my mentees, but it served me well.
ZIERLER: Tell me about Manfred's work. What is he known for?
DOYLE: Manfred is one of the giants in developing and analyzing robust model-based strategies for control. He was one of the pioneers behind something called model predictive control, which is an algorithm in which you embed your understanding represented in mathematical form of the underlying process, and you use that to make forecasts into the future of how the system will react, if you modify, if you adjust, if you change the inputs coming in. You can turn that into a large programming problem to solve problems like, "Find the optimal sequence for me to be able to keep this variable at that target," or "this variable having that trend." This was a methodology that was coming out of industry. It was an unusual example of technology that started in industry and then the academics got their hands on it and codified it, "robustified" it, made it a stronger algorithm. But really the genesis, the inspiration, came out of experiences that were happening in refineries in Texas back in the 1960s and 1970s. Manfred and a couple other labs developed a foundation for understanding that, for analyzing that, for guaranteeing certain performance, and then applying that across an array of areas. In my case I was looking at a fairly traditional chemical engineering application: methanation reactor. As I mentioned earlier, I learned my lesson that I'm not an experimentalist, so I used data and mathematical models to try to design algorithms and controllers for it.
ZIERLER: You mentioned your attraction to modeling. This being the late 1980s, what was the state of the art with computation in those days?
DOYLE: Yeah! Interesting times, certainly. We had a MicroVAX computer supporting the lab. To this day, I believe that the reason I am a morning person is I started going into the lab very, very early so I could get cycles on that computer. Most other guys were hanging out through the afternoon into the evening, and I realized, "Ha!"—if I could get in here really early, nobody was running jobs on the system, and I could get my jobs run efficiently. It was Fortran code, very sort of basic things, and we were just beginning to experience MATLAB coming in as sort of a toolkit, as a macro environment. There weren't that many MATLAB toolkits out yet, but there was one on control systems. So, it was just the beginning of using macro languages like MATLAB. Mathematica was just coming in, I think, as I was finishing my PhD. So, it was not anywhere near as exciting as we have today, with the tools and the array of things that we can work on, but it powered us to be able to build sophisticated models of complex chemical reaction systems and evaluate control methodologies.
ZIERLER: Tell me the process for developing your thesis research.
DOYLE: As often is the case, there are twists and turns. I mentioned that Manfred's lab was known for model predictive control, and several of the students from my cohort got involved in that. I had a very different kind of leaning, so I got excited about this idea of nonlinearity. Most of what people were working on in process control at the time was linear methods. You make a first order approximation of a system, and as long as you stay in an operating neighborhood where you made that approximation, that's a good mapping of your system. I was more fascinated by what happens when those linear methods fail, what happens when you have wide excursions, or if you have something that is so pathologically nonlinear, the intrinsic chemical kinetics or the properties of the reactor are so nonlinear, what do you have to do then? So, I became a little bit of an outlier in the group. The core of the group was working on these linear-based methods, and in particular model predictive control; I got very excited and interested in thinking about nonlinear algorithms. I think what was motivating me all along was that everything in the world was nonlinear. We didn't know of anything that was truly a linear system, and so linear was an approximation. I wanted to find out when that failed, when it really did require that you—whether you think of this as orders of an expansion that you go to second and third and fourth order, or whether you think about actually trying to grab the nonlinearity and twist it to work to your advantage in an algorithm. That led me into looking at things like feedback linearization, which was a method for saying, "Okay, I can recast my problem in a coordinate system, where in the new coordinate system, behaviors are linear." We know what to do with linear systems; we have decades of experience. But now, when I map back to the original coordinate system, I now have a nonlinear algorithm, because that mapping is nonlinear. So, one can take mature methods in the linear space and fold them through a nonlinear mapping back into the real world, into the physical space, and I have created a nonlinear algorithm that gives me somewhat provable characteristics.
ZIERLER: What was Manfred's style as a mentor? Was he hands on? Was he hands off?
DOYLE: Very hands on. We had lots of regular meetings. He would show up in the labs. Very actively engaged in the mentoring process.
ZIERLER: Your fellow graduate students, were they all more or less working in the same area, or you were really off on your own with this topic?
DOYLE: Several of them were clustered around this topic of model predictive control. I was really at the time for several years the only one who was looking at these nonlinear methods and feedback linearization. Eventually there was another student who came in when I was near the end of my studies who was going to pick this up and continue with it. But for me, it was actually quite enjoyable. I will say now, on reflection, I'm an intrinsically collaborative scientist today. All of my projects are multiple PIs, big collections of students and postdocs. It was a strange period in my scientific career where I really was a bit of a lone ranger, and enjoyed that, and enjoyed sort of tinkering and exploring. As a chemical engineer I was really reading the EE literature and the math literature—they were the folks who were really advancing some of these things—as well as mechanical engineering. Flight control systems, they were applying these methodologies as well. So, it was forcing me to stray a little bit from chemical engineering, and maybe that was the beginning of me thinking about getting beyond traditional barriers and boundaries. But for me, it was quite enjoyable to do that.
ZIERLER: You mentioned that a lot of these tools were coming from industry into academia. Did you see your thesis research as responsive to any particular industrial applications? Did the road go back that way?
DOYLE: For the work I was doing, which broadly was under this moniker of feedback linearization—so bending the problem into linear space, solving it, and then folding it back—flight controls, robotics, power systems; there were a number of industry sectors that were using these methods. Interestingly, chemical engineering was not. If I reflect back on it now, many of the chemical engineering systems were largely running in quasi steady state, so you had an operating level that you were making a grade of polymer at DuPont, and you just ran the reactor at that set point. Little deviations around that set point could be modeled with reasonable accuracy by a linear system, so they didn't need the complexity that would be required in putting a nonlinear controller onto the system. So, I would say, no, at the time I was doing my work, I think there was more curiosity from industry but not the adoption that you were seeing from these other methodologies.
ZIERLER: Mentioning robotics and flight controls, I'm curious if JPL was an asset for your work at all, if they were doing anything relevant for you in those years.
DOYLE: I remember going to workshops at JPL, and NASA Ames up on the Berkeley campus, even. The West Coast had a wealth of activity largely in robotics and aerospace around some of the control methodologies that I was studying, so I would take advantage of that, and that was a powerful part of being in the locale, being at Caltech, as opposed to, say, being somewhere else in the country.
ZIERLER: Looking back at your thesis, what were some of your principal contributions and conclusions?
DOYLE: Ah! I haven't thought about that in a while. Because as we'll unravel soon, I took a major pivot with my postdoc. But I'm quite proud of the fact that we pushed the assessment of nonlinearity. Much of that work carried over into my early days as a professor. Let me explain. One might think, "We have linear methods; we'll try it and see if they fail." You might also think, "I'm a nonlinear control person, the whole world is nonlinear, so everything should be controlled using my methodology." The knee-jerk reaction is to go right to the complex solution. I think part of what I was very proud of was putting together a quantifiable measure to be able to think about, "How nonlinear is a nonlinear system? Does it really necessitate nonlinear controls?" I just gave you the example of the polymer reactor, which if you run it at steady state, and there are small deviations around that target, you probably could get a reasonable linear methodology to work for that system. So, when is it that you begin to push such exotic behavior that you really need—or such extreme performance demands—that you really need a more sophisticated algorithm to be able to do that? I think posing the question of when you need the tool for me was more impactful than merely just having the tool to apply.
ZIERLER: Besides Manfred, who else was on your thesis committee?
DOYLE: That's another interesting part of the story here, which really ties into why being a professor became the attractor for me. My co-advisor was a faculty member named John Doyle, who is still on the faculty at Caltech. We are not related, at least not for a number of generations we can each count back to Ireland. John came along and was really interested in the nonlinear control work, and took an interest, began to collaborate. So, I would have meetings with John and I would have meetings with Manfred. The relationship with John—they had very different styles. John's—and I believe probably still to this day because I think he's the same person—you would go in there, and it would just be like sipping water from a firehose. He would just go on and on, and brainstorm, and go all over the place with lots of really insightful ideas. It was before the days of the iPhone but if I were going to meet with him now as a student, I'd secretly flip on the record button just so I could capture all the ideas, because they were coming fast and furious in real time. You would go out of there, and you were lucky if you could sort of get back to the office and scribble down two or three things that you were going to go chase. So, John really was an amazing kind of idea generator, very provocative thinker. Manfred was much more of a methods and methodology kind of person. So it was a marvelous yin and yang kind of thing, to think about how to attack the problems I was looking at.
John is the one who eventually gave me a taste of what became then the strong appetite for teaching. John was slated to offer a course in nonlinear controls. It was using geometric methods, which are these methods of doing linearization. He said, "Frank, this is really what you're working on in your thesis. How about you do a guest lecture? Why don't you do the opening lecture?" So, I did, and he said, "Hey, that was pretty good. Do you want to do another lecture?" So, I did. Next thing, I'm teaching the whole course, as a graduate student. I really enjoyed it. The idea of preparing content and translating it back in a way that you could gauge the understanding in the audience to me was something that I found rewarding. To be able to get nods in the audience and see people comprehend the complex ideas I was trying to convey was very different from, let's say, giving a technical talk at a meeting. I think it was my first taste of teaching that began to turn the wheels in my head of, "Hmm. Maybe I want to be a professor. Maybe this applied industry is nice, but if I were a professor, I could work with industry, but I could do this teaching thing." Which really, for me, was quite rewarding. I really, really enjoyed that experience.
ZIERLER: You mentioned earlier it wasn't until your postdoc that you started thinking about the life sciences. I'm curious, given your affiliation with the Systems Biology program at Harvard, if you were aware of what Lee Hood was doing—this was really the height of his lab at Caltech—if you ever crossed paths with him.
DOYLE: Lee and I eventually crossed paths and collaborated much, much later. We've kind of joked about the fact that there would have been this near crossing that didn't happen. Because I was oblivious of interesting problems in the life sciences while I was a graduate student. I hadn't taken a biology class in undergraduate, definitely didn't take anything in graduate school, so that was a universe that I had not even been intrigued by at that point. It wasn't until the postdoc experience that I made that pivot.
DuPont Appointment Back Home
ZIERLER: This self-discovery, this love of teaching, this thought that you might pursue a professor's life, did that influence the kinds of postdoc opportunities you pursued?
DOYLE: It did, certainly, because by that point I was thinking the next thing after the springboard would be trying to land a faculty job. I will say it was a slightly different time, then, than it is now, where you could basically get a faculty position right out of grad school, no postdoc needed. In chemical engineering, it was rare that people were doing postdocs. That was different from, say, the life sciences. But I went out there and I did the same thing I did in undergraduate; I applied for industrial jobs just to cover the bases, I applied for postdocs, and I applied for faculty positions. I had, in a way, a wealth of wonderful, wonderful opportunities where multiple postdoc invitations were extended to me, and I got multiple faculty offers at the same time, so I could basically coordinate them and say, "All right, I'm going to accept"—as I did, at Purdue University—"but I'm going to do a year's postdoc at"—and as it turned out, DuPont was the place that made sense. They were coordinated in the sense of the DuPont experience, I knew, different from an academic postdoc, was going to give me connections in industry that I could build on as a faculty member and use to stir up collaborations and funding and things like that. Purdue was a very applied place, and I knew that having strong industry ties would serve me well in a faculty role at a campus like Purdue. So, there was a very coordinated decision-making process to land concurrently with the idea that, "Okay, here's the postdoc, there's the faculty position," and kind of got things sewn up neatly at the end of my PhD.
ZIERLER: Professionally and personally, going to DuPont, did it feel like you were going home?
DOYLE: It really did. It was some of the familiar faces that I knew. Honestly, the DuPont thing, to be accurate, was a little bit of almost happenstance, in the sense that I applied for a full job with that group, the controls group at DuPont. I remember a very candid conversation with the manager, a wonderful, wonderful gentleman, a mentor, Dave Smith, who passed away many years ago. Dave called me up and said, "Frank, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to offer a full-time position this cycle. I don't have the line, it turns out." He said, "But there's a possibility that we could do something different." I said, "Well, Dave, let me tell you, I really want to be a professor. I interviewed in industry, but just to test the water. I really want to be a professor." He said, "Frank, I can hire you for a year as a visiting scientist. Come do that as a postdoc, and then you can start your professor position." So, it really was [laughs] almost handcrafted for me, by Dave Smith, to be this amazing experience. It turned out that there were about half a dozen people that followed me at DuPont in subsequent years doing similar things, but I was the first of these so-called industry postdocs, or visiting scientists, who had a chance to be immersed in the company, get exposed to their problems. Really, I think there was a very forward-looking mentality at DuPont, that we weren't saving them money that year by optimizing a process or helping them with anything related to the bottom line; they were exposing us to their problems, so we went out to the academy and trained students who would come back, be hired, and our research could help them with their problems. It was a really forward-thinking idea.
ZIERLER: Tell me about that year at DuPont. What did you work on?
DOYLE: It was very interesting. I had three different projects. I went in expecting to get dirt under my fingernails, to have a real plant project, and indeed I did. I had a polymer reactor separator system in Houston, in La Porte, Texas, that I was helping support the real-time control design for this operation. I also had a theory project. There were some engineers at DuPont interested in nonlinear control and wanting to do more of the series approach. I mentioned you could have a first-order approximation; that's easy, linear math. Second, third, fourth-order terms. We worked on something called Volterra series, which were a way of expanding a nonlinear dynamic system to get those higher-order effects in a sequential manner. We did some more theoretical work with folks in the research center there. Then, somebody pulled me aside early in the time there, one of my mentors—the late Babatunde Ogunnaike, and he said, "Frank, we've got this small group of us that are trying something a little out there. We're looking at nature for ideas, for inspiration, with an understanding that mother nature has had much longer to optimize and fine-tune circuits and systems and algorithms. What if we could learn from them and apply that in the chemical plant automation context?" I said, "Sounds fascinating," and so I got recruited to be a postdoc working in this lab with neuroscientists, chemical engineers, electrical engineers, to try to unravel what mother nature was doing. The particular problem was beat-to-beat control of blood pressure, something called the baroreceptor vagal reflex. We modeled this, we simulated this, we analyzed this, and then we tried to reverse-engineer it and come up with an engineering analog to mother nature's controller.
Purdue and the Return to Delaware
ZIERLER: When you joined the faculty at Purdue, how did that year at DuPont affect how you wanted to set up your research operation as an assistant professor?
DOYLE: It was in a multitude of ways. Certainly, I had the advantage of these deep ties to DuPont, collaborations and sponsored research that happened from that, so they supported my lab with grant funding. They created summer opportunities for my students, so I had my PhD students do internships during the PhD, which I would say was not completely conventional but became a practice amongst many labs in the systems area, to have students do internships during their doctoral studies. And importantly, it had me literally from day one create basically two—"halves" would be too strong a word—but two thrusts within my lab, one thrust that was more chemical engineering process control oriented, and another thrust which, we didn't call it this at the time, but it was systems biology, and we were looking at biological systems and bringing these tools from modeling, analysis, and control. So, right from day one, because of DuPont and that experience in the postdoc, I was able to begin this bifurcation of my lab into both process systems and biological systems.
ZIERLER: I asked about the cultural impact of your time at Caltech. Purdue being a very large university in the Midwest, very different from your earlier experiences, what was the value of that for you?
DOYLE: I have only the fondest memories of living in West Lafayette, Indiana. I think to this day, I have never been in a place that was safer, more wholesome, more family friendly. It was an amazing place. Now, at the time, my wife and I were newlyweds, and we didn't have kids right away, so the family friendly part wasn't necessarily something that we were taking advantage of yet. But it really was a place where collegiality was such a strong suit in the faculty there. I think that is a lesson, a principle I've taken with me through my career, what I learned from some of the most wonderful, collegial, collaborative faculty there. That was a long-term cultural influence. I certainly enjoyed things like Big Ten sports, so we took advantage of that cultural dimension of being in a Big Ten campus. As I think back on my trajectory, my career, I haven't been on a campus that had such a let's say sports powerhouse setting. That was enjoyable. My wife and I enjoyed going to basketball games and things like that. It was a very good phase of our career.
ZIERLER: Your connections at DuPont, did that play a role in your decision to move to the University of Delaware, subsequently?
DOYLE: I think there was a little bit of DuPont, but there was a whole lot of—going back home. I was literally back in my hometown, a stone's throw from where my parents were. By that time, we did have two children, and so the idea of being close to family was important. We recognized that—I'm an East Coaster; I've got family in Delaware. My wife is a California girl; she's got family around Palm Springs. The Midwest was neither east or west, and some would say a compromise. I've often said it was unfortunately a compromise where neither side was happy. [laughs] I think personally it was good to be near family. I knew Delaware. I knew the University of Delaware very well. And, in my field, they were a top five program, so this was really going to an incredibly strong campus that I knew very well, in a community that I grew up in. It was both reputationally a strong move, and personally and culturally the right move.
ZIERLER: I know today there are so many exciting interdisciplinary initiatives around chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. Was that already in train when you joined the faculty in the late nineties?
DOYLE: Certainly, there were strong centers within Chemical Engineering. There was a catalysis center; there was a thermodynamics center. I think a lot of the later developments happened after I left; some of the great work that they're doing in biological engineering came later. I think I was there perhaps a little too early to see the genesis of some of those new initiatives. It was a bit more traditional chemical engineering strengths, or chemical engineering and chemistry strengths being played out, because of the background—with DuPont right there in the background. Of course, having DuPont meant that we had a wealth, a veritable portfolio, of adjunct faculty who would come in and teach. On paper we might be 15 to 20 faculty in Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware; in practice we were closer to 30-plus faculty because of the adjuncts from DuPont. That was a big part of the character of the program, and I believe still is the nature of the program there.
ZIERLER: In what would become a theme for you, moving operations, what did you learn from that experience in terms of research groups, graduate students, things that you wanted to work on, what's important to take with you and where is there opportunity for new directions at a new institute?
DOYLE: I think the skew in my group had already begun to tilt towards biology as the more dominant thrust. At that point, we had already had some grants to work on the diabetes problem. We did not have local expertise, so not in the Delaware region did we have people—likeminded doctors, or bioengineers working on diabetes—so we were still doing this in the vacuum of chemical engineers working on the computer doing simulations. Certainly, there was some hunger for that, to be at a place where there might be opportunities. But I would say that what I remember quite fondly about Delaware was—and now, as a dean myself—was the challenges in managing university leadership, let's say at the dean level, in a place where you have such competing forces. Chemical engineering had a long-storied tradition at Delaware. But the dean of Engineering had to really think about, how do we invest in the next things that are coming up, without endangering, and sustaining, the strengths that we have? The dean at the time, who eventually became a university president and is now on his second stint at another university, Eric Kaler, was very effective in that. He was a chemical engineer, so of course units outside of Chem E were skeptical, that he would play favorites. But he was so evenhanded and balanced that at times, Chemical Engineering complained that he was ignoring us. I remember reflecting as a junior faculty member, "I think he's got the balance right." Because we were feeling like we weren't getting enough attention; they felt like he was paying all of the attention to us. He had struck a compromise of sorts. For me, again, way before I immersed into any leadership roles, it gave me a lens into thinking about those challenges, of managing competing priorities, priorities within a constrained resource management environment. It was a preview of things that I eventually got to practice myself.
Biotechnology Opportunities at UC Santa Barbara
ZIERLER: I can't help but ask—as you explained, your wife is a California girl; the move from the Midwest to the East Coast was prompted by family. Did that at all influence your decision to join the faculty at Santa Barbara?
DOYLE: Oh, without a doubt. [laughs] We both remember the story fondly, that there was a meeting of the professional society for chemical engineers, the AIChE, and Santa Barbara had posted that they had an endowed professorship, the Mellichamp Chair, that they were recruiting to, and it was specifically in process control, in my field. I hadn't said anything to my wife yet about this opening. I had seen it, that it was posted, and I thought I just wanted to turn it over in my head. We wound up at this AIChE meeting, and some colleagues from UCSB pulled my wife aside and said, "Do you see yourself moving back to California one day?" She said, "Oh yes, of course." [laughs] They said, "Well, we have this opening." That night in the hotel room, she said, "So, UCSB has an opening. Did you know about this?" [laughs] I had to say, "Yes, I was giving it a little bit of time, to think about." So, certainly it was a factor, that here is, again, another impressive place, a place that the vectors all across the units on the campus pointed in an upward direction. Powerful leadership. The chancellor now at UC Santa Barbara was my dean at Purdue; Henry Yang hired me to my first job back in 1992, as dean, and now he's the chancellor of the entire university. I would say career-wise, a big piece of this was the endowed professorship. At a place like Delaware, I think we had one, maybe two, in the entire Engineering College. Likewise, at the time, in Santa Barbara, there were only a couple; you could count them on one hand. So, the idea that at this early stage of a career that I might be considered for something like a chaired professorship was very attractive. Then as I got to meet people and learn from colleagues there, the interdisciplinary environment—that theme is coming up again—I think Santa Barbara more than any other place at the time had sort of cracked the nut on how to do this, in a very effective way. I got a preview of that as they were recruiting me, and I thought this could be an exciting place to have our work advance to the next level.
ZIERLER: Was the biotechnology revolution really underway, especially in California, by the time you joined the faculty at Santa Barbara?
DOYLE: It was, and there were very strong ties with folks at UCSB who had been involved in founding some of the big California biotechs. The life science side of UCSB was very powerful. UCSB, mind you, did not have a medical school, so while they did have these strong biotech strengths, they were anchored in places like the Chemistry Department, the Biology Department, the Chemical Engineering Department. But it certainly was underway and was a big part of, I believe, what enabled us to be competitive in that center that I talked about, that we got involved in, that was the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies.
ZIERLER: Did you come to Santa Barbara with administrative leadership responsibilities from the beginning, or that grew over time?
DOYLE: No, that really was my first experience, at UCSB. I'll never forget—a very fond memory of a Saturday working session, where the two deans—the Science dean and the Engineering dean—called a handful of faculty, maybe ten of us, together, because there had been a call for a proposal for this Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies. It was a massive grant, something like a couple hundred million over five years. Very sizable center. I can remember sitting around the table Saturday morning when most people were out at their kid's soccer game or doing things like that, but we were all so inspired and excited about this unique opportunity. One by one, around the table, people were saying, "Oh, we've got the team. This is the expertise. We can do this." I remember Alan Heeger, a Nobel laureate, reading the document, said, "Ah, we need systems and control as a part of this." I raised my hand and I said, "UCSB has one of the most powerful systems control programs in EE, and mechanical, and chemical." You know, I was the new young guy who didn't know this person. He pointed at me and said, "Great, you're going to write that section." [laughs]
DOYLE: So, I wound up playing a pretty serious role in the drafting and writing of this, and I got recruited right away to be the co-director. My good friend Dan Morse was leading this charge, but he drew me in as a partner really through this process of pulling together the grant. When we did get the award, I was the inaugural co-director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and kind of baptism by fire, got thrust into leadership, administration, by virtue of that institute.
ZIERLER: Was the Institute originally designed to be Santa Barbara only, or was it always going to be collaborative with other universities?
DOYLE: It was from the get-go going to be collaborative. The only piece that changed—about halfway through the RFA window, they modified the language. It originally had a biomedical focus, and so we were looking around for medical school partners, because as I said, UCSB did not have a medical school. Then the Army rewrote the language to make it more biotechnological in focus, and that's when we said, "Boy, we've got these collaborators and friends at Caltech, collaborators and friends at MIT. This is the dream team. Let's pull this together." Indeed, we wound up getting that grant, and it, to this day, is still running, and is still funded, so it's a very powerful and sustainable funding cycle.
ZIERLER: In terms of size, in terms of geography, of course Santa Barbara, MIT, Caltech are very different schools. In what ways is that collaboration evocative of the sum being greater than its parts?
DOYLE: That really is an apt metaphor for this. Geography did not get in the way. There were a lot of us who were concerned about that. Mind you, this is pre-Zoom, so this is before we were all very comfortable and conversant in long-distance information exchange. But we had enough ties and reason—Caltech was easy; that was just two hours down the road—but with MIT, enough reason to have their faculty coming back and forth, have our faculty going out. At the end of the day, I think we had 60-plus faculty across the three campuses. At UCSB in particular, we had every single Engineering department represented, every single Science department represented, and a handful of the Social Science departments were getting funded from this activity as well. The breadth of science and engineering going on across these three powerful campuses was really exciting. And it gave me a chance to reconnect with John Doyle. He was one of the investigators from the Caltech side. By this time my primary mentor, Manfred Morari, had moved to ETH, but John of course was at Caltech, and he had likewise taken a pivot to get into biology, so it was a perfect connection. John, and people like Richard Murray, Frances Arnold, Dave Tirrell—a host of powerful collaborators at Caltech to join this team.
Entering the World of Academic Administration
ZIERLER: Given the span of the Institute, all of the things that it was involved in, what were some of the unifying themes, in terms of its mission, in terms of what it wanted to accomplish?
DOYLE: I, half joking but really half seriously, say that if you boiled it down into three words, it was "sense and respond." Sense, in the domain of thinking about sensors, ways to measure things that were going on. Respond being actuation, whether it was at the microscale or the macroscale. In many ways that humble little conjunction, "and", was what people like me worked on. We connected, we did the feedback, we did the automation, and linked sensing and actuation. But it really was an institute about understanding sense and respond mechanisms, principles in nature. It had a strong element of reverse engineering, which harkened back to my DuPont days. The whole reason I got into working in biology was to mine and explore what mother nature had done and find ways of bringing that over into the engineering realm. It took me in directions that I really never expected. Early in our conversation we talked about circadian rhythms—thinking about that as foundational work, right, pushing the frontiers of understanding. Under the aegis of the IBC, the Institute, we took our circadian rhythms work and went from an algorithm that the neurons in the brain were using to synchronize their activity, to come up with a timekeeping mechanism for acoustic sensors that could be used in the context of localizing noise sources, with a precision that had never before been achieved. So we ran the whole spectrum from, here's our fundamental understanding of neurons communicating and interacting, to here's a device that we field tested at a firing range, Fort Devens, an algorithm for doing source localization by having synchronized sensors. It was just a remarkable array of activities.
ZIERLER: When in the narrative do you get named associate dean for Research at UC Santa Barbara?
DOYLE: That happened probably midway through. I was 13 years at UCSB. About midway through, I had been tempted by another school to go take up a deanship. The allure of being a dean, the opportunity, was intriguing, but the circumstances weren't a perfect fit in this other case with this other campus. But my dean back at UCSB, Matt Tirrell, recognized that I had this appetite, and I think aptitude, and said, "Frank, I can get you involved here in leadership. We can do things in the College of Engineering. I'll appoint you as an associate dean for Research." So, I concurrently was both the director of the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and working with Matt, in the College of Engineering, as his associate dean for Research, working on initiatives in biomedical engineering, in bio. We had a new building project that really proved to be a preview of future attractions for me as dean here at Harvard. We had a new PhD program—again, ditto; preview of future attractions. So, it really whetted my appetite around a couple of higher-level administrative responsibilities and opportunities, but it was really the mentorship and support of Matt Tirrell at the time that kind of pulled me into that role.
ZIERLER: Being dual hatted and all the time keeping up your own active research agenda, your own graduate students—just a time management question; how did you keep all the balls in the air?
DOYLE: Well, just to make your question even more compelling [laughs], two years before I left UCSB I added a third hat; I became the chair of Chemical Engineering, my department. After many, many years of deans asking me to be a department chair, I finally succumbed. But I didn't let go of the other things, because I was convinced that I could somehow do the time management. I would say that it's part ruthless efficiency—you've got to be really practical with appointments and schedules. I think there's an intentionality to how you schedule and manage your time. I have never been a fan of meetings for meeting's sake, and this was a period of time where I really honed that skill, where if we were going to get together a group of important people whose time was valuable, we were going to have a purpose, an objective, we were going to get to conclusions, and that's why we would convene together as a group. It really became a chance for me to focus some of those skills and sharpen skills. I'd say there were some things that were sacrifices in all that, so I wasn't necessarily a person who would hang around at the water cooler or the coffee pot. I feel like I had less time to just kind of hang out in the hallways and converse with colleagues, which had been enjoyable. I was kind of on the move and doing multiple things. I also had this maddening setup, as I reflect on it now, where I had three different offices. That was also part of this efficiency, of I could be embedded, even if it was a day a week, or two days a week, with a part of the organization that I had some responsibility, and then shift, and the next day or two I was embedded in the other part, and then shift again, so that it wasn't every day juggling the three different balls but really taking a day or two of a week focusing deeply on one of the activities, shift, take another day or two, focus on the other opportunities.
The Deanship at Harvard
ZIERLER: When the opportunity at Harvard came up, I'm curious, were you happy at Santa Barbara? Could you have envisioned yourself staying there for the duration? Was there enough room for your own growth on campus at Santa Barbara?
DOYLE: Oh, absolutely. My wife and I joke about the fact that we had planned our retirement in Santa Barbara. This was where we were going to live out our days. And it was just the kind of thing where opportunity came knocking. I think what really opened the door to a conversation was the fact that Harvard was a very special place with a liberal arts foundation but a burgeoning translational professional and engineering portfolio of schools. I did my undergraduate degree in a liberal arts institution, which I always felt was the critical foundation to those of us who even went into science and tech—to have not only competency and skills, softer skills at times, but also awareness of context, of understanding why we're doing tech. Not just how to do the tech, but why we're doing it, or when we shouldn't do it. So, there was something about getting back to my roots, getting back to a liberal arts institution—after three different campuses that were public schools, to be able to get back into the private school domain and have that experience. The other piece of it was the growth potential at Harvard. It was a chance to come in and take a program and literally just double the student body, grow a new building, have incredible resourcing to accomplish these things. It wasn't something I was looking for, something I in any way expected. I even challenged the person who was leading the search committee. I said, "I've only been a department chair for two years at UCSB. Do you think I'm ready for this?" They pointed out, as I've shared with you, that I ran this big institute for 13 years, and so that was the experience that they were drawing upon.
ZIERLER: Coming to Harvard, it's a big university, it's a big school. What was important for you to wrap your head around from day one?
DOYLE: I think the thing that almost had me reconsidering was the fact that up and down the West Coast, my colleagues, to a T, were all saying to me, "Oh, at Harvard, everything is siloed. The Med School doesn't interact with the Engineering School. The Business School doesn't talk to the Engineering School. You're not going to get to know these other deans." That really gave me pause for thought before I went there. So, I really endeavored to be a collaborator, a connector, in that ecosystem. I had the marvelous good fortune, and it was a big part of my accepting the opportunity, that the president at the time, Drew Faust, had really come in with a mission—I mean, almost a mandate—to create "One Harvard." That was her moniker: One Harvard. That the whole could be so much more than the sum of the parts if the schools could work more closely together. I have to say literally the first couple of months I was on the campus, the school deans of every single school at Harvard showed up in my office, and that really confirmed for me that these were myths, these were legacy reputational issues, and not the Harvard of today. Literally, every single dean—and when I tell that story, a lot of people will say, "Wait a minute, the Divinity School?" and I'll say, "Yes. David showed up." David and I are big soccer fans. We talked football for a while. But then we really talked about ethics and engineering and technology and policy. With every dean, there was an opportunity, and I'm humbled that the presidents I got to work for used descriptors like, "in the Engineering School—they're the bridge builders of Harvard." That's what Drew Faust used to call us. And Larry Bacow, the president who's about to step down, called us the "connective tissue" of Harvard, which I thought were just these amazingly evocative and powerful metaphors to describe the role that Engineering really was making connections, doing translation. Not in an egocentric sense but really was central to connecting so many parts of the Harvard ecosystem.
What John Paulson Enabled
ZIERLER: When you joined Harvard, had John Paulson already endowed the school and the deanship or that happened under your watch?
DOYLE: It happened concurrently. As I was being recruited, they kept hidden from me the fact that there was this recruitment of a big gift happening in the background. I can remember that after I accepted the job but before I started, I got a phone call from the dean of the faculty at Harvard, Mike Smith, and he said, "Frank, we'd like you to come out. There's this event with a donor. We'd like you to be out here for that. That donor is going to make a nice gift." Literally those are the words he used—"a nice gift." I remember that we were having something with the Biotech Center back at Santa Barbara, and we were bringing in a lot of high-level delegates. The governor and folks from Washington were going to come out, and we were going to host them the same week. I said, "Aw, Mike, I really can't. I've got this big event, and this is my finale here at UCSB. I've really got to do this." He goes, "Frank, I need to tell you a little more about the gift. It's a $400 million gift for you as the dean of the Engineering School." I said, "Mike, I will book my ticket." [laughs] So it was in a way a signing bonus, the likes of which I could never have imagined.
ZIERLER: Did you have an opportunity to interact at all with John Paulson, to get to understand what makes him tick?
DOYLE: Oh, quite a bit. He's an incredibly intelligent, curious individual. We would cross multiple times a year. I would go down to New York and visit him. He would come to campus. We would arrange lab tours and panel discussions with my faculty. I have to say, there are times when you do this with even really bright people and they kind of go through the motions. They nod and smile when you give them a lab tour. But John was very inquisitive and was always probing and asking really spot-on insightful questions about the work that was happening, whether it was in the realm of quantum science and engineering, the realm of synthetic biology, the realm of AI. I really, really enjoyed my interactions with John, and quite literally his was the first phone call I made after I accepted the position that I'm headed to next, at Brown, to say how much I had enjoyed our interactions, and the place would be in good shape but I really appreciated his trust and investment in the program.
ZIERLER: This obviously is a very good problem for you to inherit, right from day one; how do you deploy those funds? What were your considerations?
DOYLE: We did a number of faculty brainstorming sessions to get a read on some growth opportunities in research, to understand on the teaching side of the house the academic programs, where there were pain points and where there were needs. Really it was a very consultative process that we had there. I had come from a campus, UCSB, where the Faculty Senate was incredibly powerful. Really, they were a strong voice in governance. So, the idea of faculty governance, while it wasn't codified as such at Harvard, there was a strong sense of the faculty voice was important. So, convenings and conversations, listening tours, talking to people, trying to identify the priorities. In many ways I felt my job was to listen, and to react to, and to help support and enable, but really it was the dreams and the vision and the aspirations of the faculty that it was my job to support and enable, and that's how we would deploy the resources.
ZIERLER: Do you think you came in with a mandate, or was it your own personal interest, to see opportunities at Harvard to enhance an entrepreneurial spirit, to build bridges with industry?
DOYLE: I did not come in with that as a mandate, and I will say that at times that had proven challenging in my eight years there. Our President was an amazing, absolutely amazing leader, Drew Faust, but she would playfully and provocatively at times challenge me about, "What is the nature of the partnerships we're trying to build? Why are you pulling industry closer?" Because I think there was still, particularly in an institution like Harvard, an Ivy League institution, a liberal arts-based institution, some doubts about the role of the private sector, and would that taint or interfere with the academic mission. Drew and I had some thoughtful conversations about the fact that that's exactly why we need to pull them closer as partners, the private sector. In engineering, we solve problems. Where do those problems come from? The real world. The folks who are working on those problems can both be teachers in the classroom, can be providers of case studies and challenge problems and data sets. They can challenge our faculty to think about new directions for their work. And so, we really came to this understanding that it was exactly for the academic mission. Yes, there would be other ancillary benefits including sponsored research, but that it was the nature of engineers and applied scientists that we needed those strong ties. So, it really was more of a personal quest here, to bring that. I think entrepreneurship, likewise; it was not something that was second nature at a place like Harvard. I think there was a lot of, "Oh, that's what Stanford does," or, "That's what MIT does. That's not in the DNA of our faculty and students here." And really with a lot of great partners, including the dean of the Business School, we were able to pull together programs that showed that the skills and innovation might serve the entrepreneur, but those same skills serve the leader of a venture within a larger company. Those same skills serve an academic who is leading a research group. All the issues around communications and marketing and branding and team management, those are common skills across a number of different career paths. So, making it clear that this wasn't about, "Oh, we're trying to promote that kids have their big blockbuster idea and they quit school their junior year and they go to a startup." That wasn't what we were advocating. We were really talking about this as a set of skills to complement their fundamental training in a discipline that they might use then as they launch into their careers. I think we were very successful. We brought in some philanthropic gifts to enable new programs, degree programs, hiring positions. Right as I was leaving—and this was one of my great regrets in leaving—I started an initiative called The Grid, G-R-I-D, not an acronym but really a metaphor for undergirding, for infrastructure, for entrepreneurship. And so we're just launching this program at our new campus in Allston, and I'm going to get to watch them succeed and flourish from down the road.
ZIERLER: Moving our conversation right to the present, a challenge we've all dealt with—when COVID hit, as dean, what was most important for you in this crisis atmosphere?
DOYLE: I think first and foremost of course is safety, so we had to think about the safety of our faculty, of our students, of our staff, of our facilities. Being at a place like Harvard was a bit of a double-edged sword, because on one hand, we had the wealth of medical expertise in the form of the Medical School and the School of Public Health. Even our provost is a public health expert. So, we had this wealth of in-house expertise. But the sort of challenging part of things, as I came to learn over my years in leadership there, is how much Harvard sets a tone for many other campuses. Folks look to Harvard to see, "Oh, well, what's Harvard doing? We should follow." Or maybe they say, "What's Harvard doing? We should go the other way." But there really is this pressure of a decision we make isn't just about us, but it's going to have a ripple in the community. Because people assume, "Oh, well, if the Engineering dean at Harvard did this, you must have talked to the Medical School dean." And consequently, this has the power of that knowledge base behind it. Right away the leadership sprang into action. It was a deeply collaborative leadership endeavor at Harvard. But I will say in my career to date, the hardest decision I have ever made was to shutter the labs, to shut the labs down. I'll never forget the day—it was March 18th, my birthday, in 2020—that a few days before, we came to the conclusion that we had to shut the labs. This was the prudent—as you posed the question originally—what was first and foremost—safety. But our other big peers had not just shut their labs, so we were looking around the country saying, "Oh, boy. We're going to be one of, if not the first, of the major research universities to say, ‘We're closing the labs. This is the prudent thing to do.'" Of course, within hours and days lots of other places were right in line to do the same thing, so we felt assured by that, or reassured. But that was a tough, tough leadership decision.
ZIERLER: The forced laboratory experiment of higher education done remotely, now hopefully, finally if we're beyond the pandemic, is there anything from that experience that was good that's worth taking with us into the future?
DOYLE: Oh, without a doubt, I think all of us have learned how to use online modalities to not only enhance the traditional classroom experience through office hours, help sessions, asynchronous content that can be pulled up later, but many of us have realized that the opportunities in offering curricular elements, whether it's executive education, certificate programs, whether it's K-12 outreach, we now have tools and modality that everybody is comfortable with. That baptism by fire into using Zoom and other tools have all of us as experts now, and really the reticence that people might have had pre-COVID about doing online teaching, virtually nobody has that anymore. So, I think there are powerful, powerful lessons we're all taking forward.
The Legacy of Strengthening Ties to the Business School
ZIERLER: To go back into reflective mode and to round out this terrific conversation, of course the work is never done, but in thinking of your service as dean, what aspects of the job do you feel you really came in and completed, and what aspects are steppingstones for your successor to build upon?
DOYLE: I'm going to pick two of my peer deans to answer those two parts of your question. The part I think we did quite effectively was cemented a relationship with the Harvard Business School. I had the amazingly fortuitous experience that when I was hired, the dean at the time was a fellow chemical engineer. So, right away, as he likes to say, we had chemistry together, right? We bonded. But we did, and we were likeminded, and had great ideas about how to pull the faculty together, how to brainstorm programs and methodologies. He and I built together a joint master's program I told you about. We built a first-of-its-kind undergraduate program, where undergraduates at Harvard could access and be involved in the Business School. Then we built the first-ever for the Engineering School certificate program, a program in Business Analytics. So, many, many successful joint enterprises between our faculty. All of this was before we moved the School across the River to be adjacent to the Business School. We basically built up—had a stream of activities, that when we became proximal, adjacent, we suddenly had this burst of accelerating the activities that we had already started. That one I think is a point of pride, that we did what we had really hoped to do. There's more that could be done there, but we've built an incredible foundation in that partnership. I think, ironically, the one that some steppingstones perhaps are laid down but there's so much more to do is with Medicine. Here, I come in with my own medical interest and background, connect to the Medical School with things that we were doing in my lab, but I think there's still more in joint programming, joint studies, joint faculty appointments that could be done. We have a few exemplars and a few initial inroads we've made there. I have an incredibly collaborative counterpart, George Daley, the dean of the Medical School. My successor, I'm sure, will enjoy a wonderful relationship with George.
ZIERLER: Finally, Frank, last question, looking to the future. As you embark on this new responsibility at Brown, what aspects of all of your experience do you want to bring with you that give you some preconceived notions of what's necessary, and where do you come in looking at the importance of the blank slate, really just going in and listening and learning until you really get your bearings?
DOYLE: It's a curious mix of the two, as you might expect. I do need to start with a listening tour, to really understand what are the passions, the excitement, the aspirations of the faculty, particularly outside of my comfort zone. It won't just be the engineers and applied scientists, but now I'll be working with the arts and humanities, with the social scientists, the medical school, the school of public health, public policy. I think that is going to be an exciting piece of this, the blank slate aspect, as you called it. But I think perhaps an advantage that I bring to this is the fact that I've been on four very different campuses as an educator, and I have been trained on three very different campuses as a student, so, I have the wealth of perspectives, experiences, mechanisms, cultures, of those seven campuses—but most importantly the four that I worked on—that have a range of approaches to faculty governance, that have a range of approaches to institutes and centers and how you conduct research. I can really take the lessons I've learned from all those myriad experiences and find out what fits and what's appropriate at Brown, as I do the listening tour. So, I need to listen and then draw from the toolkit that I've built over my career, to find the right connections and solutions to enable things.
ZIERLER: This has been a phenomenal, wide-ranging conversation. Your career is a real point of pride for Caltech, and I want to wish you a lot of luck at Brown. Thank you so much.
DOYLE: David, thank you. I have really enjoyed reminiscing and reflecting here, and I wish you luck with this project.
- Joining Brown as Provost
- Harvard Engineering and Interdisciplinarity in its DNA
- Biotechnology in Academia and Industry
- Science and Engineering in the Context of National Policy
- Chemical Engineering as Family Business
- From Princeton to Cambridge
- Manfred Morari and Control Theory
- DuPont Appointment Back Home
- Purdue and the Return to Delaware
- Biotechnology Opportunities at UC Santa Barbara
- Entering the World of Academic Administration
- The Deanship at Harvard
- What John Paulson Enabled
- The Legacy of Strengthening Ties to the Business School