When she conceptualized the freshman seminar “The Engineering of Ice Cream,” Kyle Vanderlick, then the chair of Princeton’s Chemical Engineering Department, was looking for a way to get college students excited about the possibilities of engineering.
The introductory-level engineering course packed in all the basics — everything from the thermodynamics of refrigerators and the chemistry of ice-cream proteins to the imaging techniques optimal for visualizing ice cream under a microscope — but with a decidedly refreshing spin.
“It was a really great chance to go deep into engineering but also to cover the curriculum in a way that was accessible,” said Vanderlick, who took the helm as Yale’s first female dean of engineering Jan. 1. Among the perks the course offered was the chance for her Princeton students to make ice cream from scratch.
“Really, we were just using ice cream as the excuse,” she joked.
The course embodied Vanderlick’s philosophy about the goals at the heart of an engineering education, which should balance depth and breadth and stress real-world application, she said.
As the first female dean of engineering, a position traditionally held by men, Vanderlick may also help balance the female-to-male ratio in the Engineering program by serving as a role model to interested women, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said when Vanderlick was hired in September.
Vanderlick, who was also the first female chair of any science department at Princeton, said she hopes to encourage the success of other women who have served in engineering fields.
Monica Cowan ’09, a Mechanical Engineering major, said while she has never been treated differently from her male classmates, she is part of a clear minority demographic in many of her engineering classes. She said Vanderlick’s appointment “definitely won’t hurt the numbers.”
“When there are two girls in a class of 20, it’s pretty conspicuous,” she said. “This will be very good for the program.”
But Vanderlick said the University does well compared to some of its peers in recruiting female engineering students. In its most recent issue, the American Society for Engineering Education ranked Yale first for the number of female students who earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Apart from increasing female representation, Vanderlick said she plans to target other historically underrepresented minorities in engineering in the coming terms.
Since arriving at Yale, Vanderlick has received praise from University officials and former colleagues for her research and administrative acumen. Several faculty interviewed applauded her strong commitment to undergraduate teaching — a commitment she said Princeton shares with Yale, which has made her transition “comfortable.”
As she heads into her first term, replacing Paul Fleury, who served in the post for seven years, Vanderlick said that among her priorities are vitalizing the program’s “synergistic” links with other disciplines and professional schools on campus, as well as building upon a program that links concepts from the classroom to the real world, thus capitalizing on the field’s wide applicability in order to attract more students.
“This is an exciting time for engineering, in part because Yale University is so committed to advancing the sciences,” she said.
Key to this goal, she said, is expanding the major from within by hiring new faculty and increasing the number of engineering students on campus.
Vanderlick said Yale’s engineering program has traditionally been much smaller than Princeton’s — in part because fewer students come to Yale with the intention of studying the subject, and of those who do, many do not stick with the major.
This is where classes like “The Engineering of Ice Cream” come in. Vanderlick said she wants to build on Yale’s existing first-year curriculum in an effort to engage students and encourage them to continue studying engineering.
Vanderlick’s announcement of the goal comes at a time when college officials and professors have reported attrition in the ranks of several science majors and a recent decline in the number of students majoring in some of the smaller science departments, among them Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.
“We need to build a better culture of engineering on campus,” she said. “They need to feel like they’re part of something special and unique, and we need to instill this in our students starting on day one.”
Vanderlick’s own research, which she will continue while at Yale, is itself a mix and match of different disciplines — what she calls “the science of boundaries.” She divides her time between studying the properties of biological membranes and the surface interactions of synthetic substances — work that has crucial applications to drug development and the construction of microscopic switches for computer networks.
An avid bowler until just recently, Vanderlick draws connections between the content of her research — surface interactions, friction and adhesion — and her understanding of the game. She said high-level bowling makes use of oil to lubricate the interface between the ball and lane, increasing the bowling ball’s precision and momentum, a process that involves “a surprising amount of physics.”
“It ties in nicely to my day job,” she said.
In the tradition of a “renaissance woman” in the sciences, her colleagues also praise Vanderlick’s skills as a teacher. In 2002, she received a President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching — the highest teaching award at Princeton — and has been commended by her students for her energy in the classroom, electrical engineering professor Sanjeev Kulkarni from Princeton said.
Debendetti said her enthusiasm in the classroom spills over into her professional interactions.
“She’s not someone who leads by memo,” he said. “She leads by personal contact.”