skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  Ed Schlesinger

Ed Schlesinger

Ed Schlesinger

Benjamin T. Rome Dean, Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

December 18, 2023

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, December 18, 2023. It is my great pleasure to be here with Professor and Dean Ed Schlesinger. Ed, it is great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.

ED SCHLESINGER: Great to be with you.

ZIERLER: Ed, to start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?

SCHLESINGER: My official title is the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

ZIERLER: Let's start first with the name Benjamin T. Rome. Who is or was Rome, and is there any connection with your work?

SCHLESINGER: Benjamin Rome was actually a mentor and colleague to A. James Clark the individual who founded Clark Construction. Mr. Clark regarded Benjamin Rome as a mentor and endowed the Deanship in his name.

ZIERLER: Let's now move to the School of Engineering. What about Whiting? Who is or was Whiting?

SCHLESINGER: Interestingly, Whiting is what is today the Whiting-Turner Company, also a construction company, that undertakes major construction projects across the United States. There's an interesting history to the School of Engineering here. The School of Engineering at Hopkins was founded in 1912, but around 1969 it was merged into the School of Arts and Sciences. After about 10 years, for various reasons, folks thought that it would be better to have an independent school of engineering. The then-CEO of the Whiting Company, Willard Hackerman actually, who [laughs]—it's almost parallel to the previous story—Willard Hackerman, who was CEO of Whiting Construction, felt that Mr. Whiting had been an important mentor in his life. Mr. Hackerman was an alum of the School of Engineering, and so when the school reemerged, and he organized its reemergence and its endowment, he wanted the school named after his mentor, Mr. Whiting, rather than himself.

ZIERLER: This is why I ask these questions. There's always a great story behind a name.

SCHLESINGER: Now, of course, if you go on the Homewood campus, which is one of the campuses of the Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Clark endowed a building, Mr. Hackerman endowed a building, and the two buildings face each other across a quadrangle. There's something ironic about that, that they represent two highly competitive construction companies.

ZIERLER: Wow, that's great. I want to ask a nomenclature question. Your undergraduate degree is in physics. Your Caltech degree of course is in applied physics. You've spent your career, departmentally at least, in computer and electrical engineering. Where are there meaningful distinctions there? When is applied physics distinct from engineering, and then within engineering, what kind of an engineer do you consider yourself, based on perhaps your education?

SCHLESINGER: There's a long answer to all of this, actually, and you can even go further, because of course at Caltech, even as graduate students, we always questioned, why was there a physics department and an applied physics department. Jokingly we used to say, well, if you work at millikelvin to do your experiment, that's applied physics, because maybe somebody we will build a system that operates at millikelvin, but if you work in microkelvin, that's physics, because no one is ever going to build a system that operates at microkelvin. In truth, it's a subtle difference at best. Most people I think would say applied physics is really about the motivation of what you are studying. You are studying something because it has an application. You're studying the fundamental physics of something because it has an application. The boundaries between applied physics and electrical and computer engineering, and for that matter materials science, they really intersect in the materials world, in the device world, and so it really starts getting fuzzy when you cross the boundary between applied physics and engineering.

Engineering also is motivated by wanting to solve a problem. I would say that at the extremes, physicists want to understand the nature of the universe; engineers want to solve a problem. Physicists do scientific discovery for the sake of understanding the universe. Engineers do scientific discovery because there's a gap in knowledge, and in order to solve that problem, that gap has to be filled, but the discovery, the pursuit of discovery, is to fill that gap in the service of solving a problem. Where do you cross the line exactly between applied physics and engineering? Unclear. At the extremes, it's quite clear. That's okay—I think we can live with that little bit of ambiguity—but it's got something to do with the motivation for the work, and then the ultimate application of the work.

ZIERLER: Another binary perhaps that might be useful for applied physics and physics—as the name suggests and as you alluded to, physics itself can be purely fundamental. It can be purely curiosity-driven. For your research, have you ever done anything on that level, or has there always been some application, some motivation, that is ultimately useful to society that motivates your work?

SCHLESINGER: I think that all of the work that I've ever been involved in, even from the very first things that I was doing as a graduate student, even though we were looking for a phenomenon—which, by the way, in my thesis we did not find, and one of my main conclusions was why we would not find it in the way we were looking for it—and even though we were looking for something that might be regarded as very fundamental, we were looking for this phenomenon in structures that might ultimately be used in devices and therefore had some potential application. So, I think it's fair to say that at least in everything that I've been involved in, there was always some practical motivating reason that we were pursuing what we were pursuing. That certainly became more and more true after I graduated and went on into electrical and computer engineering.

I will tell you that I used to have a lot of discussions with my father, who was a physicist, and we used to talk about, do engineers have what we used to call "aha!" moments, those moments of, "wow, I just understood something in the nature of the universe", even though I'm studying something that has very practical roots. The answer is yes, absolutely. Engineers do things that do produce those aha moments. Truth be told, if you look at the history of science, some of the most important advances in science that we think of as pure physics, pure science, were motivated by solving very, very practical problems. Quantum mechanics was developed when folks were thinking about making a better lightbulb, thermodynamics was developed when folks were thinking about getting more energy out of coal in steam engines, and so on.

ZIERLER: As you survey your career, thinking about your motivations and the commonality of there always being some societal impact, what is the common thread? What have been some of the big motivations that unite or link all of the research that you have been involved in, in one way or another?

SCHLESINGER: That's a good question. I think that all of what I've done, if I think about it broadly, has been in the area of gathering understanding and storing information. Whether it's new sensors that try to detect things, whether it's the physical devices that store the information, devices that could eventually be used in systems that process information, most everything I've done has ultimately been about gathering and storing information.

ZIERLER: As dean, with all of your administrative responsibilities, do you get to continue working in engineering and science? Do you still have a research group? Are you keeping up with the literature? Or that's sort of in the rear view at this point in your career?

SCHLESINGER: I try to keep up with the literature. I try to be knowledgeable in what's going on. One of the benefits of being the dean is that all of the faculty in my school want to tell me about their research—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —because they think I'm going to have resources that I'll be able to allocate to them, but as a benefit, I get to hear about their research and learn about it. Because I moved from Carnegie Mellon to Hopkins, and because my research at Carnegie Mellon was so firmly rooted in the colleagues and the facilities and the environment of Carnegie Mellon which is very different than what was available to me at Hopkins, when I moved here, somewhat disappointingly I felt that I had a choice to make. I'm either going to go whole-hog into this mode of being what I like to think of as an academic leader, as dean, and do the best I can in that role, or I'm going to focus on trying to rebuild a research group from scratch in completely new areas. Because it really didn't translate between Carnegie Mellon and Hopkins. I chose to kind of jump with both feet into the deanship. Maybe that was a good decision, because—we can talk about it later—I feel I've accomplished a thing or two as dean here. But I do sometimes wax nostalgic about having a research group and running that.

ZIERLER: Let's survey some of the big initiatives that are happening at the Whiting School at Johns Hopkins. Of course, Johns Hopkins is big. There are so many wonderful programs. What are the opportunities to build bridges to so many of the other exciting things that are happening around the university, for example the Applied Physics Laboratory, APL? What might be going on between Whiting and APL?

SCHLESINGER: An interesting question—and I can speak a lot to that general question that you have—but we have a very deep partnership with the Applied Physics Lab in multiple ways. The Applied Physics Laboratory and the Whiting School of Engineering are partners in educational efforts. We have this program called Engineering for Professionals. It is one of the largest degree-granting continuing education programs for engineering in the country. We have hundreds of APLers who teach in that program as well as Whiting School faculty. We partner on things like our institute called the Institute for Assured Autonomy, so we partner on that. We have a program called SURPASS, in which we get teams together between Whiting and the Applied Physics Lab to fund at a reasonable level but to pursue ideas that might result in very large research programs. We have internships for students and we have various things. So we have very large and deep collaboration with APL.

ZIERLER: Hopkins of course famously has a medical school and a hospital. How does Whiting help to invigorate Hopkins leadership in healthcare generally?

SCHLESINGER: There, too, we have very strong collaboration. In fact, one of the things that sometimes people don't know is that our Biomedical Engineering Department actually administratively sits in both the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. The director of Biomedical Engineering actually reports to both deans. The Department has faculty who are appointed in both Medicine and in Engineering. We extend onto the medical campus and the Homewood campus. Students benefit from a deep integration with medicine. Our research enterprise has enormous efforts in engineering and medicine. We also have the Malone Center for Engineering in Healthcare. So, yes, a very, very deep, broad, longstanding collaboration with medicine. I think it's one of the reasons that our Biomedical Engineering program frankly is quite unique, and why it is as good as it is. As a consequence, we also have significant impact on the practice of medicine. I think for someone like myself who came to Hopkins from a university that didn't have a medical school or a medical system, I got quite an education about what medicine is all about and what it means to bring engineering to medicine.

ZIERLER: What about the all-important topics of climate change and sustainability? I wonder, between civil engineering, environmental science, and environmental engineering, what are some of the leadership capacities of the Whiting School in that regard?

SCHLESINGER: There, too, we have very large efforts. I will say, as I think you know, Johns Hopkins University is a very, very large organization. I will tell you that one of the things, at least when I was a graduate student at Caltech, which struck me was how compact, at least at the time, it was. If I can just digress for a moment, I will tell you that I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. The University of Toronto when I was an undergraduate at the time said that they had about 50,000 students. I actually remember my 11-digit student ID number because you needed it at every turn when you went there. Today I believe the University of Toronto has something more like 90,000 students. I haven't looked recently. When I first got to Caltech, I remember going to the registrar's office, walking into the office. At the time, there was a lady there by the name of Bernice Miller. She looked up from her desk as I walked in and said, "Oh, Ed, you haven't registered yet! Let me help you register."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Obviously she remembered me from some photo I must have sent in or something like that. The idea that someone in administration would actually know me, having never met me, was jarring for someone who came from a very large place. So, I know what a very large university is like. Hopkins is a very large university. It's a very interesting place. When it comes to things like climate change and sustainability, we have a department here—again, joint between Public Health and the School of Engineering—called Environmental Health and Engineering. We have a longstanding tradition of environmental engineering at Hopkins. One of the most famous researchers at Hopkins, who should be very famous and I think a lot of people don't know the name, is Abel Wolman. Abel Wolman is widely credited with having developed the idea of chlorination of water—something we take for granted today, the fact that you turn on your tap and you just drink the water and you don't get some water-borne disease. That came out of what at the time here at Hopkins was called Sanitary Engineering. Later on it got a more elegant name of Environmental Engineering.

Today, as I say, we have this joint department with Public Health, because at some level, you can ask yourself, why do we do environmental engineering? Some of it of course is done for the benefit of the environment, to try to preserve the environment for its own sake, but I would argue that the vast majority of the reasons we pursue environmental engineering is to improve the health and wellbeing of humans, hence sanitary engineering and things like that. In that spirit, that department is very much pursuing programs related to climate change and sustainability. We also have the Ralph O'Connor Sustainable Energy Institute, which we affectionately call ROSEI, that is pursuing matters of climate change and sustainable energy, amongst other things. I will say that ROSEI, the IAA—the Institute for Assured Autonomy—the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering in its present form were things that were started under my watch, and so that's why I know a little bit about them.

ZIERLER: I'm curious, especially with your interest in information and having the Departments of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering within the school, is Hopkins a player in the space of quantum computing and quantum information? Is that relevant at Hopkins?

SCHLESINGER: It's something that has been on my mind recently. We do have people, especially over in the School of Arts and Sciences in the Physics Department, who work on materials and structures that could have applications in quantum computing. Less so in the School of Engineering. It's just something I've been thinking about. It's a non-trivial investment to try to think how to do something of significance in that. That's something that I wouldn't say we have a large effort in the School of Engineering, but it's something on my mind these days.

ZIERLER: Two regionally-oriented questions—being in Baltimore—I think you alluded to it with the educational aspect—what are the outreach opportunities to better integrate Hopkins and the Whiting School within the Baltimore community?

SCHLESINGER: Actually, it's interesting—our university has a great many programs with the city and that are meant to improve the city of Baltimore. The School of Engineering specifically has something a bit unusual. We have something called the Center for Educational Outreach, which is an organization within the School of Engineering that does what it sounds like it does; it does outreach programming to bring STEM and knowledge of engineering and the opportunities in engineering to people in the city of Baltimore and primarily in underserved communities. Then it has another mission to go beyond that, to—just the whole world, in my opinion, should know something about the opportunities in engineering and STEM, and so the Center for Educational Outreach has broader programs as well, but it does have this important focus on the city of Baltimore.

For example, there is a Baltimore city school, public school, that is about a mile and a half from our campus, the Barclay School, and we've had nearly 10 years of partnership now with the Barclay School to bring STEM education into the school to help train the teachers, to help just improve that Baltimore city school. One of my colleagues had a grant over some number of years where he and colleagues developed—it was called SABES, STEM Achievement in Baltimore Elementary Schools—in which amongst other things they developed a STEM curriculum that has now been adopted by the Baltimore City School District as their STEM curriculum. Then even more broadly we have a desire and efforts to make translational activities, entrepreneurial activities, commercialization activities, easier. We'd like to see Baltimore become a very vibrant, economically successful city that brings opportunity to everyone in the city. We think we can do that.

I will tell you that in my opinion—just because we're talking about Baltimore—Baltimore without doubt has some very, very serious issues, some very, very serious challenges, but it is not all that you read about in the newspapers or see in media. There's an enormous amount going on here that's very, very positive, but of course that gets no air time whatsoever. You only hear about the negative.

ZIERLER: More broadly, being in the Greater Washington area, how is that an asset both for you as dean, and the School of Engineering generally, both in terms of funding and perhaps face-to-face contacts, but also the policy implications of just being around Washington, D.C. as all of these things get debated?

SCHLESINGER: Yeah. First of all, there's a lot to what you just said. It's really not just Baltimore; it's the Baltimore-Washington area. Indeed, there are colleagues who live in D.C. We are close enough to D.C. that we have colleagues who live in D.C. and commute on a daily basis to the campus because it's that close. Hopkins just recently inaugurated the Bloomberg Center at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, where we have the School of Advanced International Studies, and we recently announced the establishment of a new School of Government and Policy, and we're currently in the search for an inaugural dean for that school. This nearly 500,000-square-foot facility on Pennsylvania Avenue, home to these two schools, gives us in Engineering an opportunity to think about how we want to play in the realm of technology and policy.

As I like to say, there is no human activity today that isn't in some way related to, enabled by, modified by technology. Therefore, any time you're thinking about policy, you have to be conversant with technology, and in some cases more than just conversant; you need to be deeply knowledgeable about technology if you're going to think about policy in a way that makes sense. The flip side is also true, which is that technologists have to become more aware of policy matters, because the technologies that we develop these days affect all of society, not just the technologists who use them. I think there's a huge opportunity for us in the realm of technology and policy. That's another thing that's on my mind these days.

ZIERLER: One of course that is in the headlines almost every day now—you mentioned automation—that is artificial intelligence and machine learning. What role could or should the Whiting School have in those discussions as they relate to the important policy considerations, establishing guardrails for what AI should and should not do in the future? What are your thought sin that regard?

SCHLESINGER: I think of just an excellent example that is particularly noteworthy today, and it goes beyond even just AI—the entire realm of data science, the use of data, the ability to address very complex matters through the use of data and AI algorithms. As you said, how those are used, what does it mean to use these technologies for positive benefit are all going to be the subject of a lot of discussion and clearly various policies, and one hopes that those policies will make sense. At one level I will also say that the use of technology for good or for ill, that's as old as technology, since we harnessed fire or made stone knives. You can use fire to cook your food, or you can use fire to burn the village next door. At that level, there's nothing new about this dichotomy that technology can be used for good or ill. The difference is the extensiveness to which these technologies can have impact on society.

ZIERLER: Is there also something potentially different in AI as a technology because—not to get too science fiction about it, but perhaps it will progress to a point at which humans are no longer relevant in making those kinds of decisions?

SCHLESINGER: Right. It's interesting—at one level, you could make an argument that we're so far away from that that it's not yet what we actually have to worry about. One argument that I've heard as to why we are far away—if you think about the systems that these various corporations build to power their AIs, they build these server farms that consume literally tens of megawatts of electric power. Of course they serve multiple people at the same time, but still, at least tens of megawatts if not more of electric power, to do a few tasks, almost as well as humans, that we do with a device that sits between our ears and burns only 20 watts of power. That tells you that there's some disconnect between human intelligence and these AI systems. It's not a completely accurate argument, because like I said, divide all that by all the users and so forth. So there's one argument that says, the problem is not yet science fiction. It's not about these systems becoming self-aware. In fact there are those who would argue that these systems—that there's some underlying physics that we don't yet understand about human intelligence, and no, we're not going to create a self-aware system just because we make it sufficiently large and sufficiently complex. Then there are those who would say, no, we will, it's just we haven't gotten there yet, we're a few orders of magnitude away.

Even setting that aside, these systems today can do a great many things, but they are all based on what we as humans do, so all of the biases, all of the negative dimensions that we as humans bring into our discourse and into our actions, these systems are going to suffer from those as well. The question is, will we able to prevent our biases from getting into these AI systems? Then of course, what do you do about giving over control to these AI systems, and where do you give up control? Even there, there are examples where we as humans have already given up control. I have a car—you're not familiar with this because you live in Southern California—but when the roads get icy [laughs]—I know, you can go up to the mountains—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —when the roads get icy and you slam on the brakes, nowadays the car will pump the brakes on its own. That's an intelligent move on the part of the car, and we have chosen to give up the task of pumping our brakes. We don't seem to worry about that. That seems to be okay. So, at one level, there are things that we have already given up to our devices. The question is, are there things we shouldn't give up to our devices? There's a long conversation there.

ZIERLER: As dean of an engineering school, you're at the interface of thinking about technology and of course education and what students can go on to do. I wonder if you've been dean long enough that you have some even historical perspective on both the motivations and the job opportunities of undergraduates and graduate students who go through these programs, what they're interested in, what they want to accomplish, and what's available to them upon graduation. How might those things have changed over the course of your tenure?

SCHLESINGER: I would say, especially if I look back over the course of my career, a number of things have really changed dramatically. First of all, what is the purpose of the education that we provide students today? At some level this was always true—we always used to say we were teaching the students how to think—but if you go far enough back, you can ask yourself, why do universities even exist? Why were they founded as entities? I'm not a historian, but I think it's fair to say that they existed because that's where the books were—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —and the people who knew how to read the books. If you wanted to learn something, you had to come to the university to talk to the people who knew how to read and could tell you about what was in the books. You know that things have changed, because even when I was a graduate student, when I came to Caltech, one of the things that people touted about Caltech was Millikan Library and how many volumes it has. No university today would put out on its brochure, as far as I know—"Oh, we have four million volumes in our library collection now." That's not interesting, because Google has all the books and you can get them within—or Amazon, I guess, has all the books, and you can get them all within 24 hours, modulo a few very rare manuscripts and so forth. The point is, it was about the information.

What was a lecture? The lecture was an opportunity to transfer information from the faculty member to the student. Today, information is ubiquitous. Information is available anywhere. I don't need to come to a university to get information. Now, somewhere beyond information is knowledge, it's wisdom, it's the ability to think. How do we train and educate our students in that? Of course some amount of information transfer is needed so we have something to talk about, but at the end of the day it's not about information transfer. Therefore, the course—the course, as the quantum of education—is attractive administratively. Because if you're one of my faculty members and you teach a course in a semester, I can check the box off that you've done your educational contribution. But the truth of it is, it's not clear to me what exactly a faculty member should be doing today. We still do courses, but I think more and more we have to think more creatively about what are the educational contributions of our faculty, and what it is that we're trying to accomplish with our students.

Then to your point, huge diversity of students on the input. The backgrounds of our students today, everything about our students, is very different than it was certainly when I was a student, because frankly more people are going to universities. More people need to go to universities. Then by the same token that diversity then manifests on the output, the career paths. There was a time where I think most people at Hopkins presumed that students who graduate with their undergraduate degree will go on to a graduate degree, will go on to a doctorate, will go on into an academic career. Probably wasn't true at the time, that people thought that way, but it was certainly more true.

Today, even though at Hopkins we have perhaps an unusual number of students who do go on to graduate studies, more and more of our students are going into government, into industry, to foundations, to different types of careers. Finish an undergraduate degree; go get a business degree. Undergraduate degree; get a law degree, get a medical degree, start a company. Again that calls the question, how do you design an educational experience that is valid and useful for all of those students with their diversity on the input and their diversity on the output. That, too, is a very [laughs] long conversation.

ZIERLER: Obviously these are things that you've thought deeply about in—you emphasized not just your tenure, your career. Your interest in these matters, the progression from professor to dean, was that sort of attractive to you, that you would not just be a thinker of these ideas, you'd have the opportunity to really implement, make the educational systems more relevant so that you could be more responsive to the changes that you've just described?

SCHLESINGER: Without doubt. I would put it in the following way. I used to say it to people in the following way—that when I pursued moving into a position of, as I like to say, academic leadership—there's something about administration that sounds pejorative—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —and so I don't like to use that term. I prefer academic leadership. I became department head at Carnegie Mellon, and then there was the opportunity to move to Hopkins. Even when I became department head, and even though at the time that I was department head actually my research program was growing, I came to realize that there's an opportunity to contribute to the academy in a different way. That's why, going back to something else I said earlier, the fact that I don't have a research group right now, while as I said I'm sort of nostalgic about that from time to time, I would argue that my ability to contribute to the academy, to the way we talk about education, to the way that I'm hopefully enabling my colleagues to pursue their research, to the kind of impact we can have on the world, that these are contributions that are perhaps as valuable as the quality of papers I would have published. I think it's a valid academic pursuit to think about these issues and then pursue the opportunity to be in a position where, as you said, you can have impact about how this is accomplished.

ZIERLER: Let's go back and establish some personal history. You mentioned your father was a physicist. When you were an undergrad at the University of Toronto, were you thinking about more of the fundamental side of things, or were you always on the applied and engineering track?

SCHLESINGER: I was definitely more on the more traditional physics side of things. At the University of Toronto, of course there was a big—there still is—a very large engineering school. I was not in the engineering school. There was the first-year physics course that was for the physics majors, as opposed to the people who were studying physics as part of a non-physics major. Again, because it was such a big university, they had a whole gradation of physics courses—the physics courses for the engineers, the physics course for the premeds, the physics course for the humanists who wanted to know something about physics and society. At the other extreme there was the physics course that was for the physics majors. I was definitely in that one, the physics course for the physics majors. I was pursuing physics thinking that that's what I would be pursuing. But things worked out a little bit differently.

ZIERLER: Of course there's also theory and experiment. Did you recognize, were you sensitive to that distinction as an undergraduate, that you could even within physics do some of the more equations and abstract stuff, versus not quite engineering, but you could really work in the lab and build stuff and do experimental work?

SCHLESINGER: Yes, absolutely, I very much aware of that, and always wanted to be in the lab, working in the lab on experiments and seeing the data come in. There was no question in my mind that I was an experimentalist, maybe—probably because I'm not smart enough to be a theoretician, but I very much enjoyed the experimental work. Even within that, I would say that I always preferred what is today called condensed matter kinds of directions, as opposed to high energy, cosmology, and so forth, because I also enjoyed the idea of my experiment being on my table, in front of me, and being able to do something in my lab as opposed to being a member of a multi-hundred team that's working at a linear accelerator somewhere. I just liked being able to work on my tabletop.

ZIERLER: You mentioned condensed matter. Of course that's a more recent term. It was probably solid state when you were an undergraduate. I wonder if you drew the connections between the centrality of solid state physics to electrical engineering and transistors and microprocessing and things like that.

SCHLESINGER: For sure, absolutely. That's why I ended up in Applied Physics at Caltech. I think indeed at the time it was called solid state. I think even Physical Review still called it solid state. I don't remember when they changed to condensed matter.

ZIERLER: Were you always on the academic track? Was that always your motivation, to pursue graduate school? Did you ever think about going into industry after undergrad?

SCHLESINGER: I think the environment at home, my father as I said being a physicist—my mom actually is a mathematician. She was teaching in high school. In fact, just to give you a sense of the academic nature, she is now 85 years old and she still teaches AP Calculus.


SCHLESINGER: I think it's pertinent. I don't think that everyone's 85-year-old mom calls them up to ask them, "I can't remember why in this theorem this function is defined on the open interval and not on the closed interval."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: I usually have to go to one of my colleagues to ask that question. The point is, I think we had kind of an academic bent at home. It was always valued—learning, the academy. I think I was just so immersed in that culture that that's what I ended up pursuing. I'll also tell you where it became clear to me that that's what I wanted to do. After my first year, and actually after my second year at Toronto, I got summer jobs. My first summer job was very similar to my second summer job; I was working in a supplier factory to the car industry. I was a member of the UAW. I was making union wages. I made really good money, at the time what was really good wages, and doing physically intensive, really dirty, and unpleasant work. Mind-numbing. Really not great. This was not working at a car factory; this was working at a small supplier company that was still part of the union and so forth, and very good wages.

After a couple of summers of that, I ended up working at the University of Toronto for the summer in the laboratory of a faculty member there who has since passed away. His name was Boris Stoicheff. We were doing some optical experiments, and I was using homemade lasers to look at the excited state of alkali metal gases. I just remember one day feeling like, "I'm just playing. I'm not working this summer. I worked the previous two summers. This summer I'm just playing. I'm just having a good time. And they're paying me!"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Albeit, they were paying me maybe one quarter of what I made in the previous summers, but it was just clear that this is—"My God, you can do this for the rest of your life, and just enjoy yourself? This is what I want to do." That's when the penny for me really dropped and it was clear. One of the things we made in that first summer, when I was working at the factory, was electrical conduit connectors. Imagine two pipes that have to be connected. This is them! This is an electric—I'll try not to break my computer—this is an electrical conduit connector. I don't know if you can see; it has got a—you screw it into one pipe, and then this part, you screw down this screw and it closes this sort of clamp on the other pipe. One of the things I did all summer long—these came out of a punch press—I used a bandsaw to cut little excess metal that was there, to release this clamp. Anyway, after that first summer, I took two of these to my dorm room, with permission, used them as paperweights. I still have them. Whenever I got frustrated with my studies or was wondering why am I doing this, I would pick those up and said, "You could be using the bandsaw for the rest of your life," and get remotivated. I still have two of them here, because they've been a good motivator to remind me why the academic life is as wonderful as it is.

ZIERLER: When it was time to start thinking about graduate school, how did Caltech get on your radar? Was there a professor who pointed you in that direction? Were you aware of its reputation? Did you associate the Institute with some famous names?

SCHLESINGER: I will tell you, a lot of times in my life, I made decisions serendipitously. I probably haven't been thinking through my life as carefully as I should be. My second internship at the University of Toronto was with a faculty member there by the name of Rashmi Desai. Unfortunately, I think he has passed away as well. He collaborated with someone at Caltech by the name of Noel Corngold. I don't know—


SCHLESINGER: Rashmi—Professor Desai—said to me that I should look into—I was applying to graduate schools, and that, "Take a look at Caltech." I and my friends were applying to a great many schools, and what I later found out was true for a lot of those of us who were at Caltech—when I looked into it, I discovered that Caltech, at least at the time, did not have an application fee. I said, "Oh, then what the hell, I might as well put in an application." I had a sort of budget for how much I could spend on applications to different universities. I sent in my application. I'm pretty sure that Professor Desai's letter ended up in Professor Corngold's hands, and that probably helped me. Then, I got a call from Professor Corngold, actually, letting me know that I had been admitted to Caltech. This was probably in March of my graduating year. And I kid you not, it was snowy and cold in Toronto, and after speaking to him on the phone, I sat down in the common room of my dormitory where I lived, and there was a commercial on TV for—at the time, Sunkist actually had a soda pop that they were advertising, and it showed people in bathing suits playing volleyball on the beach, to a version of "Good Vibrations" in the background. I said, "Hmm, maybe I want to leave Toronto and go to Southern California."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Of course I knew Caltech by reputation. I remember talking to my father about this choice. Because, yes, I was graduating, but I was graduating very young. How old was I when I graduated from—? Let me just do the math for just a moment. I had not turned 22. I was 21. So, pretty young, and thinking about moving across the country to the other coast, didn't know anyone in California, didn't have any family or friends in California, so it was a big decision to go to Caltech as opposed to, say, Cornell or the University of Michigan, and so forth. I remember saying to my father as I sent the letter in accepting the offer, "You know, if I don't go to Caltech, I think my whole life I'll be wondering, what if I had gone to Caltech?" That was kind of the clincher. He was very supportive, although I know my parents were concerned that at a very young age I was heading to the West Coast.

ZIERLER: What did you think, if you paid it much mind, that it was an applied physics program? Of course in Toronto you were in the physics program, not in engineering. Was this a way to square that circle, to not go fully into engineering?

SCHLESINGER: I think it was more of my understanding that what was done then in solid state was done more in applied physics, when I did look at Caltech and I saw the work that was being done in applied physics. I think probably because Professor Corngold called me up and he was in the Applied Physics Department that it just kind of naturally was where I ended up.

ZIERLER: Was Noel Corngold designated as your advisor even informally right away, or that was something that developed over time?

SCHLESINGER: No, he was designated as my initial point of contact, but then I actually ended up working for Professor Tom McGill as a grad student. In that first year, if memory serves, I believe in that first semester I actually was a TA in Professor Corngold's class. It's funny, you'd think you'd remember these things forever, but I'm pretty sure I was his TA. Then that first year we got to talk to different faculty members. Applied Physics at the time—I don't know what it is right now—I think there was all of a dozen, maybe 15 students who were admitted to the Applied Physics Department, so you got a chance to get to know all the different faculty members, and I ended up in Professor McGill's group.

ZIERLER: This is the early 1980s. What were the big ideas in applied physics, solid state physics, that you remember? What seemed to be at the vanguard of research and knowledge at that point?

SCHLESINGER: In applied physics, I think it's fair to say that heterojunctions and quantum wells—semiconductor quantum wells—and superlattices and those sorts of things were really all the rage. Then molecular-beam epitaxy, the ability to grow these very abrupt junctions between two materials and to realize devices in those, that was pretty much I think a lot of what was going on. Band-gap engineering was a common term. The ability to create these artificially stacked structures and get various interesting effects.

ZIERLER: Coming from a physics program at the University of Toronto, in the coursework at Caltech, how well prepared did you feel vis-à-vis your other students?

SCHLESINGER: I felt well prepared. I have no complaints with the program in Toronto.

ZIERLER: Tell me about Noel Corngold. What was he like as a person?

SCHLESINGER: He was a very nice gentleman, very dedicated to his work as I remember. Very kind and gentle, never saw him upset with anyone or anything. Very much the academic, as I remember. Tom, in comparison, always ran a very large research group. At the time, Amnon Yariv was one of the other big researchers there, running an even larger I think research group, although I think there was a bit of a—more than a bit—of a rivalry between Tom and Amnon about who had the biggest research group. Bill Johnson was another fairly large group. I had a good friend who was in Bill Johnson's group who worked on metallic glasses. Who else was there? Oh, yes, Bill Bridges—William Bridges. I'm pretty sure—let me just check something if you don't mind?

ZIERLER: Please!

SCHLESINGER: I think what I'm about to tell you is true. Hang on. Yeah. Yes, the other person that was there was Bill Goddard. That's the other name I was trying to remember. The reason I mention that name is because my now son-in-law works at a company called Schrödinger that was founded by Bill Goddard, amongst others.

ZIERLER: Yes! Bill is in chemistry so that's why it wasn't tracking in terms of thinking about what faculty member. But yeah, sure, absolutely. Ed, what about Carver Mead and the VLSI revolution that was under way? Did that register with you?

SCHLESINGER: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, yeah, yeah! In fact, there was a talk I heard by Carver Mead just before I moved to Carnegie Mellon. I remember this talk very well, and it stayed with me for years and still informs my thinking about how to think about the next thing in science. Carver gave a talk that I attended towards the end of my graduate career aet Caltech in which he talked about what was the then—and using his word—the signal problem in integrated circuit technology. What he said the problem was, was the following. He said when we designed circuits, electric circuits, we used to design fairly small circuits. The way he put it is it's like we designed a little neighborhood of a little town. Today, as we're designing with hundreds and soon—and I think maybe he said thousands of transistors—we are not designing a little community or a little neighborhood; we are designing a whole city, and when we get to tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands—which of course is dwarfed by what's happening today—he said it's like we're designing all of New York City, Manhattan, which of course was a play on the Manhattan topology of ICs. But he said the signal problem is not the fabrication; it's actually the design problem. How does an engineer design circuits with hundreds of thousands if not millions of transistors? That is the problem. That's the problem that's facing us, that's going to limit us.

Interestingly, when I moved to Carnegie Mellon, I discovered that literally as he was talking about that, a group of folks at Carnegie Mellon had successfully competed for an SRC CAD Center. The Semiconductor Research Corporation was funding these centers, and Carnegie Mellon got this grant in computer-aided design. What Carnegie Mellon was working on was developing the computer design tools that would allow engineers to design IC technology. The reason why Carnegie Mellon went into that was frankly because they couldn't afford, at the time, to build a cleanroom at Carnegie Mellon in the way that MIT and Stanford were. I think they must have heard Carver talk as well and understood that that design problem was every bit as important as the fabrication problem, so they became very, very successful playing in the IC came. I remember that Carver said it very nicely at that presentation.

By the way, the other person who was around at Caltech when I was a grad student, who I got to hear a couple of seminars from, was Richard Feynman. He was alive then. He was of course in the Physics Department. The main thing I remember about seminars by Richard Feynman was that you would sit in the seminar and you would understand everything that he was explaining. It all made perfect sense. It was all so obvious. How did I not see this for myself?

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Then the seminar would be over, and you would say to me, "Ed, how did he do that thing where he went from there to—?" And I'd be lost. I'd have no idea. I'd know it had made sense when he was explaining it. There was something about his style of presentation, the clarity, that was amazing—and frustrating at the same time.

ZIERLER: [laughs] What were the big questions that were propelling Tom McGill's research group and how did that influence your decision to join in?

SCHLESINGER: He was on the verge of getting one of these molecular-beam epitaxy systems. At the time, he was collaborating with people at Xerox PARC. There was a fellow there who was growing—not by MBE but by MOCVD—heterostructures. The different problems he was working on, really what was at the forefront was the idea of creating devices, heterostructures, in which you could perhaps see some very interesting fundamental physical phenomenon. One of my colleagues actually worked on what were called double quantum barrier structures, in which you could get resonant tunneling through them which would manifest in the current versus voltage characteristic in what was called a negative differential resistance. It was sort of a macroscopic manifestation of a quantum mechanical phenomenon in these devices. I think in general, if I look back now and ask myself what Tom was really working on more broadly, I'd say his group was working on this idea that you can build these heterostructures and potentially exploit quantum mechanical phenomena in a macroscopic manner for potentially useful devices.

ZIERLER: How did you slot in? How did this ultimately inform what your thesis research would be on?

SCHLESINGER: What my thesis was supposed to be about was looking for quantum interference effects in a barrier structure. The idea was to create a barrier, you get electrons to go past this barrier, and if you could just set things up just right, then just like, for example, a thin-film optical coating—where for certain wavelengths of light you get perfect transmission, and then for others you get perfect reflection, and so forth—you'd see something like that for the electron transport, was the idea, that you would see these interference effects. For various reasons, the devices we were using—or at least maybe I wasn't clever enough to create a device where that would be easily observed, and so I never actually saw what we were looking for. I saw a few other things, did some other work along the way that seemed to be useful in terms of some publications, but not what we were originally looking for, unfortunately.

ZIERLER: Was there something lacking in terms of the technology? If you could do the work today, are there things available that might produce a different outcome?

SCHLESINGER: I'd have to go back and think about it carefully, but I think probably so, that the scale of the device that I was trying to study was the wrong scale. It was too big, basically, and so if the effect was there, I was probably averaging it out over, as it happened, too many k vectors, and so you wouldn't see it. I would have to do something a little bit more subtle to get this to work. Now, could I have done it at the time? I don't know. Interestingly, there are lots of examples in the history of engineering and science where people are looking for an effect, and only a generation later do people realize, of course they didn't see that effect, because this or that wasn't true, or they didn't know the following at the time. We have one example here. One of our alums—he's in his mid-eighties now—he will tell you that when he was a graduate student here, he and his advisor really were trying to build an AI system. But this was in the mid-sixties, and what they concluded was that they just didn't have anywhere near the compute power to do what they wanted to do. Of course now we see what it takes and we realize, of course they didn't have the compute power, but you don't know it at the time.

ZIERLER: The retrospective answer you gave before about information storage and really thinking about information storage as a connector for all of your research, does this have roots in your graduate experience, and do computers play a role at all in this story?

SCHLESINGER: It's interesting, my sojourn from my graduate experience into information storage systems was as follows. Really the techniques I used in Tom McGill's lab were optical characterization techniques, so optical characterization of semiconductor devices of various sorts. I went to Carnegie Mellon and I started working on those sorts of things, different than what I was doing in Tom's lab but generally working in that very general area of optical characterization of semiconductor devices. At Carnegie Mellon, there was an organization that was originally called the Magnetics Technology Center that became the Data Storage Systems Center—became an NSF ERC—and they were beginning to get interested in optical data storage—we don't think about that anymore, but CDs and DVDs and CDR. It turns out that a lot of the techniques I was using, a lot of the things I was thinking about, were applicable to the technologies of optical data storage. So I got involved with the Data Storage Systems Center at Carnegie Mellon, working on optical data storage.

I actually had quite an interesting experience and quite a number of years of working on various technologies in that field, which at the time was really dominated by the Japanese and Japanese companies. Had some good collaborations with them. But that also led me to work in collaboration with folks at Carnegie Mellon on what is called heat-assisted magnetic recording, which has now become a product from Seagate. Seagate was a company I used to work with at Carnegie Mellon. I ended up moving from this optical characterization to optical storage to this, if you will, hybrid technology of optical and magnetic, and ended up working on heat-assisted magnetic recording devices and systems. As I said, I keep following it, and now I see that Seagate is actually offering what they call HAMR drives, for sale.

ZIERLER: Just to give a sense of the job market by the time you defended, were you considering postdocs? Was that that standard at the time? You were looking only at straight faculty positions?

SCHLESINGER: I was considering postdocs. Tom actually wrote a letter to Carnegie Mellon, to a colleague who at the time was the department head, Steve Director, who invited me for an interview. Actually one of the people that I met with on that interview trip was Mark Kryder, who was himself a Caltech alum. I remember having dinner with Mark, because he was leaving the next day, and he was telling me about Carnegie Mellon. It seemed like an interesting place. Very quick day-and-a-half trip. Then Steve called me up and made me an offer! Now, I had a friend who was in Bill Johnson's group who was interviewing at the same time, and he got an offer for a very nice postdoc in Boston at Harvard. I remember thinking to myself, "I'd love to do a postdoc." Just to have that year or two where you're not responsible for the research. Where you, on the one hand, don't have all the stress of a grad student in terms of your thesis and so forth, but don't have all the stress of the PI in terms of raising the money and so forth. It seemed to me like being a postdoc would be great. But Carnegie Mellon made me a very nice offer. I remember thinking to myself, "How do I know if this offer will exist two years from now?" I guess I was a little risk-averse, and so I took the offer and moved to Pittsburgh, sort of a bird-in-the-hand kind of thing.

ZIERLER: What was your research agenda? What were your goals as a young assistant faculty member?

SCHLESINGER: It's interesting—very, very different times. Now, it may have been me, or it may have been the times. I think it was the times. So, I got to Carnegie Mellon, they gave me an office, they showed me an empty lab, and they said, "Well, go to it." I remember going up to Steve's office a few days later and saying, "Steve, I realize I never asked you for any support to start up." He sort of looked at me and said, "Well, I guess it's too late, Ed." [laughs]

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: He said, "But okay, I'll help you out," and he helped me write an IBM and an AT&T faculty development grant, both of which came in, which allowed me to buy a dewar and a spectrometer. No, I take it back; I bought a spectrometer and a laser. The dewar I found in a storage facility at the university. Around that, I started building up my lab. But what was interesting—this is in answer to your question about the research agenda—I don't think it was just me, but the whole concept of an assistant professor, a brand-new assistant professor, getting a massive startup package really was not the norm. The norm—and I think this was not just me and not just Carnegie Mellon—was basically show up, and the first couple of years publish whatever you can that's left from your thesis that you didn't publish, teach your classes, write an NSF proposal. If you do that in the first two years, when you get to your two-year review—they had a two-year review—you're good, you're fine. Then the next two years, make sure that you get funded and are beginning to build up your group. In other words, the structure of the academic career was I think slower. It gave people time.

Today, what we do is here's a million and a half dollars as an assistant professor to build up your lab, and here is some student support and so forth, and within two or three years we expect you to really do an awful lot because we've made such a huge investment in you. Which I'm not sure is for the best. In answer to your question, I think that I had the luxury to not have to imagine, or not have to decide immediately, what is my research agenda? I had the luxury to get my feet under me, to begin to teach, to begin to write a proposal, to just get acclimatized to the career. Today it does seem like we put a lot more stress, a lot more investment, a lot more expectations on our young faculty. Therefore, you better have a research agenda! Because I just gave you a million and a half dollars, six student years, a bunch of summer salary. Why aren't you moving forward already?

ZIERLER: As you explained, when you became a professor, to the extent there was somewhat of a pivot in your research, I wonder if you can reflect on why that was. What aspects of advances in technology, aspects of being in a different career stage, being at a new institution, or really, as you were just explaining, having much more breathing room than is available today simply to explore and see what seemed both interesting and feasible for you? I wonder if you could put that all together.

SCHLESINGER: Yeah, and actually I'll put it together with something I said about moving to Hopkins. Because I had that time, because indeed I was exploring, I was looking around, I began to understand who my colleagues are at Carnegie Mellon. I knew I was the person that wanted to collaborate, that felt that that was an interesting to do. I got to see what sort of facilities were there. Data storage was a growing area of importance there. The facilities for data storage systems were really being enhanced there at the time. I readily admit that if I would have not gone to Carnegie Mellon, at that time, with those people around me, with those facilities around me, it's not like I would have said, "Ah! Data storage! That's the thing I need to work on." I think it was an organic, natural adaptation to the environment that I was in.

Indeed, that's what I ended up working in. Very interesting. It appealed to me. It checked all boxes for me in terms of the kinds of things I wanted to do. The fact that it happened to be data storage and not something else, that's a minor thing. It was solid state, condensed matter. It was materials. It was optics. It had an application in mind. Great corporate interactions there, because the university was known for that, and so on. Indeed, when I moved to Hopkins, which wasn't big and isn't big in data storage, I realized immediately that if I'm moving to Hopkins, I have one of three choices. I'm not going to do data storage in a serious way at Hopkins unless I build a massive infrastructure for myself here, but if I do that, not clear how I focus on my role as dean. So I'm going to go into the dean role with both feet, and leave it at that.

ZIERLER: In your current position as dean where you have a lot of say, you've thought a lot about how tenure decisions are made, if you can use that to reflect back on your own experiences where you did have, as we were discussing before, a lot more breathing room to explore, what did that mean for the tenure clock? What did that mean in terms of you feeling any pinch to put something cohesive together when you came up for review? When did it start to click for you?

SCHLESINGER: I would say that within a couple of years, in my third year, things really did start to click. By the time I came up for tenure, I had published quite a number of papers and felt pretty good about where I was. By then I had also gotten what was then called a Presidential Young Investigator Award, which today is essentially the NSF CAREER Award. But the better part of it, because it was a Presidential Young Investigator, I got a certificate signed by the president, which I don't think the CAREER Award winners get these days. It was really rolling around very nicely by then in terms of my research. I had a number of activities. I also had met an old friend at a conference, and we realized we could work on some materials for room-temperature nuclear detectors. It has nothing to do with data storage; it's a device technology, a nuclear radiation technology. We were able to do a lot of really nice work in that space as well. The only thing that was in common with the other work I was doing—it was about semiconductors, it was about optical characterization, it was about device technology—but its applications and so forth was really quite different.

If I think about promotion and tenure now, again I think the expectations are different. I think I benefited from the fact that at Carnegie Mellon, the tenure decision was actually left to full professor. I know a lot of young people think that getting tenure at the associate professor, earlier, is an advantage. I disagree. I understand the thinking about it, but I believe that being given the luxury of time before you have to have produced something worthy of tenure allows you to take more risks. I think that for some colleagues, the fact that you have to get tenure by the time you're associate means that what you do is you take fewer risks in your research because you just want to make sure you have the right package for tenure. I think that in this day and age, especially in engineering, if I could wave a magic wand, I would like to see a more flexible, broader interpretation of what constitutes contributions worthy of tenure. In fact, we're going to go through a discussion of this in my school now because of some interesting circumstances that are going to allow us to rethink the tenure process in Engineering here at Hopkins. I'll give you an example of what I mean by that, although this person did the traditional thing at scale, so didn't need to base tenure on this. You may have during COVID seen this COVID-19 dashboard that Hopkins published?

ZIERLER: Yes, yes.

SCHLESINGER: The red circles with the black background. That initial dashboard was created by actually one of our Engineering faculty members, an untenured associate professor, and her student, in civil engineering. There's a whole story of why a civil engineer would produce the COVID dashboard, but she did. That dashboard became so valuable and impactful that at its height, she tells me that the servers on which it was hosted were getting accessed about four billion times per day, which is massive. It's unbelievable. If it weren't for the partnership with the Applied Physics Lab securing it and automating certain aspects of it, it would have undoubtedly crashed. The point is, this faculty member—her name is Lauren Gardner—had enormous impact in the world through the creation of that dashboard, at a time when that is exactly what the world needed, when physicians needed that in order to have situational awareness of how the pandemic was progressing. I have heard that directly from physicians not just at Hopkins.

That's something that isn't exactly a traditional academic work product. It's not a paper. It's not a conference proceeding. It's not a talk given at an important location. Nonetheless, it is so impactful. It is a bit of an outlier of course, but I believe things like that should be considered in the promotion and tenure processes for academics, especially engineering academics where the whole point of being an academic engineer is having a positive impact on the world. So, I think the tenure process needs to be broadened. At the other end, going back to what we started talking about, the pressure to achieve tenurable results in a short period of time, having been given enormous resources, I don't know that it's ideal the way we're doing things.

ZIERLER: If we can zoom out, in the early 1980s and mid 1980s and your research on data storage, this of course is when personal computers are just starting to catch on. This is long before the internet and cloud storage. Who were the creators of big data at that point, and who were the users? Finally, what were the technical challenges of storing what was considered big data back then?

SCHLESINGER: The personal computer was coming out around then. In fact, when I was a grad student, I remember the Macintosh just came out, and I remember going to some store on—what is it, Lake? I think it's Lake. There was a department store there on Lake. Was it Bullocks? Is that still there?


SCHLESINGER: Okay, but that is Lake Avenue, right?

ZIERLER: Yeah, that's the big commercial district, right.

SCHLESINGER: Yeah, so there was a store there on Lake, and there was a Macintosh on display. I remember walking into the store with a couple of friends, and they started to play with it and draw diagrams with it. Literally it just came out. Later on I realized, when I was at Carnegie Mellon, that the reason the data storage part of it was doubling every few months was because actually of GMR heads, giant magneto-resistance heads, and that technology was being introduced into the disk drives, and that's why your disk drive doubled every six months or a year. It was actually doubling faster than transistors on integrated circuits.

I don't know that big data in the way we think about it today, data science in the way we think about it today, was really appreciated at the time. It was different. The reason I say that is because even as we began to get bigger and bigger storage capacities, there were serious people who said, "Why do we need all this storage? 64K, 128K, 256K, a meg, it's enough!" There were jokes that the only reason you need more storage was because the operating systems were being made more complex than they needed to be. But then it became clear, wait a minute, we're beginning to exchange images, and that's going to take a lot of storage.

I will tell you something else I remember. It's funny, just talking to you was reminding me of this. This is about Carnegie Mellon now. In the late eighties, there was a faculty member there, who's still there I think, by the name of Raj Reddy. He was a roboticist. He made a comment that one of these days, you will be able to use the internet to send pictures of the grandchildren to grandma. I remember people ridiculed him for that statement. Because the thinking was, why would I ever use something as sophisticated

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —and expensive as the internet just to send a picture of the grandkids? To grandma! That's ridiculous!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Seriously. Of course, he was exactly right. As I think about that

ZIERLER: I wish that was the least serious thing that we used the internet for. [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Yeah! When you asked me about what were people thinking about in terms of big data at the time, I would suggest that while there may have been some people, leaders in the field, maybe some high-energy physicists and some astronomers and so forth who were really working with large datasets, who had a vision of what was happening, I think a lot of people missed it. A lot of people missed it and didn't see where it was headed. By the same token, I know I made a comment to a visitor once at Carnegie Mellon. Now this is probably getting into the early nineties. I didn't have a good answer, but I'm proud of having said this to this visitor. I remember showing this person around and telling this person that Carnegie Mellon was setting up a wireless internet access for the entire campus. At the time, Carnegie Mellon was actually quite a leader in networking. We had this thing called the Andrew system. We were going to get wireless Andrew across the campus. I remember saying to this visitor, as we were standing on the front steps of the building, "In about a year, you will be able to access the internet from the lawn right in front of us, this quad in front of us." This person said to me, "Why would I want to access the internet from the lawn? I've got a perfectly good computer in my office." My profound response to him was, "I don't know why you would want to do that, but I think it's going to be important."

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: That's as far as I went.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: Again, this was a serious person, a visitor to the Department, an engineer. Again, I'm going back to your question. There is of course always people who see it, who see what the next thing is, but for a lot of people, it's not clear where all this is going. So of course you ask yourself, what am I missing today?

ZIERLER: What about the broader academic community surrounding data science during the time when you were in the middle of this at Carnegie Mellon? What were the journals to publish in? What were the conferences to be present at? What were the societies to be a member in, for data storage?

SCHLESINGER: There was the Optical Data Storage Conference that was very premiere. There was the MORIS Conference, the Magneto-Optical Recording Information Society. Those were the optical ones. Oh, there was—and probably still is—the triple-M meeting. It was a magnetics conference. At the time, there was sort of the optical data storage people and then there was the magnetic storage—rotating hard drives, hard disks. They were kind of two separate things. I'm trying to remember what were the other conferences. The journals were pretty much IEEE Transactions, Journal of Applied Physics, Applied Physics Letters. This was not letters to Nature type of work or things like that. Some amount in Physical Review. That's where people went.

ZIERLER: Ed, did the collapse of Bell Labs and the resulting loss in industry-based fundamental research register with you? Did that reorient the field of data storage as well?

SCHLESINGER: Oh, yeah. I think that's actually much more than data storage. I think there's a whole other narrative that we should be thinking about as a country. If you go even before the early 1980s, if you go into the 1960s and 1970s, really post-Sputnik perhaps, there was a whole ecosystem of really amazing industrial, corporate research labs. People forget that yes, there was Bell Labs, but there was IBM T.J Watson Lab. There was Xerox, and not just Xerox PARC; Xerox in Rochester. There was GE in Schenectady. There was RCA Sarnoff Labs. There was Kodak. It goes on and on. For the most part these corporate research laboratories that did a lot of fundamental R—not just D—have for the most part gone away. Microsoft Research is one of the few that kind of emerged as new.

What happened was that, for better or worse, as those collapsed and disappeared, the most prominent being Bell Labs, a lot of that slack was taken up by the American research university, so we see the tremendous growth in the research enterprise at U.S. universities, primarily now funded by the U.S. government with some amount of corporate support. I don't know how sustainable that is. I don't know what's going to happen with that. I think that this country has actually benefited enormously from both the academic research enterprise but also the corporate research enterprise. What happens if government support of the research universities decreases? What happens to this country's leadership technologically and hence economically? Those are really worrying questions for me, actually.

ZIERLER: I'll use your preferred nomenclature, academic leadership as opposed to administration—when in your career at Carnegie Mellon did that start to become appealing to you, or at least it became something that you thought would be feasible and interesting?

SCHLESINGER: I took on the role of associate department head more because the then-department head was a good friend, and I felt it would be interesting to work with him, but I took it on in part because we had gone through an exercise at Carnegie Mellon in ECE on rethinking undergraduate curricula. We actually called our effort the Wipe The Slate Clean Committee. Meaning if we didn't have an electrical and computer engineering curriculum and we were starting from scratch, would we design one that was pretty much what we had today? The answer was obviously not. All of us agreed that was not the case. So, we went through a very interesting exercise. This is way before I became associate department head. We went through an exercise—I was as young assistant professor at the time—of saying, let's start from scratch, let's talk about the fundamentals, what it is we want to teach, and so forth. We devised this curriculum. We then deployed the curriculum. By the time I became associate department head—and my main role as associate head was the undergraduate curriculum, the undergraduate education—I realized that that was important! We were really changing something that was affecting lots of people, our undergraduates. That's when I began to realize you really can have some impact on what's going on. That's why the role of department head became interesting and now the role of dean here.

I will tell you what I'm up to these days in the little bit of time that we have. We are now embarked here at Hopkins on a massive investment in AI and data science. We've made some announcements about it. It's not the only thing we're investing in, in the School of Engineering, but just to give you a sense, we're going to expand the School of Engineering here by 80 faculty members in AI and data science. We're going to add 30 what we call Bloomberg Distinguished Professors, which are professors who are appointed in Engineering and another part of Hopkins. That's 110 faculty members. We're going to build out what will probably be the best academic computing infrastructure in the country. We're going to build half a million square feet of new engineering space on the Homewood campus. And, we're going to be hiring at least another 40 faculty members in energy, the environment, and bioengineering.

Why am I telling you all this? Because when I arrived, this School of Engineering was the forty-first largest school of engineering in the country. Today it's the twenty-fifth largest. By the time we finish with this growth over the next five years, we will likely be about the size of MIT as an engineering school. By the way, MIT is the largest private school of engineering. Assuming we do it right, assuming we maintain the quality—and this is more than a little bit of self-serving, but I'll say it nonetheless—if we establish another school of engineering, albeit with its own flavor and its own emphasis and its own strengths, but another school of engineering at the scale and quality of MIT, I think that will be a national asset. I think that will be a good thing for the country, to produce that many more engineering graduates, that much more engineering research. To go again back to your question, that gets me out of bed in the morning. Obviously there's no guarantee of success, but if I'm able, six or seven years from now, to look back and say there's another major school of engineering in the country, in part because of my contributions, I'm going to feel pretty good about that. I think that will have been a nice accomplishment.

ZIERLER: When the opportunity at Hopkins came up, what was compelling to you about it?

SCHLESINGER: One of the things that was interesting was that when the opportunity came up, I didn't ask myself, would I want to be dean at Hopkins? I asked myself, would I want to be a faculty member at Hopkins? My feeling was that if I didn't want to be a faculty member at Hopkins, why would I want to be a dean there? The reason I say that—I had this clarifying moment—as head of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, which was regarded as I think one of the strongest departments in that field in the country, you're kind of on the list of people that are approached when deanships come up, so you always get these emails—"Would you like to be considered for dean of Engineering at such and such university?" If you ask yourself the question, do I want to be a faculty member there, not do I want to be a dean there, and if you can't get excited about being a faculty member there, then why would you be—? Being dean partly is to be head cheerleader for the place. How can you cheer for the team that you wouldn't want to be on?

I could see myself as a faculty member at Hopkins. Hopkins really is an unusual university. There's aspects of that that are really small, in the sense that there are 6,000 students, undergraduates, which amongst private schools, modulo Caltech, is about what many of these small—that's the population of undergraduates. The campus looks small and compact. It's maybe 130 acres. I don't know what Caltech is these days, but I think it's comparable in size. You come here and you see this nice campus, and it just feels like a small, private school. But you realize later that it has this enormous medical campus and medical infrastructure, and public health, and nursing, and the Applied Physics Lab, and the position in Washington with SAIS, and the School of Business, and the Peabody School of Music—and you realize that this multibillion-dollar enterprise is just really a behemoth. You have all of the attributes of a nice, private university, but you have it at a scale that allows you to explore partnerships and to undertake projects that are really interesting, putting all that together. And Baltimore—we talked a little bit about Baltimore—Baltimore is a nice place. It has got its challenges—we'll fix those over time—but it's nice to be in the Baltimore-D.C. area.

ZIERLER: A classic question facing people coming into new positions of academic leadership—what aspects in the school were really working well and it was your job simply not to break them, where was there your own assessment of what needed to be either expanded or improved, and where was that mandate coming from beyond you, from the president, from the board of trustees? How did you put all of that together in your early years?

SCHLESINGER: There were a few things I did. The first thing is it was clear that we have a president here at Hopkins who is very ambitious for the university. That has manifested itself in lots of different ways. He wanted to see the university grow, the schools grow, and with no question about it, grow but also with quality, with academic quality. The message was clear—I wasn't hired to be a caretaker of an existing organization and just leave it alone. That was good. The first thing I did when I got here was I met with every faculty member, one on one, in their office, to get to know them, to get to know the school, and essentially for the first two years, I did nothing. I just went through the cycles to try to understand this place. I think one mistake that people make, and I've seen this with some people, where they go into a position, whether it's a department head or dean or president, and they want to make a change. "I've got to make my mark. I've got to make a change." That's a mistake. I think first, you do nothing. You have to be respectful of the place you've joined. Don't presume that everything they do is wrong. Don't presume that everything they do is right. Just get to know the place. I gave myself a couple of years to figure that out. To your question, a few things clearly were good about this place. It is a collaborative and collegial place. People get along well. There's always issues, but on the whole, it is collaborative. As I like to say, every dean and department head of course claims that their university is collaborative. No dean is ever going to sit in front of you and say, "David, ours is a highly siloed organization—

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: —and we erect barriers, purposefully, to ensure that those siloes are maintained!" Nobody ever says that. Everyone says they are collaborative. But you have to live in a place for a while to see whether that's true, and whether the business processes and the administrative infrastructure actually supports collaboration, whether the academic infrastructure supports collaboration. For example, if I tell you, "David, you're a new professor here. We support collaboration! Oh, by the way, when you come up for tenure, we really want to see just single-author papers from you, because all those papers that you have with other people on them, we can't tell what you did," well, clearly the message is you're not collaborative, and you shouldn't collaborate. So, collaborative, collegial.

But the School of Engineering had for too many years here seen itself as a small school of engineering. I don't want to say that people didn't want to grow, but I think people just were in a stasis. What I feel I did eventually after the two years was I instituted policies that simply encouraged a different type of behavior amongst the faculty. There's this old adage that you've probably heard, that academic "administration"—because I have to use the word—is like herding cats. But not everyone has heard the addendum to that, and the addendum is, "Don't try to herd cats. What you have to do is move their food." If you put in policies where it's clear where the food is—i.e. the resources, the money—then the cats will go there. In some sense, that's what I did. I instituted policies. I didn't mandate that anyone do anything. I just said, "Look, if you do this, you are going to have these resources flow to you." Once we got it onto a virtuous cycle and we were able to hire and grow, people saw the benefit of that, and then things began to change, and change dramatically here, and grow dramatically.

ZIERLER: In renewing your term for a second and a third time, is that simply a function of it working well and there's more for you to do and you're enjoying it? Is it as simple as that?

SCHLESINGER: Yes. I will tell you, when I started in my academic career, when I went to—I like to say to students sometimes, "You don't know where your career is going to take you." I can tell you, my very first college class was chemistry. Chem I, University of Toronto, giant first-year chemistry class. I don't know how many hundreds of students. I'm sitting in this amphitheater of a lecture hall waiting on a Monday morning for my first college lecture. As I say to students, I did not sit there saying to myself, "One day, I shall be the dean of Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University!"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

SCHLESINGER: That's nonsense, right? I didn't know what I was going to do for lunch that day! But what I will tell you is that when I went into this career of mine, a few things have always guided me. I never had the ambition and I don't have the ambition necessarily to be a president of a university or a provost. It has always been like, does this make sense for me now? Will I enjoy this? Do I feel I'm doing something worthwhile now? That's very important to me. The second thing that is very important to me is recognizing that whatever I am doing now, this is my life. This is my life—my family, my kids, my job, where I'm living. I've seen colleagues who have had a very clear, long-term objective, where they want to be something and will tailor their life and the moves they make in the service of that goal. They don't necessarily achieve the goal. Sometimes they do. But for me, if you told me, hey, there's an opportunity in Tulsa, Oklahoma, tomorrow—I don't know how to put it—I'm sure Tulsa is a beautiful place, and I'm sure there are lots of people who enjoy living there, but for me it's probably not where I want to live and where my family wants to live. I'm not going to move to Tulsa, because this is my life, and I want to do what I want to do in my life. I don't know if I'm being clear about this.

ZIERLER: Absolutely.

SCHLESINGER: When you asked me why am I renewed for a third term and pursuing this—because as you said, it's still very interesting, things are going well. I think the folks who make the decisions are happy with what I'm doing. I'm happy with what I'm doing. And there is this truly unprecedented scale of investment that is currently coming into the School of Engineering here at Hopkins that is going to take us to just a totally different level. I can't think of a more interesting place to be in the next couple of years in terms of building something that has the potential to be very important, as I said, not just for the school but ultimately even for the country.

ZIERLER: Not just important, but exciting.


ZIERLER: We'll wrap with two questions, one retrospective and one looking to the future. Of course, the connecting point for you and I here is Caltech. What has stayed with you from your Caltech days? What has been really formative in how you approach colleagues, how you think about physics and engineering, how you think about applications and even society?

SCHLESINGER: What has really stayed with me from Caltech, and what I really think is important in general for students who go to Caltech or for that matter to any really first-rate, first-class organization, is to have the experience of what it means to be in an organization that is at the top of its game, and to know what it means to have colleagues who are the best of the best at what they do. Then for the rest of your life—am I playing at the top of my game, or am I coasting? Are the people around me first-rate, or are they B-level actors? I know what A and A+ looks like, because I had that experience. I say this not just to pander to Caltech, but to really say that having that experience, knowing what it means to run with the big dogs and to definitely not be the smartest person in the room, that is so important, because then everything else gets calibrated later on in life. That's really what—it's not a particular thing I learned at Caltech. It's that sense of what it means to be in an environment where you know this is the top.

ZIERLER: It's the culture more than the coursework.

SCHLESINGER: Yes. Indeed, you ask most people of their undergraduate experience and say, "Quick, what was the last thing you learned in your last math class when you were there?"—or if you're a historian by training, "What was the last history class you learned, and what was the thing that you most remember learning in your last history class?"—you may remember, but I would wager that most times, you would not be able to answer that. Most times, you would remember, well, I remember the interaction with this professor. I remember the interaction with that colleague, with that student. I remember writing that big essay or whatever. Because it's all about the environment you're in, not the specifics of what you learned. That's what has stayed with me from Caltech.

ZIERLER: Looking to the future, for all that you've accomplished, for all that you're looking to accomplish as you chart out the next few years—the work is never done, of course, but for you personally, how will you know when you've reached that point of satisfaction, the benchmark that you set for yourself, when you'll be ready for whatever comes next for you?

SCHLESINGER: I think that when I get to the point where I know clearly what needs to be done tomorrow, this week, this month, it's time to move on to something else. [laughs]

ZIERLER: As long as it's unpredictable, that's good.


ZIERLER: This has been a terrific conversation. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.

SCHLESINGER: Thank you for reaching out.