Before her current responsibilities as deputy provost at Brown University, Janet Blume played a remarkable role as utility player around campus, bringing her expertise in academic administration to a wide variety of leadership positions in all manner of departments and programs. Trained in solid mechanics at Caltech, Blume reflects in the following discussion about the unique connections between Caltech and Brown, the challenges and accomplishments she has experienced as a woman in science, and why she has long been committed to making academia a more humane and inclusive environment.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, May 3, 2023. I am delighted to be with Professor Janet Blume. Janet, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me.
JANET BLUME: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your titles, and I pluralize that, I know you have more than one, and your institutional affiliation?
BLUME: Right, I'm at Brown University. And right now, I'm serving two roles, Deputy Dean of the Faculty and Deputy Provost in a transitional year, where there's a new dean of the faculty. And as of July 1, 2023, I'll just straight up be Deputy Provost.
ZIERLER: The Deputy Provost for Strategic Initiatives, is that responsive specific to this transition moment, or that position precedes you?
BLUME: Yeah, it precedes me.
ZIERLER: What are the kinds of things that you do in that role?
BLUME: Just about everything, which is why the move to administration has been really a very interesting thing and a good thing. Because as much as engineering, and solid mechanics, and all that is great, there's a whole academic world out there that I'm now privileged to be a part of. Working on things like the Brown Arts Institute, and a new performing arts center, and how that should work and be staffed, and how that should be integrated with the arts departments is fascinating. I get to work on many other important academic plans, like Brown's Native American and Indigenous Studies initiative. All kinds of academic things that come up across the University, some of which are related to engineering and my background, but most aren't, so that's really wonderful.
New and Important Initiatives at Brown
ZIERLER: You're so well-positioned, you have a bird's eye view of what's happening at Brown. At the institute level, what are some of the things that are really exciting? What are some new initiatives at Brown that you're excited about?
BLUME: Where to begin? We have a new Data Science Institute that I got to be a part of building a few years ago when it launched as Data Science Initiative. I brought together a group of people to write a proposal for that initiative and get it started. And now, it's becoming an institute. There is also the Brown Arts Institute that I mentioned. We have a beautiful, new, and very complicated performing arts center that's just opening at the University this fall, so that's really exciting. It's a real state-of-the-art building where it's configurable acoustically in terms of the stage and seating for choruses, for plays, for orchestras. The walls move in and out, and seats come up and down, and risers move around. Those are a couple of very exciting things.
We're also in a big push to enhance the research profile of the University, taking a lot of steps to build up the research infrastructure and to do things like reevaluate space in the physical and life sciences. And also, for the humanities and social science disciplines, to think about what they need to do their scholarship, collaborating to define new fields, while also being able to do their sort of traditional disciplinary work. We're also a university that really prides itself in its undergraduate teaching and undergraduate programs, and I think we are probably known as one of the best undergraduate programs in the country, so that's important to preserve, even as the University's research aspirations grow.
ZIERLER: Have you been involved in Brown's efforts to become more diverse and inclusive?
BLUME: Oh, absolutely.
ZIERLER: What have those efforts looked like? What has been Brown's approach?
BLUME: We had a great approach that began back in 2016, when the University was doing its own global strategic planning, where a number of academic initiatives and institutes were launched. At the same time, the University developed that we call a DIAP: Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which was a university-level plan that included increasing representation among faculty, staff, and students, and taking specific steps towards being a truly inclusive university. It was a very broad and encompassing plan. And there was a commitment to double the percentage of faculty at Brown that self-identified as coming from underrepresented groups. It was a very broad plan that touched every aspect of the University.
And at the same time, every single unit on campus, whether it was a small academic department, or a big administrative unit, had to develop its own Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, recognizing that the challenges faced by different units to be a diverse and inclusive community differ greatly. For example, the School of Engineering's challenges are very different from those faced by the Department of Hispanic Studies. The global plan put support structures built into place, but ultimately, every department was challenged to make a plan that made sense for them, and they are held responsible to adhere to their plan. I have been very supporting departments' efforts in faculty hiring and inclusion in general. We are doing everything we can to hire inclusively and increase representation, then at the same time, make sure that once we have a more diverse faculty staff, and student body, that we're ready to support everyone. And that, by the way, includes women in the physical sciences, which is now most recently getting a lot of attention here as well. I'm horrified to say that here we are in 2023, and it's still a thing that women are significantly underrepresented.
ZIERLER: In looking over all of the positions you've held at Brown over the decades, you're something of a utility player. You've served as an interim chair in Hispanic Studies, in Literary Arts, in Theater, Sociology. What's the big takeaway there? How have you been able to adapt in all of these different roles?
BLUME: Yeah, part of my job was to go into departments where, for whatever reason, they didn't have a department chair. Sometimes there would be some stress that the department was experiencing, and in other cases, it would just be the chair needed a time off and there wasn't another faculty member that was willing and able to fill in. It has been a real privilege to be embedded into these departments and learn what they do and how they do it. Each field is different, as you can imagine. For example, being an engineering grad student at Caltech was a completely different experience than that of being a humanities grad student at Brown, where you have to read maybe 50 books to be able to pass your exams, and then you have to come up with a thesis topic yourself. You have to get up in the morning and read books. [Laugh] The day-to-day life is so different.
Or even what it means to teach a course in differs so much across fields. For example, I know how to teach a graduate course on continuum mechanics. There are standard things to cover and standard text books. But if you're teaching a graduate course, or even an advanced undergraduate course, or even a freshman seminar in, let's say, Hispanic Studies, you're basically writing a new book each time. There isn't always a standard of, "Here's a subject, and here's how that subject is defined." There's a little of that, but mostly, teaching in the humanities presents an entirely different set of intellectual challenges and requires a lot of creativity. One of the faculty members in Hispanic Studies was talking about her graduate seminar, which met once a week for, like, three hours straight. And I was talking about the graduate class I was teaching, which met 3 times a week, how I stand at the blackboard and lecture, and she said, "Where's the discussion?" I said, "Well, they might ask a question, and I'll answer it. But I'm writing equations on the board, and talking, and explaining." She was astonished. She couldn't believe that a graduate course would not be an intellectual exchange. And at the same time, I couldn't imagine leading a discussion for three hours on literature, much less teaching a whole course or writing a whole book about it. That's so impressive. It's such a privilege and learning experience to be a part of these different departments, And I have to say, I was with the Sociology Department for a year and was floored by what a fascinating field that is. I loved going to their seminars and hearing their grad students' presentations. Their work is so important, creative, rigorous, and very accessible.
ZIERLER: Before we get to your research and the professor side of things, with all of your administrative responsibilities, are you able to keep up an active research agenda and teach?
BLUME: No, not at all. I've been full time in administration for about 10 years. And since I started in administration, I had two PhD students that finished. They were great students. But it's very hard to keep research going while holding a major administrative role. As you know, research requires a certain headspace and a certain amount of dedicated time to really immerse yourself in whatever equations or whatever the problem you're trying to solve. And at the same time, in these administrative jobs, you're constantly reacting to a wide range of issues that require a lot of attention. It was very hard to even be a responsible and good advisor for my PhD students so that I could be prepared to talk through their research, solve problems, and help plan their next steps. They did a fantastic job despite that. And now, I've been away from research for too long, to be honest. To catch back up with it would be very hard.
ZIERLER: I've come to appreciate from my work here at Caltech how amazing the mechanics and engineering program at Brown is. Do you have a sense of that history, what the origin story of this excellence is?
BLUME: I do, and it's interesting, it actually has part of its genesis in applied math at Brown. My thesis advisor at Caltech was an amazing man named Eli Sternberg, who retired just after I finished and passed away soon after. Before he moved to Caltech he was a professor of Applied Math at Brown. At the time, Brown Applied Math was a center of fundamental work in solid mechanics. I am not sure what happened, but as I understand it many people left the program at or close to the same time-in the late 60s. A few stayed, but solid mechanics became centered more in Engineering at Brown. It was -- and is -- an incredibly strong group.
ZIERLER: For you, from your graduate school, from your life as a professor, what would be the umbrella discipline that would best describe the kind of research you've conducted in engineering and solid mechanics?
BLUME: I suppose you would call it finite deformation solid mechanics. When the deformations of a solid object are large in some sense, linear theories don't apply and you have to use some nonlinear math to describe the geometry of the deformations, which opens up a different world. When the deformations are small, most of the equations and systems are linear, and you can do a lot of solving that way.
From Princeton to Caltech
ZIERLER: Let's go back now and establish some history. Tell me about your undergraduate experience at Princeton and how you initially got involved and interested in civil engineering.
BLUME: I went to Princeton thinking I would be a physics major. I really didn't know about engineering, but like a lot of kids, I liked physics in high school, and it so happened that my father was a physicist. I certainly grew up with the subject. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: What kind of physics did your father do?
BLUME: He did solid-state physics. But my goal when I started college was really to be a veterinarian. I was and am a total animal lover. Taking the pre-vet courses, I found the biology was very interesting, but somebody, I don't even remember who, had convinced me to take a course in solid mechanics as a sophomore. I really loved it. My approach to biology was memory-based. I would learn each fact and each process separately. But in the engineering course, I felt like I could learn a foundational theory, and then I could do so many different things with it.
I'm sure that many people approach biology the same way--learning a foundation and applying it broadly, but at that time in my life, I didn't and couldn't. That's what kind of brought me over to the engineering side of Princeton. I remember trying to decide what major to declare, and I was on the fence between biology and civil engineering. I was talking to an engineering professor, and asked him, "What should I do?" And he asked about the solid mechanics course, and what grade I got in it. I said, "An A." He said, "Then, you belong here. We want you here.". His offhand comment made me decide to do engineering. By then, I had sort of thought, "Maybe I'll just be pre-med." The word was that veterinary school was very hard to get into. Then, the more I got into it my engineering courses, I thought, "Maybe I'll go to grad school in engineering." In the end, I did.
ZIERLER: Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to pursue an academic life? Was graduate school sort of in the cards for you?
BLUME: Once I was hooked on engineering, my goal was definitely academia. [Laugh] I really wanted to teach and work with students.
ZIERLER: Sort of a generational question, how many women undergraduates were there in engineering at Princeton? Would it be normal for you to be the only one or two in a given class?
BLUME: Princeton itself, engineering aside, had not been co-ed for very long when we started in 1978. When we were freshmen, Princeton was about one-third female overall, and in engineering, of course, it would've been a heck of a lot less. But at the same time, I don't remember feeling isolated–maybe because I had such good friends who were engineers. One of my roommates, Terry Meistering, was a fellow engineer. And I think we were still a little bit of a novelty for the faculty in the classes. But I really don't remember feeling challenged in that sense. We talked about it, we had a Society of Women Engineers group there, but we didn't really feel so completely other at that time. At each stage –graduate school, faculty life-- I felt the gendered aspect of the field more.
ZIERLER: When you started to think about where would you apply, first of all, are you an East Coaster by birth?
BLUME: I'm from New York. When I was applying to grad schools, I think everybody at Princeton told me I should go to either to Caltech or Brown. I applied to those and some other schools, including MIT but in the end, I narrowed it down to Brown and Caltech. I visited Brown and met with current students, including Ares Rosakis, who went on to an amazing faculty career at Caltech. But I didn't visit Caltech because it was way out on the other coast. Ultimately, I thought, "I've never lived in California, so I should just go." So I went sight unseen. I remember hearing the song "California Dreamin'" on the radio when I was deciding and it seemed like some kind of sign.
ZIERLER: Were there professors or mentors at Princeton who had a specific Caltech connection that were the source of that encouragement for you?
BLUME: Professor Jean Prevost at Princeton was very encouraging. I believe he was a postdoc at Caltech. And Professor Ahmed Abdel-Ghaffar, who was a Caltech alum. I believe he worked with Professor George Housner at Caltech. Many other Princeton faculty were extremely encouraging. Other faculty and graduate students at Princeton were very clear that I should go to Caltech.
ZIERLER: What were your impressions when you first arrived on campus in Pasadena?
BLUME: I thought it was beautiful. Very different from any east coast campuses. I drove out west with one of my college roommates, Julie Lewin. I moved into a graduate dorm called Keck House. Living there as a woman was tremendously hard. There are some horror stories here. [Laugh] Although, there was a cat that lived in the dorm, so that part was great. But the campus was beautiful and it was very exciting to be there. But once classes started, the workload was crushing. [Laugh] We took five courses at a time. Each one covered enormous amounts of material at a very fast pace. I remember thinking, "I'm doing work all the time, 24/7." We grad students were in it together, and we had great faculty. That helped.
ZIERLER: Was the initial program civil engineering, and then you moved into applied mechanics?
Focus on Finite Elasticity
BLUME: That's right. And it was in part because one of the courses I took as a first-year grad student was the Theory of Elasticity, taught by Professor Eli Sternberg, and I was basically hooked. ("Hooked" like Robert Hooke).
ZIERLER: Why did it captivate you?
BLUME: Well, first of all, Professor Sternberg and the other faculty took teaching so seriously. To him it was sacred. Coming out of an undergraduate program, I thought I understood the subjects I learned but at Caltech I quickly learned how superficial my knowledge was. I knew which equation to use for which kind of problem and what values to plug in to those equations. I thought that was what it meant to understand something, until I took the Caltech courses. We were taught to start from the absolute basics, internalize the theory, to understand every single step and derivation and know exactly what assumptions went into a theory.
To be able to understand a theory at that level and depth was amazing, even the theory of linear elasticity. And on the road to learning that we learned a tremendous amount of math. We learned what a field theory was. It was really a complete approach that changed my understanding of just about everything mathematical and engineering. It later shaped my approach to research and teaching. You really want to strive for this complete knowledge, and with that comes an understanding of the limitations and also the power of something.
ZIERLER: Was elasticity at the core of Sternberg's research?
BLUME: Yes, finite elasticity--with large deformations-- was what he was doing at the time. In his earlier work, he had done a lot of important linear elasticity problems and did a lot of work to formalize methodology. He took tremendous pride in his Linear Elasticity course. It meant a lot to him, and he taught it really well. I thought, "This is amazing. This is what it means to understand something." [Laugh]
ZIERLER: It was that course that explains the move from civil engineering?
BLUME: That's right, yeah. At that time, pretty much, you could do the same thesis work and decide whether your degree was in mechanical engineering, applied mechanics, civil engineering, or even applied math. There was that much overlap. There really weren't strong distinctions then.
ZIERLER: And also, from that class, it became clear to you that Sternberg should be your thesis advisor, your mentor.
BLUME: If he was willing, yeah. And thankfully he was. He had never had a female student, and as it happened, I was his last student.
ZIERLER: What was his style like as a mentor?
BLUME: Wow. He was so careful in everything he did, in his teaching and research. And he approached mentoring that way, too. I really had to get everything right--which of course, we all should. There was no detail that could be glossed over. He spent a heck of a lot of time with me, which I appreciated, but it was also sometimes kind of scary. He also taught me how to write. I was an absolutely terrible writer, and he was an excellent writer. He really spent a lot of time sitting with me, talking through the best ways to organize and present the work in my thesis. He didn't simply mark up or rewrite my text, even though that would have been much easier for him. The goal wasn't just a well-written thesis, it was for me to learn how to write. He wrote me a list–I still have it somewhere–of phrases to use in scientific writing, in order to vary the language. For example, it said, "A implies B. A leads to B. B follows from A. B is a consequence of A." Pages and pages of examples like that. Sort of a thesaurus for phrases in technical writing.
Also, I was and still am a terrible speller. To help me with that, he kept a list of all my spelling errors in his desk. [Laugh] When he caught another misspelling, he would add it to the list. And if it was already on the list, I was in trouble! Unfortunately, we didn't have spell checkers. Everything was written out by hand. This was in 1985.
He was a fairly formal man, but also very caring and very conscious of the scarcity of women in our field and how that might affect me. I remember there was a seminar speaker who made a very sexist joke about "a bunch of girls," as he put it. I don't even remember the details, but I remember that Professor Sternberg kept turning and looking at me catching my eye during the lecture. Afterwards, he pulled me aside said, "That kind of high school humor is not acceptable.". This is a man in his 70s or so, and this was the 1980s, before we spoke of diversity and inclusion or gender discrimination. He was very conscious of that, and I was grateful for that. He was very formal, but he also insisted that I call him Eli, which was very hard for me because I couldn't even acknowledge that I knew he had a first name, much less use it. He was very, very paternal, and he wrote me a very personal letters after I left Caltech and came to Brown. That was very moving, and I still have those. Also, the fact that he had been at Brown before, and it was an important part of his career, I think gave us another lasting connection until he died.
ZIERLER: What was the laboratory research environment like? What were the instruments? Were computers starting to be used at this point already?
BLUME: They were. I was a straight-up theorist for my thesis work, so I didn't need computers at all, but the labs that my friends and the other students used were lab-y looking things. [Laugh] Since I wasn't using the equipment, I can't really speak to that, but we had some computers. There was a Prime computer, and a TRS-80 that we used in some courses. And actually, somebody helped type my thesis for me in those days with the equations typeset in an early equation-setting program. I can't even remember what it was called. If we did some programming, it would've been in Fortran at that time.
ZIERLER: As a theorist, what were some of the prevailing theories that were useful for your research?
BLUME: For my thesis, I studied this big system of overdetermined nonlinear coupled partial differential equations and looked at existence and uniqueness of solutions to the system. It largely multivariable calculus, complex variables, and other math methods. I didn't really do anything fancy that relied on the modern methods.
ZIERLER: What were the principal conclusions or contributions of your thesis?
BLUME: Well, like many theses, the contribution and conclusion was that I got the PhD. [Laugh] It was a really hard problem, in retrospect. And I couldn't do it in three dimensions, I managed to solve the two-dimensional version. It was not easy.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can explain that. What does that mean, to go from three to two dimensions?
BLUME: The particular system of equations arose in the deformation of a solid object. You could start with a three-dimensional object and deform it into another shape, and you could calculate a nonlinear strain field associated with that deformation. The question was the reverse. If you have the strain field, can you figure out the deformation? I couldn't solve that in general in three dimensions.
The two-dimensional version is to take a planar shape and deform it into another planar shape. There is a two-D strain field that goes with it. The reverse question is, if you have a strain field, can you find the plane deformation? That problem involves a set of equations for two independent variables and two dependent variables. It was still complicated and challenging, but I was eventually able to handle that. And in retrospect, I don't think I can answer the question of how useful it was or wasn't. But it was a hard problem that maybe it was good that somebody worked on it.
ZIERLER: Besides Sternberg, who else was on your committee?
BLUME: Jim Knowles was, who's another amazing, amazing guy. I believe Professors Don Cohen and Ronald Scott were on the committee as well. We had the best professors.
ZIERLER: Now, you went straight for faculty positions? Did you consider post-docs, or that wasn't so much done in those days?
BLUME: Most of us were lucky enough to go right to faculty positions. Postdocs were not as common in those days. And when I think about that, that crew of grad students we had at that time, we did so well with getting jobs. It's so much harder now. And I was a kid, I was only 24 at that time. I'm also a pretty small person, pretty short, and at the time probably looked even younger than I was. To come into a field that was so heavily male dominated being so young and looking even younger… like a girl. It's kind of weird to think about.
The Storied History of Solid Mechanics at Brown
ZIERLER: Did you appreciate, coming from Caltech to Brown, this history of solid mechanics there?
BLUME: Totally. Brown was the dream job to get. And I was lucky enough to have a lot of offers at that time, but Brown was really what I wanted.
ZIERLER: Joining the faculty at Brown, what did you see as your area of specialty? What niche were you filling there?
BLUME: Again, continuum mechanics, the nonlinear solid mechanics. The funny thing was that while the Brown and Caltech are very alike, joined in a common history, I'll honestly say when I got to Brown, I had no understanding of their work. I remember Professor Ben Freund coming into my office to describe a problem on the blackboard for me that I might be interested in working on. And I remember sitting there, mortified, thinking the whole time, "God, I am lost! I have to come up with some kind of question or something to show that I understand and I'm interested. I can't just sit here and nod, I have to say something intelligent," and I ultimately couldn't come up with anything. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he sort of shrugged, put his chalk down, and left. [Laugh] And I was thinking, "I just got a PhD in this field and I have no idea! " But different places have different emphases, different notations. I eventually learned. I didn't really have a materials science background at all, and the Brown researchers had some of that mixed in. But at the time I was this 24-year-old kid, a female in a very male field, and here was this world-famous senior professor, who was my new senior colleague. It was mortifying. And I often told that story to other new faculty so they didn't feel weird or alone if that was their experience. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Were you the first woman hired into the faculty in the department at Brown?
BLUME: In solid mechanics, yes. And that was 1986, so that was almost 40 years ago. I was the first and [so far] the last. There's not been another woman in solid mechanics at Brown.
ZIERLER: What about more generally? Roughly speaking, how many women faculty members were there at Brown generally when you arrived?
BLUME: I don't recall the exact numbers. I think there were two in Engineering at the time. It was definitely hard. You and I spoke earlier about my move to administration and how that opened up the world for me in terms of academic fields. But it also opened up the worlds for me in terms of gender and other forms of diversity. There I was at age 50 or whatever when I moved to administration, and for the first time in my professional life, I would walk into a meeting, and there would be equal representation of women in the room. It was so jarring at first. Once I was out of the unbalanced world of engineering, I could see and feel how unusual and unnatural the engineering culture was. From within, having grown up in the field, you get used to a very male-dominated world and don't realize how odd it is. And even if the men colleagues are great, and they mostly were, it is still difficult. I was lucky enough to meet and marry my wonderful husband, Allan Bower, who is also my engineering colleague at Brown. And to be honest, being a woman in these fields was also a point of pride for me. But stepping out of that world professionally was an eye-opener. It wasn't what made me go to administration, but it was an unexpected benefit to be a part of a more diverse world. I gladly let go of the point of pride in favor of being in an inclusive environment. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: As an assistant professor, how did you build up your research agenda, obviously thinking about tenure and making the strongest possible case for yourself?
BLUME: Yeah, that was very stressful, as it is for everybody. And it's hard because there's two forms of pressure. They mostly, but not always, felt aligned for me. There was the goal of doing research for science's sake, and research to train graduate students. And there was the goal of doing research and publishing papers in order to get tenure, or in order to get funding in order to get tenure. I had a hard time with that. I did it, certainly. But that was sort of an internal struggle. "What am I doing here, and why? Obviously, I have to get tenure, so I have to do certain things, and I have to be strategic about it and all that stuff."
ZIERLER: When you put your package together, what case did you make for yourself at that point?
BLUME: Packages in those days were different. I don't even really remember putting together a package, I think it just happened. At some point I had to provide an updated CV and to name some possible letter writers, but I don't think I had to write a teaching statement or research statement. It's possible that I did, and I don't remember it.
ZIERLER: There are, of course, two approaches in the assistant professor years. One is to be hyper focused and to really build on the dissertation research, and the other is to broaden out. Which did you pursue?
BLUME: I broadened out, in part because the dissertation research didn't lend itself to broadening. I mentioned that I wasn't able to solve the three-dimensional version of my thesis problem as a grad student, and I still can't. [Laugh] I still stuck with the mathematical aspects of solid mechanics, but I also tried to eventually learn from my colleagues at Brown, learn their language and their approach, and join in when I could. I probably didn't have the strongest tenure case in the world, but who knows?
ZIERLER: From the appreciation you had for the record of teaching, the way that teaching was taken so seriously at Caltech, did you try to pay that forward in your own teaching?
BLUME: Oh, absolutely. And at Brown I got to teach undergraduates and graduate students. When I first started, it was hard to balance teaching and research. When I started at Brown, the dean of research then, who was a physicist, came and introduced himself. And he said, "Let me give you some advice. Don't spend too much time on your teaching." And I just thought, "What am I supposed to do with that?" Teaching is important and of course you have to spend time on it. But that advice made me feel guilty or irresponsible for spending time on it. Teaching was so important to me. The Caltech professors taught me engineering, but they also taught me, by example, how to teach engineering. At Caltech I was lucky to have great opportunities to be a teaching assistant.
I also think that teaching and research balance each other well. They can inform each other. It also provided psychological balance. When I got totally stuck on a problem in my research and felt like I was getting nowhere, I could put that aside and turn my attention to my courses and do a good job there. The connections that I was able to make with students were so rewarding and I'm really gratified to hear now and again from former students that I maybe made a difference for them in their education or their lives more broadly--especially women and underrepresented students. When it happens it makes me tear up. Teaching and mentoring was really, really important to me and still is.
ZIERLER: Did you have a large graduate student cohort over the years?
BLUME: No, not at all. I didn't have a lot of grad students. I had a few, and they were excellent. I did focus more on teaching after I got tenure, so I taught a lot of the big introductory engineering courses, did a lot of mentoring. Particularly as a young female faculty member, a lot of students would come to me anyway and find me as someone they could approach for their own mentoring support, and I was happy to give it to them. That was important to me, too.
ZIERLER: Did you give advice to students about going to Caltech the way you got that advice?
BLUME: Oh, yeah. Lots of Brown students went to Caltech after I came through there.
ZIERLER: An overall question about your research career. Was your work entirely fundamental research, or did you ever get involved with applications?
BLUME: Yes, I did get involved with applications, and enjoyed that. For example, I worked with some colleagues on head injury modeling. But mostly, and especially at the early part of my career, the work was fundamental.
Slow Shift to Administration
ZIERLER: Tell me about the opportunities that allowed you to get into the world of administration? First of all, as you explained what a breath of fresh air it was, were you looking for this, or was it presented to you?
BLUME: It was presented to me. I had a friend here in engineering, Rod Beresford, who had moved to an administrative position, and I asked him how it was. I told him that it sounded interesting. And then, he recommended me for a position as Associate Dean of the Faculty. There was a new dean of the faculty appointed in 2011, Kevin McLaughlin, from the English department, and he needed to appoint an associate dean that represented the sciences, so as we like to joke, in desperation, he cold-called me, and we talked and seemed like minded. I thought about it a lot, and I talked to colleagues, and learned more about the position, and decided against it. I typed an email message saying, "Kevin, thank you so much for this opportunity. I'm really honored to have been asked, but I think I'm going to have to decline, so thank you anyway." Then, I looked at it, and I thought, "I can't send that. What's my problem? What do I have to lose? Don't be a dope." I thought I would give myself 24 hours, and the next morning, I sent him a message saying I was happy to accept. I sent it before I could think about it anymore. That's kind of how I got there. And then, I really liked it.
ZIERLER: Your first foray into administration was as Associate Dean of the Faculty?
BLUME: That's right.
ZIERLER: What kinds of things did you do and still do?
BLUME: The first thing I was told was, "The Hispanic Studies Department needs a chair. Here, go ahead." The person who had been the chair of the department had left the university abruptly, and there wasn't another faculty member in the department who could step in. That was terrifying because I speak no Spanish, knew nothing about the humanities, and knew nothing about what life was like in the University outside the sciences. That was my first assignment, and it was wonderful. I met fantastic faculty, staff, and students in the department. More generally in the role I handled faculty hiring, department budgets, appointing department chairs, supporting department chairs, and a lot of problem solving. It's funny, I asked the person who was the Associate Dean before me to describe what the job was like, and she said, "It's really hard to describe. It's complicated." And I thought, "What do you mean it's hard to describe, it's complicated? Just describe it!" But here I am 10 years later, and I am the one saying it's hard to describe. It's complicated. [Laugh] She was right.
ZIERLER: It's sort of whatever's needed on any given day, it sounds like.
BLUME: Yeah, there were things every year you had to do, like hiring, appointing chairs, onboarding chairs, answering questions, setting salaries, making job offers, and stuff like that. But you're right. Much of it was dealing with things as they arose and trying to find ways to prevent problems from happening.
ZIERLER: And was the transition away from the research more gradual, or did that happen suddenly with a particular job or project?
BLUME: I had two graduate students at the time. As I was saying before, it was hard to do intense administration and research at the same time. My last PhD student finished a few years ago. He was an amazing student, and he went to work for Apple. But I knew then that I wouldn't take any more grad students.
ZIERLER: Has that been hard to some degree, leaving the world of research?
BLUME: No, not at all. In fact, in some ways, administration is more gratifying for me. It's a little more instant gratification because instead of a longer-term project, where you might or might not make progress, I'm able to help people more quickly. Yes, there are things I have to plan and work on, but they're a little less uncertain. Even when I make mistakes as an administrator, I can own it and try to make things right. But the research for me was always, "Am I going to be able to do this? What will the outcome be? Will there be an outcome?" Some of my research work was all or nothing. I could either solve a problem and get a result, or there was nothing to show for it. There's some of that in administration, but it's different. The day-to-day-ness of these administrative jobs are more reactive in handling things that are always very different and usually interesting. There is also such a huge variety of issues to deal with and that is more appealing to me.
ZIERLER: Expressing some disappointment at being the first and so far last woman hired into the Solid Mechanics at Brown, are you well-positioned to make the case that things need to change?
BLUME: Oh, absolutely. But making the case and having it happen are different things. You were asking earlier about diversity and inclusion. It's a hard problem to solve. Engineering at Brown is certainly more diverse than it was, but we're still not there and the representation is not balanced among subfields. I miss many things about engineering, but I don't miss the lack of representation. In fact, sometimes when I've gone back to engineering for a meeting or lecture, it's sort of been disorienting to step back into the unbalanced demographics. In retrospect, I can see how exhausting and hard that was for me in many ways.
ZIERLER: I'm always so interested for academic administration that the scholars, the academics who occupy these roles almost always don't have formal training in administration.
BLUME: None at all!
ZIERLER: Just reflecting on your own experiences, what has been useful and drawing on your academic background, and where have been the really steep learning curves for you?
BLUME: I think as an engineer, you're sort of used to a methodical approach to whatever it is you're doing, so that's helpful. Even if the problems are messy–research problems are messy, but these are human problems, so they're messy in different ways. But a kind of methodical approach is helpful. I think also experience with teaching and mentoring helps. There were a couple of hard things that I had to learn. One is building boundaries. When I first started in administration. I would jump in on any problem I was presented with and just dive right in, try to make everyone feel better as quickly as possible, And I also had to learn that there are many sides to every story, and no matter how convincing and genuine someone is in describing a problem, it is important to hear multiple viewpoints before moving ahead. At first I would listen to a description of a difficult situation and respond immediately with. "Oh, that's terrible. Let me help you. Let me fix it." I also had to learn my limits and not to get overinvolved. Learning boundaries, I think, is a good way to put it.
ZIERLER: As you explained, thinking both about the excellent jobs that were available to you and your cohort from Caltech and what a relaxed process tenure was…
BLUME: I didn't say it was relaxed. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Not a big deal. It didn't seem to overwhelm you.
BLUME: Oh, it totally overwhelmed me. [Laugh] I think the process then wasn't as hard as it is now. As you said, preparing a package, I don't think that was part of it. But I was a total wreck going through it, as everybody was.
ZIERLER: For junior faculty now, for graduate school students who are on the job market, what's changed? Because obviously, things have gotten more difficult.
BLUME: Yeah, definitely. I think the expectations are a lot higher now. And now, it's more usual for people to do one or two postdocs before even starting on the tenure track. The tenure timetable is longer now, typically. This makes it even hard to do while planning for and managing other life events, like having children. Many people will get tenure, but they have to go through a heck of a lot of stress for a long time to get there.
ZIERLER: Moving our conversation right up to the present, in this transition year, what are your hopes and objectives to get beyond the transition year? What does next year look like for you?
BLUME: Well, we have an incoming provost, Frank Doyle. He's coming to Brown as the provost. I'll be his deputy provost. And it so happens we have the same educational path. He was a Princeton undergraduate and a Caltech engineering grad as well. Helping him get settled and working together on the various issues going forward, and diversity is one, increasing the research profile is another, and then all of the miscellaneous challenges that arise. I think I said this earlier, I'm past my sell-by date, so I really can't go back to engineering anymore. [Laugh] The best-if-used-before date is long past. So I don't plan to go back to engineering. If I can continue to be effective, I will stay in administration for a few more year and then retire.
ZIERLER: A few reflective questions to round out our conversation. On the research side, the academic side, what are you most proud of in terms of your accomplishments in research, mentorship, and teaching?
BLUME: I think I'm most proud of the legions of students that I might have had a positive impact on. Graduate students and undergrads. And I think in retrospect, I am a little proud of myself for being in this field as a woman at a time when there were no diversity plans, there were no title IX offices, no language to talk about inclusion or otherness. I think in retrospect, it was really hard, and I give myself a little credit for getting through that at Caltech and beyond.
Commitment to Improving Academic Culture
ZIERLER: On the administrative side, I'm sure there are so many little things that happen on a day-to-day basis that make those incremental improvements or just keep the ship running. Have you been a part of anything, or have you implemented anything that you really feel, at the institutional level, has improved Brown?
BLUME: Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I am proud of having been able to work with faculty, staff, and students, and to have been --I hope-- responsive, reliable, empathetic, and fair. In my professor life I am most proud of having helped students. And I hope that I'm correct in thinking that I was able to, on some level, play that role with faculty and staff in my administrative role. That's what I hope, but it's not for me to say those things, but that would be what I'd be most proud of.
ZIERLER: I'm sure you've realized, in thinking about the similarities of students and faculty, that faculty just wanted to keep on being students, right?
BLUME: Yeah. Or all of us. We're all still vulnerable. They're different vulnerabilities, but we're all humans.
ZIERLER: Finally, last question, looking to the future. When you ultimately decide to retire, what's the benchmark? What are you looking to accomplish, where you could make that transition with satisfaction?
BLUME: Nothing, really. I feel good about my career. But I don't want to hang in there and keep working and not be doing a good job. I don't want to stay one day past that. I also want to be sure that I have some health left in me when I retire. My husband, who was also an engineering professor at Brown, retired in July, and he's very happy. But I'm happy, too.
ZIERLER: On that note, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I want to thank you for doing this.
BLUME: Thank you.